On Thursday 27 November, Mark Regev, Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for the international media, spoke with Richard Pater, the Director of BICOM’s Israel office, about Israeli government policy towards the Negev Bedouin. The following is an edited transcript of the interview. Listen to the interview here.
Richard Pater: The issue of the Bedouin in the Negev is highly controversial. What are the goals of Israel’s Prawer Plan to try and resolve the situation.
Mark Regev: The goal of the government is to end unacceptable gaps that exist in Israeli society between the mainstream and the Negev Bedouin, who up until now have received lower social services, lower educational services, lower health support. These gaps are intolerable for the Israeli government and for Israeli society and we want to narrow those gaps and ultimately end them.
We don’t want to see anyone in Israel as a second class citizen. So the goal of the plan is to invest billions of shekels into the Negev Bedouin communities. This is part of a larger government plan to develop the Negev.
The Negev is about half of Israel geographically – and Israel is a very small country the size of Wales – but only eight per cent of our population actually live in the Negev. The goal is to develop the Negev for the benefit of all its people and have the Bedouin communities in the Negev also enjoy this development and this prosperity.
Looking at it on a micro level the goal is to have a situation where by the end of the implementation of this plan we have empowered the Bedouin community by allowing them to own the land they live on. This for the Bedouin would be a major revolution. For the first time they’ll have assets in a significant way; assets that they can live on and can sell. We want to see them enjoy the prosperity that other Israelis enjoy.
So we’re talking about a massive development programme that invests billions of shekels in education, in health services and in other social services. The idea is to empower the Bedouin, to help them move into the mainstream, and ultimately to end the issue of illegal land claims and illegal land dwellings.
We want all the Bedouin to be living on land that they legally own. We believe after this five year period of implementation that that goal is reasonable, that goal is rational, and that goal can be achieved.
Richard Pater: What do you say to the allegation that the Negev Bedouin are against this and their land claims have actually been rejected?
Mark Regev: I think a lot of the criticism is political and it is not based on any analysis of the situation itself. If you look at what the Israeli government has done in coming towards traditional land ownership concepts that Bedouin communities have, I think we’ve gone further than probably most of our Arab neighbours in accepting traditional Bedouin concepts of land ownership.
The goal is that the overwhelming majority of Bedouin should be able to stay where they are and they will legally own the land they they’re on. In places where Bedouin cannot stay, there will be ample compensation. The goal is that at the end of this five year period, for the Bedouin to be the legal owners of the land they’re on.
Now in some places a responsible government, and anyone who clearly has the interests of the Bedouin at heart, has to admit the Bedouin have to go. There’s a group of Bedouin who live next to toxic dumps. Now that’s clearly not good for them, it’s not good for their children, it’s not good for their unborn children. So it’s clear in some cases they have to move. We as a government, will make a maximum effort that that happens only where it has to happen, to a minimum possible extent.
Richard Pater: The Negev, as you mentioned, is a very large piece of land. Its broad and wide there, why can’t they stay where they are? Why can’t they live where they want?
Mark Regev: First of all, no one can live where they want if they are not the legal owner of land. I can’t live where I want. You can’t live where you want. The goal is to have the Bedouin own the land they live on at the end of this programme. Traditional nomadic concepts of land ownership are vast, but no modern society accepts traditional nomadic concepts of land ownership. Even Israel’s Arab neighbours, for the most part, don’t go as far as Israel has done in accepting traditional Bedouin concepts of land ownership. We are doing so; I think we’re being very forthcoming.
The goal is once again to develop the Negev and to have the Bedouin as part of that process. We want them to see them move forward. We want to see more Bedouin doctors, more Bedouin teachers and more Bedouin women attending university. The goal is to help their community move forward. Of course being respectful of traditional Bedouin society and being respectful of their traditions and culture, but help them enjoy the progress and the prosperity that most Israelis enjoy.
Richard Pater: There is an accusation that there is unequal treatment of Arab and Jewish villages in the Negev area. For example there are new Jewish communities which are able to be hooked up to the power grid and the water supply immediately, whilst even recognised Bedouin villages take years and years to get that.
Mark Regev: First of all the whole idea of this new programme is to end gaps where they exist – to invest billions of shekels in ending those gaps – and this programme is part of a massive investment programme in the Negev.
Our Declaration of Independence in Israel promises full equality to all Israeli citizens irrespective of creed, irrespective of ethnicity, and we take that very seriously. And this plan is designed to create greater equality in Israel, greater integration and all elements of Israeli society get to enjoy the prosperity that Israel has experienced in the last few years.
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