Bedouin in the Negev desert are fighting a government plan that could spell dispossession for thousands.
August 30, 2013
Negev Desert, Israel - Holding Palestinian flags and chanting, "The people want to bring down the plan", hundreds of Palestinians and Palestinian bedouin gathered at a major road junction north of Be'er Sheva earlier this month, for a "Day of Rage".
The lively protest brought together Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in denouncing an Israeli government plan that is expected to forcibly displace between 30,000-40,000 bedouins living in Israel.
"The issue is not only displacement and uprooting tens of thousands of bedouins from their land … the government is not [telling] the people where to go. Just leave, that's it," said Thabet Abu Ras, head of the Naqab office at Adalah, a legal centre for Palestinian rights in Israel, during the demonstration.
The Israeli government's Prawer-Begin plan - officially known as the "Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev" - aims to evict bedouin residents of so-called "unrecognised" villages in the Naqab (Negev) desert region of southern Israel, and relocate them into government-planned townships.
There are some 200,000 bedouin citizens of Israel in the Negev. About half of them live in government-planned townships - which were first built in the late-1960s and annually sit at the bottom of all socioeconomic indicators in Israel - and in 11 newly-recognised villages.
The other half lives in 35 so-called "unrecognised" villages, which the state deems illegal, and denies them water, electricity, paved roads, schools and other services. An estimated 50,000-60,000 structures in these villages are under threat of demolition.
"The Israeli government is trying through [the] Prawer Plan to squeeze the bedouin …. It's not acceptable. It's not moral even," Abu Ras told Al Jazeera.
Modernizing the bedouin
Israel first passed the Prawer Plan to solve the issue of bedouin settlement in the Negev in 2011. After local and international groups, including the United Nations, criticized the plan as discriminatory and in violation of international law, former Israeli parliament member Benny Begin held meetings with bedouin citizens and leaders in the Negev to hear their concerns.
Begin made minor changes to the plan, which included softening the language, and providing limited monetary compensation for some bedouin tribes that agree to move from their lands.
With these modifications, an updated bill - now known as the Prawer-Begin plan - passed a first reading in the Israeli parliament on June 24. The bill is expected to come up for second and third readings in the next Knesset session this fall.
The plan is based on decades of Israeli government policies aiming to "modernise" the country's bedouin population by "urbanising" them.
In 2011, Israeli army Major-General Doron Almog was appointed by the Israeli Prime Minister's office to head the issues of resettlement and economic development for the Negev bedouin.
"The idea is to … better integrate Jews and bedouins; to bring many more bedouins to our work force; to employ and educate many more women for employment; and to build new communities; and to expand some of the current communities and make them modern," Almog told Al Jazeera.
While Almog said that the government would try to allow as many bedouin as possible to remain in their current locations, he confirmed that 15,000 bedouin residents of Wadi Al-Na'am - an unrecognised bedouin village close to Be'er Sheva - will be moved under the plan, and that most of the unrecognised villages will be reorganised into new townships.
Alternative 'indigenous' plan
Between 1971-73, the bedouin filed 3,220 tribal and individual land claims with the government. These claims represented approximately ten percent of the Negev.
Decades later, in 2004, Israel began submitting counter-claims against bedouin-claimed land. Israel maintains that the bedouin didn't properly register their lands - either in 1858, under Ottoman land laws, or in 1921, during the British mandate of Palestine - and that it therefore belongs to the state.
Israeli courts have ruled in favor of the Israeli government in 100 percent of bedouin land ownership cases to date, according to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality.
Despite making up 30 percent of the Negev population today, the bedouin currently live on two percent of the area's land. The entirety of current bedouin land claims cover five percent of the Negev; under the Prawer-Begin plan, they would be forced onto less than one percent.
Facing this aggressive government resettlement, an alternative to the Prawer-Begin plan was unveiled in 2011: an "indigenous" plan created by the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages in the Negev (RCUV) and Bimkom, a group of Israeli urban planners, and supported by the majority of the bedouin.
"If that's put on the table, it will change the game," said Oren Yiftachel, an Israeli geographer, urban planner and professor, who headed the research team that wrote the indigenous plan.
"We figured out that you can recognise all the villages, with the vast majority of them in their own location, and start a process of bringing them services, modernising them, in their place …. It does not necessitate any removal, let alone forced removal as the government is planning now," Yiftachel explained.
The indigenous plan, Yiftachel added, would save the Israeli government between 60-70 percent of what they currently intend to spend on implementing the Prawer-Begin plan.
Almog told Al Jazeera that the state took into account the indigenous plan, and incorporated as many of its suggestions as possible. Once the Prawer-Begin plan is passed in the Israeli parliament, Almog explained, the government also plans to meet with the bedouin to decide what types of new communities will be built.
But according to Nili Baruch, head of the Negev bedouin department at Bimkom, a group of Israeli urban planners and architects, the localities the bedouin will be moved into, "are going to be very [dense], more like townships. [There will be] no more agriculture inside the locality, just outside the area."
"[The bedouin] absolutely don't have the same opportunity [as Jewish-Israelis]. You're blind if you don't see it. It's very obvious."
Indeed, a clear example of state-sponsored discrimination is the creation of individual farms.
Promoted in the late 1990s by then-Israeli Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon as a way to "preserve state lands", individual farms provide a single Jewish-Israeli family with hundreds of hectares of land for agricultural use in the Negev.
These farms are equipped with basic infrastructure, including vast reserves of water and electricity. Their stated purpose is to keep land away from Palestinian citizens of the state.
According to Adalah, the earliest individual farms were built "without tenders, without clear criteria for distributing the land, without building permits or approvals as required by law, and without examining development and policy needs."
In 2005, the Israeli government approved the "Wine Route" Plan, which retroactively legalized 20 individual farms, and approved construction of ten new ones, in the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council.
Stopping the plan
This month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay criticised the Israeli government for pushing forward a plan that would legitimise bedouin displacement and dispossession.
"If this bill becomes law, it will accelerate the demolition of entire bedouin communities, forcing them to give up their homes, denying them their rights to land ownership, and decimating their traditional cultural and social life in the name of development," Pillay said.
According to Adalah's Abu Ras, as it stands, the Prawer-Begin plan can't be implemented because it does not provide the bedouin with viable housing alternatives. In some instances, it goes against tribal laws that forbid the bedouin from living on land belonging to other tribes.
"We are suggesting that the state of Israel stop Prawer for six months and open a meaningful dialogue to discuss our alternative plan. We are willing to show, professionally, how the government can recognise the [bedouin] villages without harming all the Israeli projects, all of the national projects, here. The Negev is vast enough," Abu Ras said.
Yiftachel agreed, telling Al Jazeera that while the government has slightly improved its stance towards the bedouin, the Prawer law must be stopped. "You cannot accept a plan that is based on making people invisible."