The unsettling story of settling the Beduin

The Beduin are not villains: they are citizens with a particular culture and bitter experience.

Beduin women yelling 370 (photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Beduin women yelling 370
(photo credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters)
The Beduin settlements in the Negev are a national disgrace.
We need to do much better much faster.
The Beduin numbered about 13,000 in 1951, and today they are more than 220,000. The latest analysis by the National Security Council reports that the Beduin population grows at a rate of approximately five percent annually; it will double in population within 13 years. Part of this explosive expansion is rooted in the practice of bigamy, which is widespread in the Beduin community and which is clearly illegal (in fact, criminal), but is ignored by the police and other relevant authorities, which cannot seem to muster the necessary fortitude to enforce our national laws.
The Beduin are mostly poor, beset with illiteracy, and have a culture based on a nomadic past with strong contemporary pull. Many do not have access to orderly social services and are increasingly embittered and antagonistic toward the state. They suffer injustice from above at the hands of the government, and from within their own communities, which have strong proclivities for lawlessness and violence.
They build inadequate and unsafe housing wherever they want, and claim more than 900,000 dunams in the Northern Negev as their private property. Our national police are afraid to enforce any rule of law, and enter Beduin settlements only for specific and carefully restricted objectives, and then only after organizing ad hoc SWAT teams.
The Goldberg commission set up in 2007 to solve this problem described the area inhabited by the Beduin tribes as “without God and without any law and order.” It is worse than the notorious American Wild West where there were at least sheriffs – some of them fast on the draw.
The Beduin community in crude terms is both a victim and culprit of this national disgrace, and the solution cannot come solely from within but must be fashioned, advanced and enforced from above. It is not as though the government of Israel has not gone through the motions of solving this national blight. We have had three national commissions, numerous government decisions, a host of statutory proposals, and a rich history of passing the buck and burying our faces in the sand. The solutions have generally proposed rewards for orderly settlement and punishments for lawless patterns of conduct and illegal construction. Each commission and each government resolution launders the bulk of the illegal construction, thus sending a searing message that the more one builds illegally, the better the starting point for the next proposal.
The Beduin are not villains: they are citizens with a particular culture and bitter experience. Promises of benefits have frequently been aborted and declarations of future law enforcement (“from now on”) have been abandoned by the time the last copy of the report is distributed. No one benefits from this miserable circumstance; only the problems flourish from this paralysis of neglect.
What we need now is to implement the Goldberg Commission report as modified by the government decision of September 2011 (the Prawer Plan) and as part of a comprehensive, determined, effective and lasting regime of implementation and enforcement. To quote the Commission itself, “From now on, there must be determined and vigorous enforcement of the law, for in its absence there is no purpose for our recommendations.”
The government proposal is presently being deliberated before the Knesset Committee for Internal Affairs. A lasting solution will require more than the funds dedicated to “compromise” Beduin claims for land and to implement bootstrap economic programs.
Great sums of money are needed for creating housing, police and other government units for providing services and for enforcing our laws, including a determined and funded program of destroying all illegal housing as soon as erected.
The Goldberg-Prawer recommendations, like its predecessors, established a system for buying off Beduin claims with land and money, and it estimated the costs for accomplishing this. But, also like its predecessors, it gave only lip service to the need for strict law enforcement “from now on,” because there was no articulation and provision of the large sums of money needed to do this.
Each successive commission increased the size of the carrot while totally avoiding the unpopular measures of enforcement. Thus, the Goldberg commission recommends that each Beduin pursuing a legal claim shall have the right to either continue on this track, or, at his discretion, to compromise his claim according to a unitary scheme. The compromise set forth is a sliding scale of remuneration in land and/or money based on a percentage of the claim. The percentage ranges between 20% and 100%.
Some of the recommended “compromises” have been increased from 20% of the claim to 50% of the claim. The base figure represents the previous “compromise.”
Over the years, each successive recommendation is more generous, and each launders much of the illegal housing erected since the last laundering.
Today, much of the housing already held by the courts to be illegal remains standing, and every year between 1,500-2,000 illegal structures are added to the massive inventory of illegally constructed buildings in the Negev. The TV image of authorities fighting screaming and stick-wielding citizens while destroying their pitiful, shabby housing illegally erected, is too painful for the authorities to bear.
Outside preaching by biased EU moralizers has also had an impact. In fact, alternate and far better quality housing is being offered, but the TV images of course do not show this.
The solution of generous – even grandly beneficent – compensation, together with rigorous enforcement of our laws is time-honored and supported by a broad consensus.
What is needed is the leadership necessary to make sure that both sides of the equation – the carrot and the stick – are implemented.
The public has not heard straight talk on this disaster. Such problems as Beduin bigamy and the accompanying endemic cheating of the National Insurance Institute are studiously avoided. Nor does one read about the police failure, out of pure fear, to enforce the law because of the efforts, costs and political damage foreseen. The cost of providing the necessary and proper state and local services to this disadvantaged community is also not mentioned.
And yet, the public intuitively understands the problem and the required solution.
It is ready for straight talk and for real action. The challenge of Beduin settlements in the Negev is a self-contained problem which can be solved. It’s about time we solved it.
The author, an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies.