Umm al-Hiran, racism and the confounding of Zionism


The Israeli government is set to destroy Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, to build a Jewish town in its place, which will be called Hiran. No matter what anyone tells you about unrecognized Bedouin villages, no matter what Israel’s Supreme Court or Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked say, this is the expression of a racist policy.

I grew up marching for Israel every year. In response to the U.N.’s infamous 1975 “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, we marched under the banner “Zionism is not racism” — and I still believe in that. What do we say then about a government that seizes land through twisted legal reasoning, and what do we say about tearing down this village of Israeli citizens? 

Interestingly, Hiran means nothing particular in Hebrew. The name of this new town will forever be a reminder that it was first the home of Arab residents. The Jews who will live there can remember that forever. That’s better than what happened to the land the Bedouins living in Umm al-Hiran were forced off of in the 1950s. That land became Kibbutz Shoval; the memory of their past was erased for all but the most tenacious students of history — except for the Bedouin clan of Abu Alkian, who still remember that it was once their land.

The land present-day Umm al-Hiran sits on was granted to the Abu Alkian tribe more than six decades ago by Israel’s government — granted but not deeded. The plan to destroy Umm al-Hiran has been around since 2003. In 2007, I started a campaign called Save the Negev. The goal was to stop the Jewish National Fund (JNF) from pouring its money into building Jewish Hiran and dispossessing the Bedouins, and instead ask the JNF to make a significant investment in Bedouin communities. Although the JNF eventually shifted its resources, that didn’t stop the Israeli government in its long pursuit of the opposite of peace. But only in May did the supreme court rule that this demolition was completely legal, giving its blessing for the permanent conversion of Bedouin Umm al-Hiran to Jewish Hiran. As a fig leaf, the court required Jewish Hiran not to bar Arabs from applying to live there.

Meanwhile, the group Garin Hiran, the work of T’nuat Or — the so-called “Movement of Light” that deems itself the “new Zionism” — lives in nearby caravans, ready to take over the land after the village is razed. How can it be that these human beings who call themselves Jews will not be ashamed to live in this place called Hiran built over the crushed remains of Umm al-Hiran? Who are these people who see themselves as the real Zionists, who belie everything we were once (naively) taught Zionism stood for?

The Negev is a big place — big enough for an Arabic Bedouin town called Umm al-Hiran and a Jewish town — let’s imagine it as a sister city — called Hiran. Big enough that the one does not need to be utterly destroyed in order to give birth to the other. Even if that were not the case, even if there were room for only one Hiran, it would still be a kind of racist fratricide to tear down Umm al-Hiran.

But there is room, which only makes it crystal clear, painfully, ruinously clear, that this is a policy of racism, or what people actually call, without shame, a plan to “Judaize” the Negev. 

The difference between Umm al-Hiran and Hiran — I mean the names themselves — is that the word “mother,” Umm, has been erased. The land, our real mother, is also being erased, its face defaced, by the violent actions of the state.

Hiran is an Arabic word that has other echoes. Hiran can mean confounding, confusion, perplexity. For those of us who once were taught about the beauty of Zionism, this indeed should be a watershed moment of perplexity.

The supreme court has given its final word on this long-standing, confusing conflict. Umm al-Hiran must die so that Jewish Hiran will live. Let the new Hiran become a monument and memorial to what we all should feel — perplexed and confounded about what Zionism has become. 

Last week’s Torah portion read: “Do not twist judgment! … Justice, pursue justice — so that you will live to inherit the land …” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). Isn’t the whole contradiction of Zionism all bound up in these two verses? But the Torah is clear: If you want to live, justice comes first, before possession.

What could save us now? Maybe Kibbutz Shoval, in a gesture of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, could invite the dispossessed Bedouin families to come back to their land, to dwell together as brothers and sisters, or at least as cousins. Short of such extraordinary measures, however, we are left with nothing but audacity, the audacity of a brand of Zionism shot through with racism, running amok.


Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator and director of neohasid.org and author of “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs the Prayground Minyan

The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg


Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


THE BEDOUIN CONVERSATION, A TIMELINE: 


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

Opposing Bedouin resettlement


They can’t agree on the project’s goal. They can’t agree on who supports it. They can’t even agree on its name.

But when it comes to the Israeli government’s plan to relocate 30,000 Negev Bedouin, representatives and allies of the Bedouin community agree with the right wing on one thing: The Prawer Plan must be stopped.

