A new plan now before the Knesset to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev would pump over $2 billion into developing the region. But as many as 40,000 Bedouins would have to be relocated.
The Israeli government says the plan will give the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities they currently lack, largely due to the illegality of housing structures.
“The current levels of underdevelopment in the Bedouin community are simply unacceptable,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Bedouins who are forced to move are being promised compensation by the government.
In June the new plan passed the first of three Knesset votes necessary to become law. It is expected to receive final approval after the MK’s return from summer recess.
But confrontation looms. The Bedouin agree that the status quo is untenable. But where the government sees investment, Bedouin and human rights activists see a land grab tinged with anti-Arab racism.
“I think the Israeli government is very right-wing and they are insisting on confiscating as much Arab land as possible,” said Salah Mohsen, the media coordinator for Adalah, an advocacy group for Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens. He and other Bedouin advocates believe that the government is hoping to shunt them aside as Jews move to the Negev and the military builds new bases there.
Regev, the government spokesman, argued that much of the criticism against the Prawer plan, named for one of its authors, is driven by general feelings of discrimination rather than the specific proposal.
“I think some of the criticism is automatic,” said Regev, the government spokesman. “I don’t understand how anybody can seriously say that this program is not going to move the ball forward in a positive direction.”
Around 200,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, most concentrated in an area around the city of
Be’ er Sheva.
They lived under military rule until the 1960s, and have since resisted government efforts to move them into seven larger, recognized communities. Bedouins say those towns are rife with crime, poverty and the same lack of basic services they currently face.
The urban setting also makes their traditional occupation, raising livestock, much more difficult. To the Bedouin, resettlement is simply an attack on their culture.
While the Prawer Plan allows for the “overwhelming majority” of Bedouin to receive recognition for their villages and houses, Bedouin advocates say that there are no obstacles to recognizing all of the current villages in place.
Against claims that services are too expensive to provide to scattered settlements, they charge that isolated Jewish towns and farms in the Negev have been given such services while Bedouin requests have been ignored, an accusation the government denies.
As the bill gathers steam, Bedouins have ramped up their opposition.
Arab groups held protests across the country in July and organized two more demonstrations on Thursday. Their efforts also prompted a statement from Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said the government’s plan would “legitimize forcible displacement and dispossession.”
The statement got an angry Israeli response. The Foreign Ministry said the statement “displays ignorance and lack of acquaintance with the subject matter.”