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Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Israeli government policy on the Negev Bedouin

Key Points

  • The Israeli government is attempting to resolve long-standing and complex land and housing issues affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev through consultation and agreement with individual communities.
  • In September 2011, Minister Benny Begin was appointed to lead a consultation process in which the Negev Bedouin can feedback on draft government legislation.
  • Israeli government policy is to minimise the need for Bedouin to move from their current locations as far as possible. The policy dating to the 1970s of trying to concentrate the Bedouin in large townships is no longer being pursued as a general solution for the Bedouin.
  • The Israeli Treasury has approved NIS 7 billion for a five-year plan for the economic, social and educational development of the 180,000 strong Bedouin community of the Negev, with the aim of raising the community out of poverty.
  • The Israeli government argues that to achieve these goals, there has to be some rationalisation of their settlement structure, and an end to illegal construction by the Bedouin in the Negev.

Context

  • The Israeli government has long sought a solution to settle claims of nomadic Bedouin tribes to land ownership in Israel’s southern Negev region, and to address the problem of unrecognised villages built without authorisation.
  • To some extent Israel shares a universal problem of how land ownership is to be determined in the case of nomadic tribes living a traditional lifestyle. Historically, neither Ottoman nor British law recognised the land rights of nomadic Bedouin. Today, most of the surrounding Arab states (with the partial exception of Jordan) do not recognise the land rights of the Bedouin.
  • Many Bedouin were forced from their land in the 1948 War of Independence. Whilst some were able to return, others were not. In the 1970s the Israeli government allowed Bedouin to register land claims and offered compensation in return for settling in permanent towns. About half of the Bedouin population now live in these towns, but they are poor, underdeveloped and under populated.
  • The nomadic Bedouin tribes in the Negev, currently numbering approximately 180,000, are among the poorest communities in Israel and have one of the highest birth rates in the world. In the absence of a proper planning regime or consistent law enforcement, 1500 to 2000 buildings are constructed illegally by Bedouin every year in the Negev.

Current Israeli policy

  • In 2008, former Supreme Court judge, Eliezer Goldberg conducted an inquiry and published a report with recommendations to resolve the issue. The eight-member committee included two Bedouin representatives and consulted widely.
  • The Goldberg report was fairly well received by Israeli NGOs and Bedouin groups. The report proposed that whilst the Bedouin were not entitled to land ownership just because they possessed the land for many years, ‘land ownership [should] be recognised to a certain extent, taking into account the historic ties of the Bedouin to the land.’ A majority of the committee members also recommended that ‘unrecognised villages should be recognised to the extent possible.’ However, the numerous reservations expressed by individual members of the committee, and complaints from some Bedouin representatives that said the report did not meet their demands, acted to diminish the power and status of the report.
  • In January 2009, shortly before leaving office, Ehud Olmert accepted the outline of the Goldberg report. The incoming Netanyahu government then established a team to implement the report led by Ehud Prawer, the head of policy planning in the Prime Minister’s office. In September 2011, the government announced its proposals for legislation and initiated a process of consultation with the Bedouin communities.
  • Whilst the policy proposals were not as conciliatory in tone as the original Goldberg report, and diverged from the report in some places, Israeli officials insist that the plan retains the general principles of the Goldberg report.
  • However, it received negative coverage when it was reported on in the Israeli and international media. Among other things, it was suggested inaccurately that the government was planning the imminent forced relocation of 30,000 Bedouin from their homes.
  • The principle for legalising currently unregulated settlements being followed by Prawer is, in essence, the same as that proposed by Goldberg. In contrast to the approach of the 1970s, which was to try and concentrate the Bedouin in urban towns, the proposals are to regularise settlement of Bedouin in the Negev, ‘as far as possible, in a manner that will reduce the need for population mobility.’ In the words of a senior Israeli official involved in drawing up the plan, ‘every village we can settle in its place, we will.’
  • The government proposes a planning regime based on principles established in the Goldberg report, that unrecognised villages could be recognised if they meet certain criteria, including the condition that they have the size, density and population to be viable.
  • The plan also proposes a comprehensive system of compensation in money and land for Bedouin who claim title over areas of land, even if they do not legally own it. The value and nature of the compensation depends on complex criteria, such as the nature of the claim; whether the land is suitable for agriculture; whether it is cultivated and whether the claimant is in possession of it.
  • Whilst the government plan anticipates that most of the Bedouin will be able to settle in their current locations, Israeli officials estimate that around 30,000 may have to relocate for a number of reasons.
    • Some live in areas unsuitable for habitation. Government officials estimate that some 17,000 live in polluted areas, with 13,000-14,000 in the area of Ramat Hovav, a toxic industrial site. Others are in the flight path of the newly planned Nevatim international airport, or areas used by the military.
    • Some existing communities are too spread out to provide infrastructure (sewage, water, electricity etc.) at a reasonable cost. The communities are being asked to concentrate somewhat so that basic infrastructure can be provided.
    • Some villages are too small to be viable. Israeli officials consider a population below 1000 to be too small. Though there are small communities in the Negev such as Kibbutzim, that have smaller populations, they are able to sustain themselves economically.
  • Those Bedouin who have to move will have a choice of being settled in an urban, semi-urban or rural community. Some will be absorbed into existing communities and some new communities may also be established. The process of resolving the issue of each settlement is scheduled to take five years.
  • The government hopes to avoid forced demolitions and movement, by agreeing solutions with each community. However, the government plans to fix compensation rates in the new law and does not plan to negotiate compensation with each separate community. If an accommodation cannot be reached the government reserves the right to enforce a solution according to the law. In such cases, the residents will retain the right to contest government decisions in the courts.
  • The proposed legislation defines a specific area of the Negev for the regularisation of Bedouin settlement. One of the complaints made by Bedouin representatives is that the plan specifies that they are not allowed to settle east of route 40, a major North-South highway that runs through the Negev. Israeli officials points out that are in fact no Bedouin claims to land in the Western Negev, and that the Prawer plan expands the area for Bedouin settlement from that determined in the Goldberg report.

What happens next?

  • The government published its proposals for legislation in September 2011.
  • Benny Begin was appointed as the Minister to consult with the Bedouin, to explain the principles of the government plan and to collate their feedback.
  • Following the conclusion of Begin’s consultation process, revised new draft legislation will be put before the government for approval in early 2012, and then will be debated in the Knesset.
  • Once the legislation is passed, a government agency, to be led by retired IDF General Doron Almog, will begin the work of engaging with each community to determine a solution for their settlement needs and to address compensation claims.