Analysis: Israel agonises over Bedouin land crisis

Ironically perhaps, as the world waits for the Prawer-Begin Plan for the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev to clear its final legislative hurdles in the Knesset and the bulldozers to start demolishing the homes of over 30,000 Bedouin slated for resettlement, the only person who has actually lost out so far is Benny Begin.

The former minister, who oversaw the public hearings on the original plan and ordered its revision, was attacked by the right for “giving up” thousands of acres of desert land to the Bedouin, and probably lost his place on the Likud Knesset list as a result.

But while there was some criticism from the right, it has been muted in recent months in the face of the much more voluble chorus against the plan from the left, both within Israel and around the world. This has ranged from the rather predictable cries of “ethnic cleansing” from the anti-Israel lobby in Britain and some Israeli-Arab MKs to more considered claims of “forcible removal” and unconstitutionality from the mainstream Israeli civil-rights community.

The plan was originally drawn up by a committee headed by Udi Prawer, a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office. It is designed to solve the dual problem of the “unrecognised” Bedouin villages in the Negev — which do not receive basic public services — and the dire socio-economic condition of the Negev Bedouin population.

Around 210,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, about 40 per cent of them in 35 “unrecognised” villages.

According to the plan, some of the larger villages will be recognised, while the rest, where about 30,000 people live, will be demolished and their residents moved to new neighbourhoods in larger Bedouin towns and villages. Those Bedouin whose claims are recognised will receive 100 per cent compensation for their land, and the government will invest NIS 2.5 billion (£433m) in infrastructure and employment centres for the Bedouin over the next five years.

The government claims that recognising all the villages is impossible for legal and logistical reasons and that the majority of the Bedouin are in favour of the plan, while its vocal opponents represent only 20 per cent.

Those against the plan — but not not instinctively against anything Israel does — claim that it amounts to “forcible removal” of the Bedouin from their ancestral homes, sets unattainable planning standards for the villages that are to be recognised and is another stage in a national planning strategy that has always discriminated against non-Jews.

At least 3,000 Bedouin who have historic claims to their land cannot prove ownership in court.

Whether the Prawer-Begin Plan presents an historical opportunity for the Negev Bedouin or commits a historic crime, both sides have strong arguments. One fact is inarguable, however. For the past 65 years the Bedouin, including the 60 per cent who do live in “recognised” town and villages, have been the most neglected sector in Israel and their legal standing has remained in limbo. If their situation had not been allowed to fester for so long, Israel may not have been forced to choose such a difficult solution.

Last updated: 12:03pm, December 5 2013