At a meeting this week, leaders of an alliance between Negev Bedouin and several left-wing groups adopted a proposal to join with “right-wing opponents” of a bill that would relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in unrecognized villages in southern Israel. The plan calls for moving the Bedouin into recognized towns nearby with modern services and amenities while providing them with partial compensation for their property.

“You need to have an elementary school, kindergarten and health care at the center of the modern community,” said Doron Almog, director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “We’d like to replace poverty with modernity.”

The plan is alternatively referred to as Begin-Prawer or Prawer after its two authors — former Knesset member Benny Begin and Ehud Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office. It would recognize some of the unrecognized villages while moving the inhabitants of others.

The government says the plan is a comprehensive land reform measure aimed at providing infrastructure, education and employment opportunities to the historically underserved Bedouin population in the South. But critics of the proposal point to the 30,000-40,000 Bedouin that would be uprooted in what they claim is just the latest move by the government to strip them of their land to create space for Jewish settlement.

“We want rights like everyone else,” said Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages. “The state doesn’t see that the Bedouin have problems. They see the Bedouin as the problem. The state can’t put people on trucks and spill them into towns.”

The fight over the plan has been contentious. Protests across Israel have left several Israeli police officers injured and led to dozens of arrests. Several human rights groups have blasted the plan. Last week, Arab lawmakers appealed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to block what they allege amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of the Bedouin.

It’s far from certain that the partnership proposal will come to fruition, but the effort represents a rare attempt at pragmatic compromise in a debate that has been dominated by dueling perceptions of reality.

At the meeting — representatives of the Arab-Jewish political party Hadash, the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality attended — Alasam and others sounded optimistic that they could find common ground with right-wing activists even though their ultimate objectives are almost certainly incompatible.

Alasam wants the government to allow the Bedouin to stay in the unrecognized villages. Right-wing activists believe the Bedouin have no right to stay where they are.

Moshe Feiglin, the head of the Jewish Leadership faction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, voted against the plan because it “hands the Negev over to the Arabs.” Zvulun Kalfa of the Jewish Home Party opposes the bill because it’s too vague.

Knesset member Miri Regev, who heads the committee debating the bill, criticized Almog for not presenting her committee with a proposed map of Negev towns.

“I think the time has come to organize Bedouin settlement,” Regev wrote on Facebook last week. “It’s unlikely that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev’s lands, and given that, the solution needs to be formulated deliberatively and in a way that’s transparent to all sides.” 

Israeli government shelves controversial Bedouin resettlement plan


The Israeli government is shelving a proposal to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin residents of the Negev that had drawn fierce criticism.

One of the proposal’s main architects, Benny Begin, told reporters on Thursday that the so-called Prawer-Begin Plan would be revised. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approved delaying presentation of the plan to the Knesset.

The plan was billed as an effort to address the plight of Bedouin living in unrecognized villages without access to infrastructure and state services by resettling many of them in Bedouin towns. But it drew protests from many Bedouin and activists on the left who criticized it as an effort to grab Bedouin lands. The plan was criticized as well by some on the right who felt it gave too much to the Bedouin.

Begin said that action was still needed to improve the situation of the Bedouin.

“Since the bill reached the Knesset,” he said, “all sorts of interest groups have gotten involved trying to take advantage of the plight of the Negev Bedouin in order to achieve political gain.”

Israel should freeze Bedouin relocation bill


The writing was on the wall. The Prawer bill to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev will not go through quietly. Not because it is a really bad bill, and not because it fails to provide a critical and necessary solution for the regulation of unrecognized Bedouin localities, but mainly because of the attitude and approach taken by its authors and the Israeli establishment toward the Bedouin population.

The Israeli plan to relocate Bedouins cannot be properly discussed before a series of actions to mend the rift between them and Israeli authorities rebuild trust.

This past Saturday, Nov. 30, even before bulldozers fanned out to demolish unrecognized Bedouin localities and Israeli border and municipal police were called in to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Bedouin residents from their homes, the anger and fury had already erupted. 

In a series of demonstrations in various locations throughout Israel, dozens of police officers were injured in arresting scores of Bedouin protesters, who view Israel today as having set itself a goal of forcibly robbing their land.

