Australia’s state broadcasters obscure reality of Israeli Bedouin plan

Australia's state broadcasters obscure reality of Israeli Bedouin plan

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

The Australian media has been covering protests this week in Israel against a new plan to improve the conditions of the Bedouin Arabs living in the Negev desert in Israel’s south–although from some of the reports, you would never know that this was the aim of the plan. For example, on the ABC’s AM program, Hayden Cooper referred to it as “a plan to move tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs from their homes”. Cooper also interviewed an unnamed “Bedouin leader”, who said that “we are against the displacement and the relocation of any Bedouin Arab from the unrecognised villages”.

The interviewee was referring to the fact that the new plan would involve approximately 30-40,000 Bedouin being relocated–although on SBS radio, a representative of Israeli-Arab NGO Adalah, Thabet Abu Ras, told presenter Hannah Sinclair that this number was 70,000, presumably confusing the dash in 30-40,000 for an addition sign.

The closest that either report came to presenting a counter-argument was Cooper’s qualification right at the end that:

“Israel’s government has rejected the protest, and says the Bedouin will be better off and better provided for once they move. It says they’ll be compensated with cash and land. But Palestinians and Bedouin alike see it differently.”

Neither report mentioned basic context, such as the fact that of the 30-40,000 people to be evacuated, roughly 14,000 come from a single area, El Na’am, and are being evacuated because they live in dangerous proximity to industrial waste plants. Cooper and Sinclair reported the hostile reaction to the plan, but neither of them mentioned why the plan even exists, let alone that many of the Negev Bedouin actually support some of its measures.


Fixing an urgent problem

Before analysing the plan, it is important to understand how it came about. For a number of unfortunate historical reasons, the Bedouin in the Negev are currently the most deprived demographic in Israel. The Jerusalem Post summarised their position as follows:

For decades consecutive Israeli governments have neglected the Beduin and, as a result, have helped create a state of lawlessness in the Negev, a territory which makes up over half of the entire area of the State of Israel, not including the West Bank. About 70,000 of around 210,000 Beduin who live in the Negev – primarily in the triangle created by Beersheba, Dimona and Arad – are squatters residing in about 40 “unrecognized” villages. These Beduin exist in a sort of “state within a state.” They live on land to which they have disputed legal claims, they pay no taxes and they therefore do not receive basic services from the State of Israel such as roads, water, electricity, garbage collection and schooling. Because they tend to live in loose groups, the Beduin living in unrecognized villages have taken control of, or laid claim to, about 600,000 dunams (60,000 hectares) in the Negev, or about 5% of the total. If their claims were to be granted these Beduin would end up with a bit less than 10 dunams per person on average, more than any other group in Israel, including kibbutz members.

The problems in this community are exacerbated by a high birthrate and rapid population growth, which has spurred a boom in illegal construction at an estimated rate of 1500-2000 buildings per year, according to BICOM. Further, as Haviv Rettig Gur noted in the Times of Israel:

Israel has already recognized several of the haphazard tent-cities of the Bedouin “dispersion,” but could not keep doing so indefinitely for the simple reason that the Negev Bedouin are the fastest growing population in the world, according to the Israeli government. They double their population every 15 years, and are expected to reach 300,000 by 2020. There simply isn’t any sustainable way to accommodate such a fast-growing population without municipal planning and multi-story housing.

The unauthorised construction of settlements with no municipal planning whatsoever has led to much of the current deprivation of the Bedouin. Recently, however, the Israeli Government has been trying to address this problem. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson Mark Regev has said:

The goal of the government is to end unacceptable gaps that exist in Israeli society between the mainstream and the Negev Bedouin, who up until now have received lower social services, lower educational services, lower health support. These gaps are intolerable for the Israeli government and for Israeli society and we want to narrow those gaps and ultimately end them.


The history of the current plan

The process of finding a solution began with a commission in 2007 headed by former Israeli Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg. The commission contained eight representatives, two of whom were Bedouin, and consulted extensively with all of the communities in the Negev.

After the Goldberg Commission reported in 2008, the Head of the Department for Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s office, Ehud Prawer, was put in charge of a commission to implement the Goldberg Report. This resulted in the Knesset’s adoption of the “Prawer Outline” on 11 September 2011, which included a requirement for an extensive review of the Draft Law through conducting hearings with the Bedouin public and other stakeholders.

Minister Without Portfolio Ze’ev “Benny” Begin was subsequently appointed to conduct this process, which began with a November 2011 meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the heads of the Negev Bedouin communities, and was completed in April 2012. Begin then produced a Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, which was introduced into the Knesset in January this year, accompanied by this report. A useful summary of the bill and the surrounding issues is available from the American Jewish community’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (‘IATFIAI’).


