Netanyahu wise to end Bedouin land dispute

By Nathan Jeffay, March 31, 2011

His efforts to end the conflict with the Palestinians seem to have reached a dead end. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may earn himself a legacy for a peace deal after all.

His office is poised to bring to cabinet a proposal to ease the rising tensions between the state and its Bedouin community, which numbers almost 200,000.

Bedouins are traditionally far less antagonistic to the state of Israel than other Arab citizens. But their attitudes are changing, and the tide is turning against the state.

Many blame urbanisation for propelling them towards poverty, leading to high crime levels and causing them to lose their traditional way of life.

Clashes with the police in 2000 caused some Bedouins to become more sceptical about the Israeli part of their dual identity. Unlike most other Arabs, many Bedouin men serve in the Israeli army, though in the past decade numbers have taken a dive.

But more than anything, the issue of land rights has caused tension. Bedouins claim to own vast tracts of the Negev - sometimes based on the argument that their families have been there for generations, and sometimes based on land purchases for which they claim to have documentation.

However, the state regularly rejects these claims, disputing that historical presence amounts to ownership, finding fault with the documentation, and in some cases saying that while land may have belonged to Bedouin families, it was confiscated. In the early 1950s Israeli law controversially empowered the state to confiscate privately-held land that it wanted "for development, settlement and security purposes". There have been several high-profile evacuations from disputed land in recent years.

Two years ago, a state committee delivered its recommendations on Bedouin land rights to the cabinet, but they gathered dust. Now, Mr Netanyahu has dug them out, and plans to present the cabinet with a plan on how to implement them. He is expected to recognise Bedouin rights to 38,000 acres, around half of the land claimed.

Reviving this report is a smart move on Mr Netanyahu's part. Bedouin land rights have been catapulted into the headlines since the summer thanks to repeated demolition by the state - and rebuilding by residents - of the Negev village of El-Arakib. Both parties claim ownership of the land.

In trying to square matters with the Bedouins, Mr Netanyahu sends out a message to the international community that although the peace talks are going nowhere, he is making efforts on Arab rights at home. With so much attention on the threat posed by the alleged disloyalty of Israel's Arab citizens, few could dispute that winning back the loyalty of the Bedouin population - which the government expects to double in size in just 15 years - makes strategic sense.

Last updated: 12:00pm, March 31 2011