State Comptroller’s Report on Lack of Governance in Negev a ‘Red Alert’

YERUSHALAYIM -
A general view shows Israeli police and residents following clashes in Umm Al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, last year. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

“The government can turn the situation in the Negev around” by enacting a few practical recommendations, the Regavim Movement said, following the State Comptroller’s new report focusing on the loss of governance in the Negev.

The Negev is plagued by the lack of enforcement, lack of basic services for the residents of the Bedouin localities, invasions of IDF training grounds, crime on the roads, collection of “protection” money, water and electricity theft, vandalism, damage to government infrastructure, poor education, unforced polygamy, and environmental damage and health hazards, the 288-page report warned.

Responding to the publication of the State Comptroller’s Report on Wednesday which was critical of the government’s loss of governance in the Negev to illegal Bedouin crime and construction, Meir Deutsch, Director General of Regavim, stated that “this is a comprehensive and thorough report that touches upon the core problems at the heart of the dire situation in the Negev, the critical issues that impact the future of the region.”

“Many of the issues raised by the State Comptroller have been at the top of Regavim’s agenda for years, and the report’s findings bear out all of our claims: ‘whitewashing’ or ‘legalizing’ illegal construction in the absence of prior planning perpetuates and exacerbates the loss of state land in the Negev,” he said.

“The State Comptroller’s report must not be allowed to languish on a shelf and collect dust; the government must distill operational decisions from this important study and take action without delay,” he demanded.

Regvim, which fights for the legal use of state lands, published a plan to deal with the issues raised in the report.

The State Comptroller’s report notes that the majority of the residents of illegal Bedouin squatters’ camps in the Negev live “off the grid” and have no registered address.

Some 80,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens of the Negev hold identity cards that record only their tribal affiliation, even when the tribe to which they belong is spread across dozens of square kilometers.

This is one of the central causes of the loss of governance in the Negev,” the report says, noting that this results in mass-scale tax evasion and other major losses to the state’s economy, and false and duplicate reporting for benefits and services.

Regavim said that the solution is the registration of a physical address for all residents of the Bedouin encampments based on a precise location that can be visited and confirmed by an inspector, based on 12-digit GPS coordinates.

The moment a geographical place of residence is confirmed, all service provision and interaction with the government and its various authorities will be based on this address, until these residents relocate to recognized, legal communities where there are standard street addresses.

The report further pointed to the failure of the “legalization” method – The State Comptroller’s findings show that the Neveh Midbar and Al Kasum Regional Councils are fiction, and both the state and the residents are paying a very high price to support this fiction.

These communities were created by simply drawing jurisdictional boundaries around clusters of illegal structures, redefining them as legal communities and creating a jurisdictional umbrella, without any prior urban planning or infrastructure, in an attempt to take retroactive action against the facts on the ground created by rampant illegal construction.

This ‘legalization’ method has been an abject failure, as these local authorities and the Bedouin Regulation Authority are forced to deal with the near impossibility of providing infrastructure for unplanned communities, including paved roads, electricity, water and sewage infrastructure.

The Islamist Ra’am Party, a member of Naftali Bennett’s coalition, seeks to continue this practice, through the “recognition” of new settlements and expansion of “communities” in these municipalities to include additional squatters’ camps and “whitewash” them.

The State Comptroller’s report warns that this will make an already bad situation even worse, and will replicate the failed model of Neveh Midbar and Al Kasum.

The third point is the need to remove obstacles to development and construction processes. Most of the Bedouin communities were built on land for which there are outstanding ownership claims – land on which no Bedouin is willing to build or settle, and which cannot be utilized for the creation of infrastructure or other public installations.

The state and local authorities’ responses to the long list of lawsuits and petitions filed by Regavim, is now joined by the State Comptroller’s report and all are in agreement that the main obstacle to the development of infrastructure as well as to the building permit process is, first and foremost, the fact that towns were built on land covered by ownership claims.

The solution is that the government must stop expanding municipal and abandon the practice of creating new communities based on pre-existing illegal squatters’ camps.

The only path forward is to create new communities exclusively on state land, in strict adherence to all relevant professional standards for planning and infrastructure development.

The final point is the creation of a specialized police unit to protect infrastructure. One of the crucial findings of the State Comptroller’s report is the destruction of national water, electricity and energy infrastructure throughout the Negev, and the staggering costs for the national economy and the Israeli taxpayer.

The report indicates that national utility corporations contend with hundreds of incidents of sabotage and theft in the Negev each year. Apart from the direct damages amounting to hundreds of millions of Shekels in stolen water and electricity, and the loss of tax income had these commodities been consumed by law-abiding customers, the utility companies are forced to invest heavily in security.

The solution is to establish a specialized police unit tasked exclusively with the protection of infrastructure. The government’s investment in this specialized unit will cover itself very quickly.