Fate of Bedouin resettlement plan a mystery in aftermath of apparent cancelation

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org 

Click photo to download. Caption: On Nov. 30, 2013 in the southern Israeli town of Hura, demonstrators protest the Israeli government's "Prawer Plan" to resettle Bedouin residents of the Negev desert. The fate of the plan, which continued to be discussed by Israeli Knesset members after its apparent cancelation Dec. 12, remains a mystery. Credit: Flash90.

Several weeks after Bedouin and global anti-Israel elements celebrated the apparent cancelation of a plan to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin in Israel’s southern Negev region, the fate of the plan remains unknown.

In a dramatic press conference on Dec.12, former Israeli minister Benny Begin, placed in charge of the implementation of the “Prawer Plan,” resigned his post and announced that the plan would be withdrawn. Just days later, however, Knesset members continued to meet to discuss the plan’s continuation.

“As for whether or not the plan will move forward in the aftermath of Begin’s resignation, no one can say with certainty,” Ronit Levine-Schnur, a member of the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told JNS.org

“I’m not sure if anyone really knows what’s going on,” Levine-Schnur said.

According to Levine-Schnur, the plan’s apparent cancelation stemmed not only from Bedouin protests, but also from the fact that lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum opposed it in its current form. 

Click photo to download. Caption: On Nov. 20, 2013, demonstrators outside of the Knesset protest the Israeli government's "Prawer Plan" to resettle Bedouin residents of the Negev desert. The fate of the plan, which continued to be discussed by Israeli Knesset members after its apparent cancelation Dec. 12, remains a mystery. November 20, 2013. Credit: Flash90.

“Begin had assured lawmakers that Bedouin supported the program,” Levine-Schnur said. “And the Knesset members supported the plan, on the basis that the Bedouin themselves supported the program. Not only are the Bedouin not in favor, they are publicly demonstrating against it.”

According to Regavim, an NGO in Israel that focuses on illegal Arab building, more than 90,000 of 210,000 Bedouin live in more than 2,000 separate unauthorized encampments, covering 800,000 dunams (200,000 acres) in the northern Negev between the cities of Beersheva, Dimona, and Arad.

Bedouin often live in structures built below modern standards, without basic services such as electricity and water that are provided legally by national infrastructure. Israeli police are often carrying out court-mandated evacuation orders, particularly when new encampments are built.

According to Levine-Schnur, the only Bedouin legally residing on the land they possess are those who agreed to join one of seven pilot cities that were built to begin urbanizing the nomadic Bedouin several decades ago. The problem is that conditions in these recognized towns are significantly lower than other Israeli cities.

“The Bedouin population is the poorest and most deprived population in Israel,” said Levine-Schnur. “That has been the situation for decades.”

“If you look at the seven existing Bedouin villages established by the government, no Bedouin want to join them,” she said. “These cities are clearly known as social failures, with rampant poverty, and lacks in education, civil and social services.”

The purpose of the Prawer Plan would be to legalize some of the larger unauthorized encampments, while offering a combination of land and monetary compensation to officially and legally resettle Bedouin residing in other encampments. As part of the plan, all Bedouin would receive proper title—either on lands in which they are permitted to stay, or on new land granted by the government.

Many of the costs included in the plan would be to improve infrastructure and civil services in legalized Bedouin communities. Yet the plan’s future is now unknown due to the fact that Begin was unable to garner Bedouin support, and as such lost the support of Israeli lawmakers.

“Begin got up, and said that after discussions with the Prime Minister, the plan has suspended,” Ari Briggs, director of Regavim, told JNS.org. “Well the plan has not been suspended. The only part of this that has been suspended is Begin, who has resigned his position. They are going to find somebody to replace him, somebody who can implement the plan.”

“The plan might look a bit different,” Briggs said. “But the government is still very interested in implementing a plan, because they realize the situation is only going to get worse, and not better.”

There is no need to “give up on seven years of efforts to find a solution” to the Bedouin issue, Briggs believes.

“You might need to make some changes to the plan, and some are needed,” he said.

Additionally, according to Levine Schnur, the Prawer Plan provided no preliminary hearing procedures, and did not provide legal recourse, meaning that Bedouin had no way to appeal any evacuation decisions in court—unlike most such pieces of legislation.

But given the current legal status of Bedouin, and the fact their population is growing at more than twice the national average—due to a combination of high birth rates and the cultural practice of polygamy—the plan offers the framework for ending at least certain parts of a widening legal and social problem.

“There is something with this bill that grants people rights more than they would have had if they were put under the constraints of legal rulings,” Levine-Schnur said. “If you look in that manner, there are lots of benefits to this plan. They don’t have titles to the land in which they live, so in one respect Bedouin should just say thank you.  But in reality it is not like that. To present the case as if Bedouin have no rights, is not really legitimate.”

“What I see from comparative research, when you come to a complete community, and you force this community to leave the place where it lives, just as happened during the disengagement plan [when 21 Jewish communities were forcefully evacuated] from the Gaza strip and northern Samaria in 2005, you can’t say, ‘We could have just evacuated you because you have no rights, but then because we want to be fast and clean, we will give you some rights. You can’t do that,” she added.

According to Briggs, while the current plan may not be perfect, the general outline plan provides ample benefits and reasonable solutions to difficult problems. Furthermore, many third-party opponents of the plan, including Israeli-Arab Knesset members and Palestinians, seem to be using the Bedouin and their legal conundrum as an opportunity to present Israel as an illegal occupier.

“This is an extremely generous plan,” Briggs said. “Israel is bending over backwards to try and help the Bedouin, and instead enemies of the state are trying to use this as a baton to beat Israel over the head. Arab MKs and others are using this as an opportunity to delegitimize Israel internationally.”

“There are meaningful and important problems with the bill that are not related in any way to an occupation narrative,” said Levine-Schnur.

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Posted on December 31, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel, News.