Investing in the Bedouin communities

Contrary to the accusations of people like Cooper, the plan is not simply “to move tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs from their homes”. In fact, it is principally designed to provide the Bedouin with the kind of infrastructure investment that they have been lacking. As the IATFIAI points out, the two goals of the Bill are:

1.            To resolve land ownership issues in the Negev, as related to land ownership claims that were filed by the Negev Bedouin population, so as to enable the resolution of the Bedouin settlement issue in the Negev, based on the government’s decisions;

2.            To enable the development of the Negev for the benefit of all its residents, and within this, to enable the provision of settlement solutions to the Bedouin population in the Negev. [emphasis added]

In Haaretz, Meirav Arlosoroff expands on how these related goals are being implemented:

The state is committed to spending NIS 2.5 billion on improvements to the new, or newly expanded, Bedouin communities, including for the construction of industrial parks that will provide jobs.

Moreover, the plan offers an entree to genuine change. The fight over land claims has in effect blocked the development of Bedouin communities. Government unwillingness to build roads is not the only reason for their paucity in the recognized Bedouin villages. Competing land ownership claims – dozens, if not hundreds of them – make zoning and development impossible. Solving this issue will sweep away a substantive restraint to development in this [sic] communities.

As Begin explained, the different issues facing the Bedouin cannot be solved separately, but must be tackled at once. He quotes Goldberg saying:

The settlement problem cannot be resolved without a resolution of the land problem; the land problem cannot be resolved without a resolution of the settlement problem; and neither problem can be resolved without addressing the hardships of the Bedouin, including the issues of employment, welfare and education, even if much has been done and large budgets have been invested in this field. 


Ownership rights

As the protests against Begin’s plan indicate, not everyone has been pleased with its recommendations. Leading the charge against the plan has been leftist NGO the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (‘ACRI’), which says in its information sheet that:

The bill outlines a framework for the implementation of government policies toward the Bedouin population on two separate issues: (1) the evacuation of unrecognized villages in the Negev, and (2) the settlement of ownership of lands in the Negev.  The bill is based on the absolute negation of the Bedouin population’s rights to property and historical ties to the land, in violation of the residents of the unrecognized villages’ basic rights. [emphasis in original]  …

To say that the Bill is “based on the absolute negation of the Bedouin population’s rights to property and historical ties to the land” is simply untrue. In spite of the Bedouins’ legal claims over the land being repeatedly rejected in Israeli courts, the Goldberg Report recommended that “the granting of ownership to land by the State, out of consideration of the historic affinity and not on the basis of legal right (which does not exist), is the principle that also underlies the arrangement that we are suggesting for resolution of the land dispute”.

That recommendation was adopted by Begin. Accordingly, not only does the bill not “negate” the rights of the Bedouin “absolutely”, in many cases it turns their historic claims into enforceable legal rights. Moreover, the Bedouins without formal land claims – the vast majority of the Negev population – are also being provided with housing and benefits. As Arlosoroff notes:

Begin points out that only 15% of Negev Bedouin lay claim to land, and says the 85% who don’t will benefit from the right, stipulated in the plan, to have their own homes in either a newly or already recognized community. That, in addition to the massive state spending that is envisioned.

In other words, the plan promises a major boost to the standard of living and quality of life of Negev Bedouin, if the stumbling block in the form of ownership claims can be removed. Just 2% of the Bedouin are responsible for half of these claims, by the way.

ACRI even went so far as to accuse Begin of “ignoring the fact that most of the villages have been in existence in their current location since before the establishment of the State of Israel. Other villages were established by coercive transfer during the period of martial law.”

Yet this is directly contradicted by Begin’s own statement that “One cannot ignore the forced relocation of some of them to the limited area following the establishment of the State and the longstanding hold of their other part of lands inside the limited area”.

ACRI goes on, rather disingenuously, to say: 

These Israeli citizens are denied their most basic rights: their villages are not connected to the state’s water and sewer systems nor to its electrical grid; education and health services are only partially provided to them, and are inadequate. [emphasis in original]

It is true that the villages are not connected to state services. That is why the Bill exists in the first place. Begin makes it clear that as far as he is concerned, “The reality in which the Bedouin are living in the Negev is intolerable, and an effort to change it is needed by both the Government and the Bedouin public and leaders.” However, he qualifies that by noting that the “limitations resulting from the legal framework and the social and political situation in Israel must be acknowledged, and there are no absolute solutions that can satisfy everyone.”

In fact, from a number of ACRI’s criticisms of the report, it would not be too much of a stretch to conclude that ACRI’s staff had not actually read it – which is bizarre, given that they provided a translation. There are numerous examples to choose from, but one that particularly stands out is where ACRI writes that “the Begin Plan is also based on an erroneous assumption that views the Bedouin as “squatters,” ignoring the fact that most of the villages have been in existence in their current location since before the establishment of the State of Israel. Other villages were established by coercive transfer during the period of martial law.”

Not only did Begin not ignore those facts, he specifically mentioned that doing so was not possible, writing that “One cannot ignore the forced relocation of some of [the Bedouin] to the limited area following the establishment of the State and the longstanding hold of their other part of lands inside the limited area”.


