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Israel: The Prawer-Begin Plan (Part 1/2)

Injustice against Bedouins erodes the democratic character of Israel. Thisis the first of a two part series.

On June 24, 2013, the Prawer-Begin bill regarding the regularization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev passed a vote at the Knesset in the first one of three readings required to become law.

This bill addresses the controversial issue of regularizing Bedouin settlements in the Negev.

The substance of the law includes the following directives:

  1. Recognizing some of the unrecognized villages that are located within an area northeast of Beersheba, known as the Siyag
  2. Relocating nearly 30,000 Bedouins, from unrecognized villages located outside the Siyag and slated for demolition into seven townships within the Siyag
  3. Granting compensation for resettled Bedouins in possession of land property claims in the form of money or land up to 50 percent of the original land or value

The Prawer-Begin Law was drafted after a commission regarding the formalization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, released a recommendations report. The Israeli government believes the measures are necessary in order to provide the Bedouin communities with access to services such as roads, water and electricity, placing populations on the path to modernity.

Opponents to this law include NGOs such as Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI); Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights; and Rabbis for Human Rights. They believe this is a racist law that treats Bedouins differently from other Israeli citizens, and fails to recognize the historical and cultural bonds between the Bedouin communities and the land.

This lack of recognition results in compensation that falls short of what they ought to be. The overcrowded relocation townships are no more than impoverished dormitory towns depriving the Bedouins of their tribal way of life and traditional social fabric. The purpose of the law is simply to confiscate land that legitimately belongs to the Bedouins, in order to expand the Jewish population in the Negev. Planners from Bimkom and ACRI have put together an alternative plan to recognize all 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages.

Is this law infringing on the legal rights of the Bedouins?

Historical Background

The current Bedouin population in the Negev desert is estimated at 200,000. Bedouin communities have lived in the Negev since prior to the State of Israel’s inception. Bedouins had their own internal legal system to define land ownership, acquisition, and inheritance based on tribal laws and customs. The bond between the land and its owner was part of a power construct that ruled the Bedouin society.

Advocates for Bedouins’ rights claim that their land property rights were recognized by both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, and even by the early Zionist pioneers purchasing land from Bedouins. As an example, the Ottoman state purchased land from Bedouins in order to build the city of Beersheba in 1899. A Zionist land survey by the Israel Land Development Company (ILDC) in 1920 identified 2.66 million dunams (or 51×51 km2) of Bedouin-owned land, about 35 percent of which were cultivated.

To be more specific, during the Ottoman rule, Bedouin tribes refrained from registering their land in the land registry books — sometimes for lack of knowledge of the procedure to follow, or for fear of it being used for military conscription or tax collection. But the Ottomans, and then the British rulers, recognized the internal Bedouin land ownership system and used Bedouins' records as proof of ownership and transactions.

During the war of 1948, the great majority of the 90,000 Bedouin population fled the conflict to neighboring Jordan, Egypt, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The remaining Bedouin population was relocated to the Siyag area, amounting to about 15,000 people. After the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Bedouins, like all other Israeli-Arab citizens, were under a military regime, during which restrictions of movements were in place, limiting access to education, health and public transportation, until it was lifted in 1966.

Israel recognized almost no indigenous land rights, mostly because of a lack of documentation deemed valid and because Bedouins were considered by the government as nomads with no permanent home. Most of Bedouin land was declared dead land (mawat) or uncultivated, amounting to more than 1.2 million dunams (or 35×35 km2).

Today, Bedouins living in unrecognized villages have no access to water, electricity, roads or public transportation. A water cistern has to be filled periodically from the nearest water reservoir at a higher cost than running water. A Supreme Court ruling established that all children must receive education, but schools are without electricity or air conditioning.

Starting in the late 1960s, Israel launched a program of resettlement of the Bedouins into seven permanent urban townships: Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Arara-Banegev, Kusayfa, Segev-Shalom, Hura and Laqiya. But this urbanization process, meant to bring modernity to the populations, was forced onto the Bedouins not unlike what was done to indigenous populations in other parts of the world.

Learning from Similar Cases

The Bedouin case shows similarities with that of American, Canadian, and Australian indigenous populations’ treatment by governments. One would think that Israeli decision-makers would have consulted with their counterparts in those countries to learn from their experience. It would appear that they have instead chosen to repeat the same mistakes.

Under international laws, indigenous populations have been recognized as vulnerable populations; often as the victims of abusive governments that must benefit from protective measures against forced evictions, discriminations, and neglect. But these are recent developments that did not exist during the colonization of North America and Australia.

In the United States, the initial policy of European settlers towards indigenous populations was a government policy aimed at the “extermination” of the Indian problem and the forced relocation of most indigenous people onto reservations, followed by a policy of assimilation.

Starting in 1952, the Bureau of Indian Affairs using the Indian Relocation Act, moved thousands of natives into urban centers where they reached 60 percent of the whole native population. But without any support in this difficult transition, many decided to return to their reservations.

A process of alienation, impoverishment and the lack of economic opportunities led to the marginalization of both rural and urban native populations, characterized by low per capita income, substandard overcrowded housing, and malnutrition — exacerbated by hostility in schools, neighborhoods and workplaces.

During the colonization of Canada by Europeans, treaties were negotiated with First Nations that resulted in the transfer of lands to the Crown (government-owned land), with a provision for “reserved lands” for indigenous peoples. Indigenous or First Nation people migrated to urban centers starting in the late 1960s, reaching 50 percent of the total indigenous population today. Cities filed to provide for the promised economic opportunities and quality of services.

The urban indigenous have fallen behind non-indigenous populations in terms of education, income, and poverty rates. Urban life has deteriorated their access to community, places, and practices important to cultural survival. A perceived hostility has exacerbated their alienation. Efforts have recently been made to reduce marginalization of urban First Nations by developing an educated and skilled workforce, while taking into account their unique cultural values.

Ancestral Aboriginal populations from Australia had a nomadic lifestyle of hunters and gatherers, with a spiritual attachment to the land. The British considered the country as terra nullius (belonging to no one). No traditional property right that may have existed prior to European settlement was recognized. Many Aboriginals were displaced from their land for use by European farmers, often with violent confrontations and massacres with military involvement.

Eventually, the government transferred the Aboriginals into reserves in remote areas. Following WWII, the Australian government attempted the assimilation of Aborigines into Australian society by absorption into urban areas. Urban Aborigines, making up 70 percent of all Aborigines today, are disproportionately young, poor, living in overcrowded conditions (or homeless) and unemployed. Australia failed to provide Aboriginals with the full rights of citizenship until 1967. An Aboriginal land right legislation was passed in 1974, providing for indigenous self-determination in rural areas and leading to the development of a community housing program.

In all three nations of the United States, Canada, and Australia, created by colonization, indigenous people continue to be neglected and hold disadvantaged positions within the dominant society. In urban contexts, their marginalization results in lower income, higher unemployment, lower life expectancy, poor health, higher rates of criminality, and welfare dependency. Root causes include a loss of land and sovereignty, cultural genocide, lack of education, and discrimination in the job market. Attempts at assimilation have mostly failed for a lack of cultural sensitivity by governments.

*[Note: Read the final part on October 29. This article was originally published by the Palestine-Israel Journal.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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