In an interview I conducted for Al-Monitor on Nov. 26, Atia al-Asam, chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages, explained that the neglect and discrimination of the Bedouin population are preventing the Bedouins from accepting the principle of regulation put forward by the Prawer bill’s authors and planners. He maintains that the Bedouins have been methodically shunted to the sidelines of Israel, with no distinction made between their recognized and unrecognized localities.

But the rift between Israeli society and the Bedouins is not only the result of neglect and discrimination. Most of the Bedouin population in the Negev does not believe that Israel is truly seeking an appropriate settlement solution because of the daily war of attrition that has been taking place for years in their villages with members of the Green Patrol, Border Police and Israel Police, who arrive to demolish illegal homes. Thus, whole Bedouin clans, whose fathers served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in patrol units and were skilled military trackers, view the Israeli establishment as ungrateful for their service.

Those sent to demolish the illegal homes the Bedouins have built — because Israel for years has put off finding a proper solution, from their perspective — wore official uniforms. The demolitions are called “operations,” during which police and border police suddenly arrive on the scene to carry out their work and clash with local residents, who witness their homes being demolished before their very eyes. Bedouin children and youngsters watch from the sidelines, perceiving the enforcers of law, representatives of the Israeli establishment, as the enemy. They will not be enlisting in the IDF as their fathers or older brothers had. The friendship that had existed since the establishment of the state has turned into hostility. The rift has become a regrettable fact.

On the Israeli side, the dominant terminology is military, concerning the struggle over land. It was in this spirit that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted the following on his Facebook page, on Nov. 30: “We are not dealing with a social problem or housing crisis,” the minister declared, “but a struggle over the land, as it was even back in the 19th century upon the establishment of the first [Jewish] communities. … We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people, and there are those who are working intently to rob us of them and take control of them by force.”

Lieberman is not alone. Israeli discourse on Bedouin lands in recent years has revolved around “occupation,” “overtaking” and “losing the Negev.” Without official settlement solutions, however, and given the natural growth of the Bedouin population, the Bedouins have been left with no other choice than to build illegally and significantly expand unrecognized settlements.

The unexplained deferral in finding settlement solutions for the Bedouins, who were left outside the seven municipalities built in the 1970s, has created a deep rift with that population as a whole. During the demonstrations last week, protesters shouted, “Settler state,” referring to the attitude shown by the Israeli establishment toward the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and consideration for natural population growth in them, contrasting sharply with its dismissiveness toward the natural growth of the Bedouin population in the southern region of the Negev over the past 20 years.

Thus, social anxiety, a desire to preserve culture and tradition and differences of opinion over compensation and ownership of land have slowly grown into a battle over land — a battle between Bedouin land and Jewish land. The tension and bad blood are turning any solution, no matter how fair, into yet another maneuver in the war of attrition being waged over territory. Given this sentiment, there is no chance that the Prawer bill will pass without incident. Suspicion and hostility have overshadowed all else.

Therefore, before blood is spilled and the rift between the Bedouins and Israeli society becomes a terrible tragedy, everything must be put on hold and reconsidered together with the representatives of the Bedouins. There is no reason to insist on promoting the bill no matter what.

The Prawer Plan is not a bad plan. It may be lacking, because it does not take into account that Bedouins living in unrecognized villages do not believe the government is proposing a plan based on a sincere desire to ease their anguish and improve their future. At the foundation of the plan’s outline, however, some unrecognized villages were supposed to become permanent, recognized settlements that will receive development and infrastructure resources.

To get to the point of voluntary, unforced settlement, the parties need to rebuild trust in one another. This can be done in several ways: freeze promotion of the bill in its second or third reading; stop talking in terms of war over the land and start speaking in terms of peace; include Bedouin representatives — the heads of the councils and villages — in the talks on the details of the law; rezone the land to allow construction of permanent localities; and build trust between the Bedouin population and the Israeli establishment and society as a whole.

The Bedouins’ representatives, without exception, agree that solutions must be found to regulate Bedouin settlement of the Negev and admit that the current situation needs to be changed and addressed. Much work needs to be done, however, even before maps are drawn and compensation payments are calculated.


Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse (al-monitor.com), where a version of this originally appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for his work. Reprinted with permission.

Rabbis against balance


You can abuse people, and you can also abuse values. Take two great Jewish values: self-criticism and caring for the stranger. How would one abuse such values? By lifting them up at the expense of other great Jewish values — such as fairness and balance.

A striking example can be seen in a Jewish activist video so one-sided that it makes Israel look like, well, an evil empire.

