Tel Aviv — Barely visible from the main highways that run through the Negev Desert, they look like primitive shantytowns in the middle of nowhere.
Known as the “unrecognized villages,” the 35 rural hamlets in the southern Israel are home to 90,000 Bedouin Arabs who exist in a sort of a third world twilight zone on the margins of Israeli life: without running water, a hook-up to the electricity grid or basic government services. Conditions, in some respects, are worse there than in the West Bank or even the Gaza Strip.
For decades, the residents of these off-the-grid townships have clung to land claims that stretch back before the birth of the state of Israel. The Israeli government has long viewed them as squatters with no legal claim of ownership, but has allowed the situation to continue. With the total population of the Negev Bedouin expected to surge by nearly 50 percent in the next seven years to 300,000, a solution is needed urgently.
This year, the government introduced legislation — dubbed the “Prawer-Begin” bill — to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouins in established communities or newly recognized ones, and to distribute cash and land to those with land claims.
Resolving the issue of the unrecognized villages is part of a broader Israeli plan to boost economic development and investment in southern Israel, a long-neglected region despite David Ben-Gurion’s vision of settling the desert.
Bedouin leaders have rejected the plan, saying it doesn’t offer proper compensation and they don’t want to move to Bedouin villages that have become synonymous with blight.
Their cause has been adopted by human rights groups, Arab Israelis and celebrities including some liberal American Jewish groups. T’ruah, a rabbi human rights group, recently collected 780 signatures from U.S. rabbis against the plan.
Solidarity activists and the Bedouins have embarked on a series of “days of rage” protests that resulted in clashes over the weekend with police — an indication of the explosive potential of the dispute, say activists.
Police said 15 officers were injured and they arrested 28 demonstrators near the southern Israel town of Hura and at a solidarity demonstration in Haifa.
“The police started it. The police got too close to the people. They used tear gas, water cannons and horses. … Some of the young people used stones to retaliate. It became a complete chaos,” said Ati Al Asam, head of the regional council representing the unrecognized villages.
“We’ve been holding this land for hundreds of years, before the establishment of the state. … They are going to expropriate half a million dunams [125,000 acres] of land, destroy 30 villages, and expel 50,000 people to villages that already are full of problems,” he added.
In the eyes of the Bedouins and human rights activists, the plan fits into a familiar narrative of Israeli land dispossession of Arabs — first as a result of the displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 War of Independence, then of Israeli Arabs from lands inside Israel in the two decades following and then of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by Jewish settlers after 1967.
Al Asam and human rights activists allege they are being cleared out to make room for new Jewish towns, a part of the plan to boost development among struggling communities in southern Israel.
But Israeli officials disagree. “It’s disinformation. It’s totally not true,” said Doron Almog, a former army general who is heading efforts to resolve the land dispute and push Bedouin development.
Israeli officials accused pro-Palestinian activists of hijacking the issue to smear Israel internationally.
Almog argued the plan is aimed at boosting prosperity in one of Israel’s most impoverished groups.
Almog said the plan offers “generous” compensation to the Bedouin landholders who will get new land for agriculture and homes. He said the dispute only involved 15 percent of the Bedouin population of 210,000. And most of the Bedouins that would be affected aren’t opposing it.
“They deserve a better future for their kids… its not about relocation, it’s aimed at regularization in the area they live,’’ he told reporters during a conference call Sunday. “Instead of slums they live in now, we want to establish special sustainable communities in order to raise the standard of living.”
Beyond the Arab-Israeli land conflict, the dilemma over how to integrate the Bedouins into modern Israel has parallels in the relations between other Western democracies and indigenous groups, such as Canada, Australia and the U.S.
“We did not invent this problem,” said Avivit Hai, an Israel-based associate at the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, which helps boost awareness among North American Jewry.
Hai said there is a deficit of trust among the Bedouins, who still remember being put under military rule from 1948 to 1964 and their dislocation from other lands in the Negev to make way for Jewish towns and army training areas. Some who were transferred decades ago could face a second relocation. The government counters that the plan would develop the Negev for the benefit of all.
Now, she noted, the Bedouins say they are faced with an extremely intricate proposal governing land claims that most Israelis would not be able to understand. She also pointed out that while the government got input from the Bedouins both before and after the plan was drawn up, the Bedouins complained they weren’t consulted during the process of drafting the proposal.
“The situation is obviously unsustainable. I don’t think there are Bedouins or state representatives that want to keep the status quo. Everyone agrees that something radical needs to be done,” she said.
Speaking with American Jewish leaders in July, Benny Begin, a former cabinet minister who solicited feedback to the plan from the Bedouins and modified the original plan, acknowledged that “we are late by many years” in resolving the problem. But he said the government has already invested about $700 million in boosting services and infrastructure in the Bedouin community.
He rejected the proposal of human rights groups that the existing Bedouin villages be preserved, saying it’s “far fetched” to expect the government to run electricity and water lines to the far-flung homesteads. “They are going to be compensated for their belongings for their shacks,” he said.
However, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called the plan “one-sided’’ and “discriminatory” because it was drawn up only for the Bedouins and replaces the normal legal procedure for clarifying land ownership. ACRI also criticized the plan for negating Bedouin historical rights.
Right-wing groups have also attacked the Prawer plan — but for being overly generous. They argue that the Bedouin claim of being an indigenous people is suspect, and that the plan would retroactively legalize illegally built structures on “stolen” land.
Bedouin leaders say new demonstrations are planned for this week and next in Beersheva. But they insist this is not a nationalist uprising. Maybe the Bedouin villages could be merged, but the residents oppose leaving their land, said Khalil El Amor, from the un-recognized village of Al Ferra.
“We aren’t against the Jews. They are our brothers in religion. We share the same national homeland. The problem is the compensation. It’s the transfer plan. It hurts us very much,” he said.
“The desire of the Bedouin is not to isolate themselves, or to establish their own state,” he added. “The Bedouin want to be an integral part of the state of Israel — on the basis of equality. But they want equal treatment.”