A good deal for the Bedouin, and for Israel

Published in The Jerusalem Post, and in abridged form in Israel Hayom, Friday, December 6, 2013.

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The Israeli government should be praised, not vilified, for advancing a judicious plan that both advances the Bedouin and develops the Negev. Many of the protesters against the plan are seeking to turn the Bedouin issue – a professional planning and social development issue on which Israel is trying to do good – into a nationalist tug-of-war and yet-another-tool to delegitimize Israel. 

The Government of Israel plans to invest more than NIS 10 billion over the next ten years in upgrading Bedouin communities in the Negev, including reasonable settlements of Bedouin land claims. So what could be wrong with that?

Yet thousands of Arabs and Bedouin, some carrying PLO and Islamic movement flags, rioted last weekend in protest against the government’s plan. Hard left-wing and right-wing NGOs oppose the government bill too, arguing that is either insufficiently generous or too generous to the Bedouin.

Democratic debate about the far-reaching government plan is natural, and protest against it is legitimate. The problem is that many of the protesters have anything but Bedouin interests in mind. The usual anti-Israel activists – rabble-rousing Arab MKs and far-left activists abroad – are grabbing the opportunity to advance an incendiary narrative of Israeli dispossession and discrimination against Palestinians that has nothing to do with the Negev Bedouin.

They are seeking to turn the Bedouin issue – a professional planning and social development issue on which Israel is trying to do good – into a nationalist tug-of-war and yet-another-tool to delegitimize Israel.

The American “Rabbis for Human Rights” (RHR) and “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” for example, have revved-up a hyperbolic protest campaign, comparing the Bedouin struggle to that of Martin Luther King (suggesting that Israel is racist and oppressive), and likening the government plan to Abraham’s banishment of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

The over-heated rabbis have even circulated across North America an attack video called “It Hurts.” The actor Theodore Bikel (of Fiddler on the Roof) outrageously plaints in the nasty video that, “It hurts that the descendants of Anatevka may expel 40,000 Bedouin, just as the Tsar did to the Jews of Russia.”

CALMER MINDS and more responsible actors understand that the Israeli government is acting to save both the Bedouin and the Negev. 210,000 Bedouin live in Israel’s south, making up 30 percent of the Negev’s population, sprawling uncontrollably and illegally across ever-greater tracts of land in the northern Negev. Every year, 2,000 illegal structures go up. Almost half the Negev Bedouin live in 40 “non-recognized” rural “villages” where little, if any, municipal services exist, including basic water and sewage infrastructure. There is no municipal planning or taxation.

It’s no surprise that these Bedouin communities suffer from extraordinary high rates of unemployment, poverty, criminal activity, violence against women, and Islamic radicalization. The matter is exacerbated due to the high rate of growth of the Bedouin community.

Some Bedouin shanty towns sit on land allocated for public use, such as the national toxic waste depository at Ramat Hovav, meaning that they are a nuisance to Israel and a danger to their Bedouin residents.

While this is a problem not unique to Israel – the transition of nomadic societies to 21st century lifestyles – Israel’s plan to tackle the problem may be the most comprehensive attempt to address the issue anywhere in the world. It will also be one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the Israeli government, with a state investment of at least $2 billion.

Under the plan, most of the Bedouin living in unrecognized villages will be able to continue to live there, with the communities being properly zoned and bolstered with electricity and water infrastructure and access to modern healthcare, education and social services.

Only 30,000 of the 100,000 Bedouin who live in squalid and illegal encampments will be forced to relocate, and the move will be to developed lots in nearby farming, suburban or urban communities, with compensation. Half of these residents (15,000 Bedouin) need to move for their own good – because they’re squatting in the toxic waste dump.

“We can’t lay thousands of kilometers of water pipes to reach every group of shacks in the middle of the desert,” explains former minister without portfolio Benny Begin, who proposed the plan to the previous government in January. “If we want to improve the situation of the Bedouin, we must create reasonably-sized communities, big enough to have a school and with residents in reasonable distance so that even the youngest children can attend.”

Begin emphasizes that the 15 percent of Bedouin who have land claims and might have to relocate will receive 100 percent compensation. Just 2 percent of the Bedouin hold half of these claims, by the way.

It is worth noting that right-wing figures accuse Begin of handing thousands of dunams of land to the Bedouin as a gift without significant legal source for the Bedouin claims, and their opposition to Begin’s plan is one of the reasons that Begin was not reelected to the Likud slate for Knesset.

