Last chance with the Beduin?

The cabinet should authorize a plan on its agenda today to settle the Negev nomad issue.

Beduins Egypt 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Beduins Egypt 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Today, the cabinet is scheduled to authorize a new plan that the Construction and Housing Ministry has developed for resolving the problems between the state and the Beduin that have existed since 1949. If it postpones discussion of the plan as it has several times during the past year, the envisioned resolution may be delayed for years. In 2002, prime minister Ariel Sharon concluded that Israel's dealings with the Negev Beduin had to change. In his view, the state had to take into account the aspirations of the 75,000 tribesmen scattered throughout the desert in unrecognized villages. Otherwise, it would soon be impossible to settle the Beduin permanently and resolve the landownership question in the Negev amicably. This was a major departure from Sharon's previous belief that the state could push the Beduin off the land by force. In the late 1970s, when Agriculture Minister, he confiscated the Beduin main source of livelihood, their flocks of black goats, expecting this to induce them to move into the seven towns then being built for them. More than 20 years later, Sharon saw that he had been wrong. Half the Beduin preferred to stay in the desert even under conditions of poverty and without basic services. To them, moving into towns populated by diverse tribal groups and suffering from the lowest level of social services in the country was untenable. To settle at all and move away from places to which they had become accustomed, these Beduin demanded more homogeneous villages with better schools and institutions and, in some cases, to be able to engage in agriculture. Sharon set out to address these demands directly from his office. He made then deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert responsible for developing a plan, the details of which were to be worked out by an Olmert appointee, a former district police chief, Yehuda Behar. Behar consulted with many Beduin, officials, and persons familiar with the Negev and Beduin life, and devised a plan which, in the eyes of many Beduin, finally held out promise for a better future. BEHAR'S PLAN provides for the construction of seven new, tribally homogeneous, villages with modern services, the improvement of Rahat and the six recognized towns to make them more attractive, and the purchase of Beduin lands at market price, rather than the undervalued prices offered in the past. Behar finished the particulars of this framework under outgoing Minister of Housing Meir Shetreet, to whom responsibility for the Beduin was transferred from Prime Minister Olmert, a year ago. Beduin readiness to settle and negotiate the sale of their land derives from their faith that the government intends to go through with its obligations. Broken promises and unfulfilled obligations over the years all but dissipated their good will. NOW, although the plan sets a five-year time limit for coming to agreement on the issues of settlement and land, it allows the government to foster Beduin cooperation by quickly constructing the newly authorized villages and being flexible in negotiations over the purchase of Beduin-claimed land. Realizing that this needs money, the Sharon government, in 2005, earmarked NIS 200 million for Beduin settlement and welfare. The Beduin are sensing another round of disappointment, however, as government authorization of the plan has been repeatedly delayed over the past half year. This postponement also gives the bodies opposed to it a chance to try and block it. The Finance Ministry refuses to designate the funds earmarked by the Sharon government for use over successive years, limiting the latitude for negotiating with the Beduin or contracting for the construction of the new villages to one-year periods of spending. More insidious is the Israel Lands Authority has been lobbying to block the new plan altogether, so as to retain its own 50-year responsibility for trying to resolve the landownership issue. The ILA rejects using any Negev lands for Beduin settlement, other than in Rahat and the six recognized towns. Thus, in the 14 years since 1993, its inflexibility has limited the number of dunams acquired by the State to 6,000, out of a total 650,000 in dispute. Continued ILA authority over the question of landownership must ultimately lead to a recourse to force, which will not be in the national interest. Accordingly, if the cabinet postpones its authorization of the new plan until after the incoming Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim takes up office and "learns the subject," more years will pass without resolving the land problem and the proper settlement of the Beduin. As Ariel Sharon feared, such a delay will leave an amicable resolution beyond our reach. The writer has studied Beduin Culture and History in the Negev for many years.