Bedouin plan critics have a point

Last week’s “day of rage” against Israeli government plans to move tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs in the Negev desert to purpose-built settlements was predictable enough.

Even more predictable was the letter to the Guardian from musicians, artists, fashion designers, activists and, naturally, Jemima Khan opposing the so-called Prawer-Begin plan.

But let’s take a step back before we dismiss the opposition as just another example of hysterical anti-Zionist prejudice.

How has a piece of legislation that started out as a genuine attempt to address the issue of Bedouin land ownership become another stick with which to beat Israel?

At first glance, it all seemed perfectly reasonable — tackling the vast divide between Israel’s Bedouin population and the rest of the country by establishing the legal status of the communities in the Negev and introducing a structured timetable of economic development.

The Israeli government has claimed that 80 per cent of the Bedouin population backs the plan. Ministers say a relatively small number of people will be affected and, in return, villagers will have running water and electricity for the first time. What could possibly go wrong?

And yet, the plan has succeeded in forging a bizarre alliance between the international human-rights groupies and the Israeli hard right, who are opposed to the Prawer-Begin proposals because they will legalise the Bedouin “takeover” of the northern Negev. In this sense, we are witnessing a unique historical moment.

On a more serious note, I worry about what this means for the future of Israel. It is now almost impossible for the government in Jerusalem to make its case in the court of international liberal opinion.

The plans to address the issue of Bedouin land ownership may have been entirely genuine, but the communication of the message has been insensitive at best and left the government looking bull-headed.

I have no doubt this is a horribly complicated matter. I am no expert, although I am certain I have more knowledge of the issues involved than most of the signatories of the Guardian letter.

But Israel’s problem is that ignorance has never restrained anyone from expressing an opinion or taking a moral position on its actions, internally as well as externally.

I am prepared to recognise that the Guardian letter conflates the issue of Palestinian independence with that of the Bedouin in the Negev and is motivated by a deep hostility to Israel. It saddens me to see artists I respect lining up with people opposed to the very idea of Israel.

But this does not make the Prawer-Begin plan a good idea. Israel and its Bedouin citizens deserve better.

Last updated: 7:45am, December 6 2013