Relocation relocation relocation

The characterisation of Begin’s plan as solely to move “tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs from their homes” is particularly ironic given that, as Regev explains:

The goal is that the overwhelming majority of Bedouin should be able to stay where they are and they will legally own the land they they’re on. In places where Bedouin cannot stay, there will be ample compensation. The goal is that at the end of this five year period, for the Bedouin to be the legal owners of the land they’re on. 

The compensation scheme proposed by Begin is very generous. All Bedouins claiming ownership of land will be given a piece of land which “will, to the best possible extent, have similar characteristics to those included in the land claim.” To that end, the evacuees are not being moved very far. As BICOM notes, only about 3,000 are being moved more than a few kilometres away from where they currently live. It therefore appears a little absurd to make the claim – as featured in an Al Jazeera report, which was aired on the ABC on July 22 – that the plan is really aimed at the “judaisation” of the Negev.

Further, as Ben-Dror Yamini points out, the land allocation has attempted to “approximate the Bedouin tradition and heritage as much as possible” whilst also providing the amenities such as roads, electricity, and running water–which the smaller Bedouin settlements currently lack. Accordingly, the blocks of land being allocated are unusually large by Israeli standards, and people who are relocated will be financially compensated for any discrepancy in the size of the land which they are allocated. Again, this applies to claimants who do not have a legal basis for making their claim. The state will also help to fund the development of blocks of land whose status is regularised through the scheme.

As Regev noted, the plan is designed to permit the vast majority of the Bedouin to remain where they are. Further, as noted above, almost half of the evacuations are being made in order to remove people from the danger of living close to an industrial waste plant. The remainder are being relocated because, as Begin explained to Arlosoroff:

“We can’t lay thousands of kilometers of pipes to reach every group of shacks in the middle of the desert,” explains former minister without portfolio Benny Begin, who is still promoting the legislation in the Knesset on behalf of the government. “If we want to improve the situation of the Bedouin, we must concentrate them in reasonably-sized communities, big enough to have a school and with everyone within walking distance so that even the youngest children can attend.” Begin was hinting at one of the plan’s major conditions, that small communities be evacuated and only larger ones receive official recognition.

The Al Jazeera report which aired on the ABC also echoed a claim from various anti-Israel groups that the Bedouin are being cleared out to make room for Israeli settlement. The claim is based on the case of the new Israeli town of Hiran, which is being built near Be’er Sheva in the Negev. Some Bedouin are being removed from an unrecognised village on part of the land designated for Hiran. Ben-Dror Yemini characterises the case against as though “The Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran is slated to be turned into Hiran, a community for Jews only, via the disinheriting and transfer of the Bedouins, in accordance with the racist policy of the State of Israel.”

As he then explains, the reality is quite different:

First, the Bedouin members of the Al-Qian tribe, who are the focus of the current fuss, were transferred to the Yatir region of the Negev decades ago, of their own volition and at their request, due to a dispute with another tribe.

Second, when Hiran was being planned, a little over a decade ago, there were only a few Bedouins there, if any. The move to Umm al-Hiran occurred mainly in the wake of the plans for the new town. Aerial photographs prove this.

Third, only a small part of the master plan for Hiran is on the land occupied by the new squatters.

Fourth, adjacent to the Al-Qian compound, the state built Hura, a proper Bedouin village, with paved roads, electricity and water infrastructure and more.

Fifth, every family in the tribe is entitled to receive nearly a dunam of land. Even a bachelor over 24 is entitled to a plot of land, in preparation for future generations.

Sixth, in addition to the free land, with free infrastructure development, each family also receives monetary compensation for the previous, illegally built house where it lived.

Seventh, and here we’re in for a surprise, most of the tribe – 3,000 of the 4,000 members – actually felt this was a fair arrangement, and they indeed moved to Hura.

Eighth, Hiran is not designated only for religious Jews, and also not only for Jews. Any Bedouin who wishes to buy land there is invited to do so and is entitled to do so. Of course, that would cost money. In Meitar [a neighbouring predominantly Jewish town] for example, Bedouins from the surrounding area decided to buy plots of land. No one stopped them.

So in contrast to the claims of Al Jazeera and others, the Bedouin in Hiran are being moved from unauthorised and squalid settlements to new homes with conditions far more befitting the citizens of a country with a developed economy, and also being compensated for the land lost despite having no legal claims–a situation which many of them are happy with.

Of course that is not to say that they are all enthusiastic about the plan, but as Begin rightly said, such an endeavour could never please everyone. Despite the years of work that went into creating it, Begin’s plan is doubtless not perfect, and hiccups can be expected during its implementation. Nevertheless, the plan is designed to improve the lot of the Bedouin in the Negev and has been written after extensive consultations with their community. We can only speculate as to what led the ABC and SBS to report on the plan without mentioning those facts.