THE “PRAWER-BEGIN” PLAN is based on the recommendations of a committee chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, and named for a professional team of high-ranking officials headed by Ehud Prawer, and later by Begin. Hundreds of meetings with Bedouin leaders were part of the consultative process leading to this point.

The considerate and responsible plan for the Negev Bedouin that emerged from this process aims to lift a marginalized group of its citizens out of poverty and give them the opportunity to thrive alongside their fellow countrymen; while husbanding the lands of the Negev for all Israelis.

Support for the plan crosses party lines. Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua) was Minister of Interior and led negotiations with the Bedouin on land issues during Ehud Olmert’s premiership. He says that “this law creates an opening for an agreement. It’s unfortunate that people are so angry. The goal here is to regulate the land and find the best solution for the Bedouin community as a recognized community.”

Begin emphasizes that “the Bedouin are citizens with equal rights and constitute an inseparable part of the Negev. We have a responsibility to assist the Bedouin in alleviating their plight and ensuring a more positive future for their children. We expect the Bedouin community – with whom we have engaged in an unprecedented, extensive hearing process – to approach this matter responsibly.”

FORTUNATELY, several brave Bedouin community leaders have begun to speak-out in favor of the Prawer-Begin plan, despite threats against them from militant Israeli Arab leaders.

Sheikh Odeh Zanoon is the first Negev Bedouin leader to reach agreement with the State of Israel to establish a modern Bedouin settlement for his tribe members, near Yeruham. The 300 families of the Zanoon tribe, currently spread across an area of 20,000 dunams without electricity, running water and roads, will move to a modern settlement of approximately 1,500 dunams. The settlement will be planned with their full participation. Many tribe members doubt Israel’s benevolence, but recognize that the plan constitutes an invaluable opportunity for real quality of life.

Abed Tarabin is also moving his Tarabin clan from an illegal encampment near Omer to a properly-planned Bedouin town, New Kfar Tarabin, with government support. He says that “The government plan isn’t 100 percent perfect, but it is a great improvement over the current situation of Bedouin in the Negev. We can build proper homes on recognized land, demand employment and health and education services, and make other demands of the government, like any other citizen. In our new town, we have asked for and received agricultural and industrial help.”

“The opposition to the plan,” Tarabin adds, “comes from belligerent politicians, making noise for their own purposes. It doesn’t come from real Bedouin leaders who are concerned with their people. There is plenty of room in the Negev for everybody, and it is good that the government is working to improve things and is investing money in us.”

Kamel Jum’a Abu-Nadi of Lakia, a Bedouin town founded in 1982 as part of a previous government project to settle Bedouins in permanent towns, says that “The Begin plan is a fair proposal that seeks to end the saga of Bedouin land claims. Eighty-five percent of Bedouin have no land claims; only 15 percent do, and these claims are holding up the development of the Negev for the Bedouin. We simply have to reach a compromise on the land claims, since the government’s NIS 10 billion economic development plan for the Negev will improve our currently-very-bad situation in education, employment, welfare, transportation and other infrastructures.”

Id Abu Rashed, a prominent leader of the Rashed tribe from the town of Abu Qrenat (a Bedouin town of 2,700 people expected to grow to 7,000 people by 2020, that lies between Beersheba and Dimona) says that “Those who oppose the Begin-Prawer plan do so for political reasons, not substantive reasons. If you check just who has been demonstrating against the plan, you discover that half of the protestors are Arab-Israelis (i.e., not Bedouin) from Israel’s north that are being bussed in from the north in organized fashion. The flags of Palestine that are flown at these demonstrations led by the Arab-Israeli Islamic Movement and its Balad political party in fact damage the reputation of the Bedouin in the Negev. The Negev Bedouin have no anti-Israel nationalist motivations, nor have they ever in past.”

Hassan Ka’abia, a Bedouin officer in the IDF from the village of Ka’abia who now works for the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that the sedentarization of the Bedouin people is necessary and inevitable, and the alternative is poverty, crime and illness. “This transition,” he says, “difficult as it may be, is fascinating and another piece in the cosmopolitan mosaic that is the modern State of Israel.”

Consequently, the Netanyahu government should be praised, not vilified, by Diaspora rabbis and human rights activists for proposing a comprehensive, judicious (and very expensive!) plan that will both facilitate proper development of the Negev and ensure advancement for the Bedouin community.

The current situation is good only for extremists who thrive on unrest, and for those who always seek to assail the State of Israel.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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