Produced by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and starring Theodore Bikel, the video compares Israel’s Prawer Plan to address Bedouin settlement in the Negev to the forced expulsion of Jews by the anti-Semitic tsarist regime in Russia. (See the video at the bottom of this page)

Just as the nasty Russians told the Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “You have three days to leave,” Bikel suggests that Israel is inflicting the same injustice on 40,000 Bedouins. A melodramatic score, weeping Bedouins and shots of Israeli army helicopters punctuate the drama.

What makes the analogy to tsarist Russia even more problematic is how RHR tries to downplay the comparison with this fine-print disclaimer on its Web site:

“NOTE: For the avoidance of misunderstandings, this video clip, does not, God forbid, intend to claim that the Bedouin suffer from pogroms or to compare Israel to Czarist Russia. The comparison is between two types of policy: expulsion of Jewish villages and towns from vast areas of Russia to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, compared to the planned expulsion of Bedouin villages to an area called the Siyag region. We find significant similarity between these two policies, and would be happy to find out and admit that we were wrong if we are shown meaningful differences in fact. Thus far, no visitor has successfully done so.”

Besides the obvious problem that the great majority of viewers will never see this disclaimer (it’s neither on the video nor on YouTube), there’s another problem: It’s disingenuous. The fine print can claim that “God forbid we should ever compare Israel to Czarist Russia,” but that’s exactly what the video does. 

As Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel writes, “Theodore Bikel … explained to viewers that the Prawer Plan is morally identical to one of the great acts of ethnic cleansing in history, the forced expulsion of Jews to the Pale of Settlement by the Russian czar.”

What’s worse, Gur adds, is when Bikel asks in the video — in the name of the oppressed Jews of tsarist Russia who are his stand-ins for the Bedouins — what will happen if they refuse to leave.

“We know the consequences of refusal …” Bikel answers in an ominous tone.

Well, “In 19th-century Russia,” Gur reminds us, “the consequences were state-sanctioned incitement and widespread killing and rape. The film leaves unstated what the consequences might be in Israel.”

Clearly, the powers that be at RHR knew they were treading on very delicate ground with this analogy, which may be why they try to divert attention in their disclaimer to something more innocent, as in, “Really, we’re only comparing policies.” 

The sad result of the extreme and offensive rhetoric of the Bikel video is that it throws a bomb but doesn’t enlighten.

As Gur writes, for example, “One cannot discover from the Rabbis for Human Rights video that almost half of the Bedouin being moved — roughly 15,000 — actually asked to be moved, even appealing to courts to get the state to grant them a new planned town in a separate location because the site where they had encamped was too close to the chemical works of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility.”

Even sadder, the overwrought rhetoric draws attention away from some genuine concerns with the Prawer Plan, and there are plenty. Israel has neglected the problem for far too long and is now trying, however clumsily, to make the best of a tough situation. 

As Shlomi Eldar outlines in an oped (p. 10), Israel has undermined its case with its patronizing attitude toward its Bedouin citizens, which has only served to taint the atmosphere.

RHR could have brought up its concerns in a reasoned and balanced way. Instead, it chose the tactics of the extremists it often rails against: It threw a bomb and got plenty of attention.

A “reasoned and balanced” video would surely have lacked the drama of the tsarist comparison, but Israel shouldn’t pay the price for that. When the reputation of a country is at stake — a country already under attack by a mostly biased and hypocritical world — accuracy and balance should trump drama.

By oversimplifying a complex problem and making incendiary comparisons, a well-meaning Jewish activist group has fueled the anti-Israel fire and undermined its own credibility and its own good works.

If the hearts of the Rabbis for Human Rights are in the right place, and I have no doubt that they are, then their mouths need to catch up.

Yes, criticism and justice are great human rights and great Jewish values — but so are fairness and balance.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Knesset panel advances plan regulating Bedouin settlements


A Knesset committee advanced a plan that would require the resettlement of some 30,000 Bedouin.

The draft ratified Monday by the Ministerial Legislation Committee regulates Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert. Along with requiring the resettlement of the Bedouin, the Law of Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev — also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan — would resolve some 12,000 land claims, Army Radio reported.

In a news release criticizing the plan, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it would “cause the displacement and forced eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossessing them of their property and historical rights to their lands, destroying the social fabric of their communities, and sealing the fate of thousands of families into poverty and unemployment. All of this while the government simultaneously promotes the establishment of new Jewish communities, some of which are even planned to be built on the fresh ruins of Bedouin villages.”

