‘Catastrophe’ looms as Israel debates Bedouin resettlement

Equal citizens? Shy Halatzi

Throughout this year, Bedouin in the Negev desert in southern Israel have been relocated as part of a plan to resettle between 30,000 and 40,000 Arab citizens of Israel from their “unrecognised” villages to new townships.

The Israeli government says the resettlement will give Bedouin access to modern service: roads, water and electricity. The Bedouin complain that they are being forcibly removed from land they have occupied since long before the state of Israel was founded. They also claim that they are being forced out of their land to make way for new Jewish settlements in the Negev.

This week the “bill for the regulation of Bedouin settlement in the Negev”, better known as the Prawer-Begin plan will receive its second reading in the Knesset. The atmosphere, as the bill is debated, will be febrile – successful passage of this legislation will mean the likely demolition of dozens of Bedouin villages. Unsurprisingly Jerusalem is braced for mass demonstrations.

Drafted by the former Likud Knesset member, Benny Begin, the bill gained approval on January 23 and on June 24 passed the first of three readings before it is passed into law. In anticipation of the successful passage of the bill into law in the coming weeks, a dedicated police unit has been set up to supervise the evacuation of residents, the demolition of properties and to counter demonstrations.

Leaving behind homes in 35 unrecognised villages, residents (regarded as “trespassers on state land”) will be relocated to the existing towns of Rahat, Keseifa, Segev Shalom, Aro’er, Lakiya, Tel Sheva, and Hura, which are recognised by the 2003 Abu Basma Plan, or to the purpose-built villages constructed around the Negev.

While the plan focuses on the well-being of the Bedouin, the permanent displacement of 40,000 people has drawn national and international censure. Protests have taken place throughout the region and are likely to increase on the bill’s passing. In the Negev, protest banners likened the plan to the events of 1948, indicating that the bill’s passing would mark a second nakba, or, “catastrophe”. Over the summer, local youth groups gathered signatures for petitions against the plan and posters appeared in northern border towns bearing the slogan “Prawer won’t Pass!”.

Catastrophe: the Prawer Plan would displace up to 40,000 Bedouin. Joe Catron via Creative Commons

By mid-July the demonstrations had reached Nazareth, Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the demolition of homes and the use of excessive force by police against protesters in Beer Sheva and Sakhnin.

In the interests of all?

Central to the Prawer-Begin plan is the development of social infrastructure in the Bedouin communities. Avoiding terms such as “resettlement” and “displacement” in favour of “regulation” and “settlement”, employment opportunities, education and integration have been highlighted as the fruits of relocation. Inclusivity is emphasised as a key to future stability (“Inclusion [of Bedouin] in the prosperity of the Negev will contribute to all its inhabitants”), while investment in Bedouin children is regarded as a priority that will “help them exploit their talents and realise their natural right to happiness”.

Nevertheless, the dissonance between the vision of integration and the response to any land claims issued by the Bedouin is problematic. The 2007 Goldberg Commission acknowledged that “the Bedouins are residents […] they are not ‘invisible’ and do not lack standing and rights [and] they must be included in processes determining their future”. The Prawer-Begin plan, on the other hand, holds that under the land laws, ownership claims issued by Bedouins cannot be accepted.

Architect: Benny Begin. WIkimedia Commons

To support this, the plan points to the fact none of the ownership claims submitted by Bedouins have been accepted by the courts -– and the claims list is long: almost 3,000 claim memorandums have been issued and are pending resolution.

The government injection of NIS 1.2 billion (Israeli New Shekel) – about £213m – will fund schools, factories, transportation, security and social infrastructure. However, it has failed to convince Bedouin residents that the plan is more than legalised displacement.

Relocation, relocation, relocation

The dislocation of the Negev Bedouin is not a new phenomenon. In 1990, land was confiscated from the al-Azazmeh tribe for military use and the base became an agricultural kibbutz shortly after. Relocated to Ramat Hovav, the al-Azazmeh resided in an industrial zone that contained toxic and chemical waste. In 2007, concerns were realised when a pesticide container exploded at the Makhteshim-Agan factory, causing a phosphoric acid cloud over an area that has a mortality rate that is 65% higher than any other residential area in Israel.

While the new towns will not be in industrial zones, there remains the question of inclusivity in practice. According to a report by the Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality in May 2013, the three-month “listening process” around implementation began after the plan itself had been approved, which suggested that “listening” to the Bedouins’ needs was merely a cosmetic approach designed more for public relations than anything else.

Begin’s post-facto “listening process” and “revisions” simply provided a façade of a participatory consultation process

In fact, the planned destruction of villages and homes takes away any choice and contradicts the Plan’s advocacy of “equal citizenship” for all affected by Prawer-Begin. Some families may be happy to move to new or expanded towns with, but others certainly prefer the status quo.

Another way

The provision of schools, jobs and security in the plan is a positive step, but the crux rests in the engagement process in terms of inclusive negotiations, the will to acknowledge unrecognised villages and the application of law to all settlements in the Negev. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel there are more than 115 Jewish settlements and 60 individual farms that do not meet the criteria outlined in the Prawer-Begin plan. Recently, the government approved the construction of 11 new settlements on the sites of former Bedouin villages.

In light of the bill’s flaws, alternatives have been proposed by NGOs. A new master plan by Bimkom, The Council of Unrecognised Villages and Sidra outlines criteria for planning with Bedouin communities, including the promotion of human rights, recognition of existing Bedouin settlements, community engagement and consideration of the Bedouin land system.

The success of the Prawer-Begin plan rests on the application of equal citizenship, inclusive engagement and the rejection, not promotion, of discriminatory practices. The essence of the bill is stability and “a better future” for all residents in the Negev – but security will only work properly with the consent of all.

As long as the Bedouin are regarded as trespassers – and permanent displacement is mistakenly viewed as the means to achieve progress, stability will remain elusive.