Key Points

  • The Israeli government is attempting to resolve long standing and complex land and housing issues affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev through legislation following a series of inquiries and a period of consultation.
  • Israel’s policy is to legalise many of the existing villages and to compensate Bedouin for long standing land claims, in order to create a functioning planning system for the overall development of the region, and to lift Bedouin communities out of poverty.
  • The Israeli government argues that to achieve these goals, there has to be some rationalisation of the settlement structure, by merging smaller and more disparate communities into more economically viable villages, and an end to illegal construction in the Negev.
  • Israeli authorities have allocated NIS 7 billion (£1.24 billion) to settle land claims. A further NIS 1.2 billion (£213 million) is allocated for an economic development plan targeted at the empowerment of youth and women and investment in education, employment, transport, and public services.
  • Bedouin opponents of the proposals and their supporters object that all Bedouin land claims should be recognised, and object to plans to relocate communities.

Context

  • The Israeli government has long grappled with the issue of Bedouin claims to land ownership in Israel’s southern Negev region, and sought to address the problem of unrecognized villages and dwellings.
  • The Bedouin population of the Negev, currently numbering approximately 206,000, are among the poorest communities in Israel and have one of the highest birth rates in the world. While overall Israeli population growth stands at 1.8%, the growth rate among Bedouins is 4.4%.
  • The history of the Negev Bedouin and their land claims is extremely complex, with many conflicting accounts and interests. The Bedouin and their supporters point to a history of settlement and land cultivation going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Others challenge the extent to which the Bedouin were settled on the land prior to Israel’s establishment. Israeli authorities point out that Bedouin did not register ownership over lands under Ottoman or British authorities and that Bedouin land claims have no status in state law. The Bedouin and their supporters claim that they have a long standing traditional system of land ownership.
  • Many Negev Bedouin were forced from the area in the 1948 war. Those that remained were concentrated by Israeli authorities in the Sayyig region in the northeast area of the Negev, and became Israeli citizens.
  • In the 1970s the Israeli government allowed Bedouin to register their land claims. There are today around 2,900 separate claims by 12,000 Bedouin – about 15% of Bedouin adults – to a total of 158,000 acres of Negev land.
  • Israel offered compensation in return for settling in developed lots within purpose built towns. About half of the Bedouin now live in these towns, but they are poor, underdeveloped and lack sufficient employment, infrastructure and services. Eleven Bedouin villages were recognised in 2003, and form the Abu Basma Regional Council, which is home to about 30,000 people. A further 90,000 Bedouin live in unrecognised villages and encampments. In the absence of a proper planning regime or law enforcement, 1500-2000 buildings are constructed illegally by Bedouin every year in the Negev.
  • Israel is in the process of moving many IDF bases and infrastructure to the south of the country, which the government argues will create investment and employment opportunities for the region, including for the Bedouin.

Current Israeli policy

  • In 2008, former Supreme Court judge Eliezer Goldberg led an eight member committee, including two Bedouin representatives, to issue recommendations to the government to resolve the issue.
  • The Goldberg 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.’
  • In January 2009, shortly before leaving office, the Olmert government 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 Prime Minister’s office.
  • Whilst the Prawer Plan diverged from the Goldberg report in some places, Israeli officials insisted that the plan retained the general principles of the Goldberg report. In contrast to the approach of the 1970s, which was to concentrate the Bedouin in urban towns, current proposals are to create a zoning and planning structure that minimises as far as possible the need for Bedouin to move. Villages will be recognised if they meet certain criteria, to ensure they are viable in terms of size and population.
  • However, the Prawer plan received negative coverage in the Israeli and international media. Among other things, it was inaccurately suggested that the government was planning an imminent forced relocation of Bedouin from their homes.
  • In September 2011 responsibility was passed to then-cabinet minister Benny Begin to draft legislation, which he did after conducting a further round of consultation with Bedouin communities.
  • On June 24th 2013 the Knesset passed the first reading of a piece of legislation to implement the government policy. The bill proposes a system of compensation for Bedouin who have claims to land ownership which currently have no legal status. The government is offering 50% compensation in legally owned land and the remainder in money. The value and nature of the compensation depends on complex criteria such as whether the land is suitable for agriculture or is cultivated, whether the claimant possesses it, and whether a majority of claimants (e.g. family members) accept the compensation.
  • 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 will likely have to relocate for a range of reasons.
    • Some live in areas the government says is unsuitable for habitation. Officials estimate that 14,000-15,000 live in the area of Ramat Hovav, a toxic industrial site. Others are in areas used by the military.
    • Some existing communities are too spread out to provide infrastructure (sewage, water, electricity etc.) at a reasonable cost. Some communities are being asked to merge so that infrastructure services can be provided. According to Israeli officials, the government currently spends NIS 100 million each year (more than £18 million) just to bus pupils living in disparate communities to schools.
    • Some villages are too small to be viable. Though there are other small communities in the Negev such as Kibbutzim, the government argues they are able to sustain themselves economically.
  • The government hopes to agree solutions with each community, offering those Bedouin who have to move 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 be established. However, the government claims that only around 3,000 Bedouin will have to move more than a distance of between a few hundred metres or a few kilometres.
  • The government argues that the legislation to regularise settlement and land ownership as part of an integrated plan to improve living conditions and quality of life for the Bedouin and lift the population out of poverty. Currently only 4% of Bedouin are university graduates and the unemployment rate among Bedouin is 35% as opposed to 7% for Israel as a whole.

Opposition to the plans

  • There have been strenuous objections to the bill from Israeli civil rights groups and representatives of the Bedouin. They say the Bedouin were not fully consulted and that the ‘listening period’ took place after the finalisation of the bill and did not lead to any substantial changes.
  • They reject the premise that current Bedouin land claims and settlements are illegal, arguing that the bill does not provide sufficient recognition of the historical connection between the Bedouin and the Negev and the long standing presence of many unrecognised villages.
  • The Bedouin strongly object to any attempt to move or concentrate communities, accusing the government of attempting to restrict Bedouin settlement and make room for more Jewish communities. They also argue that the land on which they are currently living is of paramount importance to them and their main source of income.
  • On the other hand, there are objections from some Jewish writers and NGOs who argue there is no basis for the Bedouin claim that they are indigenous people and have lived in their present location since before the time of the British Mandate.
  • Such groups also believe that by retroactively legalising tens of thousands of illegal Bedouin structures, the bill would create a justice system that is more lenient for the Bedouin than it is for Jewish citizens.

What happens next?

  • The bill passed its first reading in July 2013 and is being prepared for second and third readings by the Knesset Interior Committee; a process beginning in the first week of November.
  • Once the legislation has passed all parliamentary stages, 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 Bedouin settlement needs and address compensation claims.
  • The first reading of the bill was met with vehement opposition from Arab MKs and triggered street protests by groups of Arab Israelis and their supporters. Further protests can be expected as the legislation progresses through the Knesset.