The dire security situation in the Negev Desert wasn’t created in the past year. However, Naftali Bennett’s government, which will mark its one-year anniversary in around three months, has thus far avoided spearheading a comprehensive campaign to change the situation. Although residents have seen a welcome change in the modes of operation employed by the Israel Police and defense establishment, the state still hasn’t acknowledged either the magnitude of the threat or its roots.
In its approach to the Negev, the Israeli government blindly adheres to two faulty basic assumptions. The first identifies the crux of the threat as coming from criminal elements, while the second is that the phenomenon of crime stems primarily from socio-economic distress. Both assumptions are predicated on a partial view of the phenomenon and deny the fact that the true root of the problem is the nationalist-religious fight against Israel’s sovereignty.
An examination of Israeli governments’ investments in the Bedouin sector in the Negev, including how much land is allotted for construction by the Israel Lands Authority—and certainly in comparison to land prices in non-Bedouin communities—is enough to debunk claims of discrimination. Figures published by the Negev Development Authority point to an unprecedented scope of state investment in the Bedouin communities.
There’s no disputing the gravity of the criminal threat, but it’s a mistake to ignore the significance of the deep link between the criminal and nationalist classes. In other words, the Israeli government and defense establishment lack a comprehensive, systematic theory to explain what is going on in the Negev, and there are two possible reasons for this.
The first is that Israel’s leadership in recent decades has tended toward an administrative and operative approach. That is to say, providing an administrative response in the form of a governmental plan of action and monetary investment. A problem rooted in nationalist-religious hostility, however, can’t be handled in the familiar and comfortable administrative fashion.
The second is that the government is blindly adhering to the Western assumption that all people strongly aspire to improve their quality of life, and that money can fix anything. An eternal nationalist struggle can also be solved, supposedly, with economic enticements. In recent decades, however, the U.S. gospel about spreading the light of democracy has been thoroughly repudiated.
Despite investing a vast fortune in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality on the ground indicates the existence of counter-forces that don’t genuflect before the altar of American prosperity. Despite this, Israeli society and its leaders continue clutching to the promise of American wealth and prosperity as an answer, as if this embodied the human essence.
The time has come to acknowledge that Israel is still fighting its war of independence in the Negev. The Israeli government and the country’s security forces, including Israel Defense Forces units and all security agencies, must engage in a comprehensive and sustained campaign. Such a campaign would comprise economic dimensions as well, but these must integrate with a broad security effort over the long haul.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.