Knesset approves plan to recognize Bedouin settlement


Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to formalize the status of Bedouin settlement in the Negev.

The plan recommended by outgoing Likud Minister Benny Begin would officially recognize most Bedouin settlements in southern Israel and offer compensation to those Bedouin required to move off state-owned land. Compensation will be given in full either in land or money, according to the Prime Minister's Office.

Bedouin being required to move have five years to accept the compensation.

As part of the plan, the government will invest some $322 million over the next five years to promote economic development and growth among Negev Bedouin, and to develop infrastructures in Bedouin communities.

“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.

Israel must stop squatting Bedouin, lawmaker says


Israel must find a way to halt the illegal squatting of Israeli Bedouin, in order to help the Bedouin and to assert Israel's claim to the land, lawmaker Yuli Edelstein told a special forum.

The non-profit research institute Regavim conducted two events last week focusing on the sharp rise of squatting and illegal settling of vast tracts of land in the country’s Negev region.

Edelstein, minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, was the keynote speaker for an emergency public forum, called “Which Way for the Negev?,” at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Its panel of experts included Prof. Rafi Yisraeli and Dr. Seth Frantzman. The special presentation concentrated on spiraling illegal building by the Negev’s Bedouin inhabitants and challenges to Israeli rule of law as well as solutions to counter the mounting crisis.

“Regavim deals with very complicated issues of land rights, which have become increasingly urgent.  To reclaim the land and assert Israel’s sovereign control, the organization engages in ongoing research and legal action to succeed in this mission,” said Minister Edelstein. “We must break the merry-go-round cycle of lawful eviction of illegal settlements followed by the immediate return of illegal squatting if we truly care about ensuring Government plans for Israeli Bedouins, which will benefit the entire population of the Negev.”

The second part of the Regavim fact-finding event was a tour to the sites of illegal activities for over 150 participants in three full buses of English-speaking Israelis and tourists, each led by experts. One site visited was the village of Al-Zarnog which is built on private land and is currently the subject of a court case in which Regavim is assisting its legal landowners.

“Our intention is to conduct more of these events to educate the public about the true facts on the ground and to increase pressure on the government to effectively enforce Israel’s sovereignty in the country’s national lands, including the Negev,” said Briggs. “There has been much attention focused on settlements deemed ‘illegal’ in the West Bank, including forced evacuations. Far less in the public eye have been shocking illegal land grabs on this side of the Green Line, in the Negev.”

Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens


At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It’s as if you’ve glimpsed something like it before in a TV docudrama, or on the glossy pages of National Geographic or as part of a news clip on CNN. It’s part Middle Eastern, part African. It’s part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there’s a gentle mood to the place, as if no one there is really complaining about their lot — almost as if they’ve picked it themselves.

And they have, in a way.

Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel’s Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin (“One Hill”) was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village’s status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.

Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens, comprising about 80,000 people in northern Israel and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population. They are entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews — that is if they could just stay put.

A nomadic people, “Bedouin” is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab. Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.

About 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they have one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century. With the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle and often an actual household.

That makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer department of social work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the statistics.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to walk with the wind,'” Al-Krenawi said. “Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind. They were working with the Bedouin, and they didn’t understand them. Slowly, they’ve started to change their thinking and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people.”

In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva, now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000 — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn’t want or ask for the homes. They simply weren’t interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; “it was a big mistake,” said Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.

Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, did start to move in to Tel Sheva and six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful.

The professor explained that there are crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents and caring for land and animals to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on “social security,” Israel’s name for welfare, which he said is hardly enough to support 12 children.

The Bedouin were “pushed to the margins of society; they were left out,” Al-Krenawi said. “Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It’s a big welfare population. It’s a disaster.”

The question, he continued, is one of the future: “Where are you taking this portion of society?”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

Critics say the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of Israel in 1948 and is only now starting to realize its potential. It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where they are buried. Ben-Gurion’s words sound surprisingly relevant these days: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning.”

Signs of Bedouin movement do exist. It is a population that votes. It’s one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It’s one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices and because the Bedouin were never really considered at all.

Nine more recognized villages are in the works at various levels and stages of development. A regional council for this area, the Abu Bazma Council led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy, has been set up and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) New schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.

Kolagy, who is of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, noted that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledged that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the start– “when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way” — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.