Two weeks after Israel’s State Comptroller’s Office unleashed a bombshell report on the state of governance in the Negev Desert, the dust is settling, which may or may not be a good thing.
The report, a comprehensive and thorough investigation that was years in the making, touches upon the core problems at the heart of life in the Negev, the critical issues that impact the future of southern Israel and the State of Israel as a whole.
The Negev’s devolution into a lawless, stunted state-within-our-state is an unavoidable fact; every government for the past seven decades is equally to blame. The Negev, according to the State Comptroller, is a morass of violence and corruption, tax evasion and fraud, illegal construction that has stunted the region’s development, the widespread practice of polygamy and more.
The question is: What next? Will the State Comptroller’s report languish on a shelf and collect dust, when the outcome of this long-standing policy of complacency and buck-passing will most certainly result in disaster? What can the Israeli government do to bring the state back to the Negev?
The Negev isn’t lost—yet—and the government of Israel has the power to reverse decades of deterioration with a few practical steps:
1. Geographic registration of all citizens: Presently, the majority of the residents of illegal Bedouin squatters’ camps in the Negev live “off the grid;” they have no registered address. Some 80,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens of the Negev hold identity cards that record only their tribal affiliation, even when the tribe to which they belong is spread across dozens of square kilometers. This is one of the central causes of the loss of governance in the Negev. It results in mass-scale tax evasion and other major losses to the state’s economy, false and duplicate reporting for benefits and services and more.
Registration of a physical address for all residents of the Bedouin encampments based on a precise location that can be visited and confirmed by an inspector, based on 12-digit GPS coordinates. The moment a geographical place of residence is confirmed, all service provision and interaction with the government and its various authorities will be based on this address, until such time as these residents relocate to recognized, legal communities where there are standard street addresses.
2. Stop “whitewashing” and “legalizing” illegal construction: The State Comptroller’s findings support what the Regavim Movement has been explaining for years: “Communities” that are created by simply drawing “blue lines” (jurisdictional boundaries) around clusters of illegal structures, redefining them as legal communities and creating a jurisdictional umbrella without any prior urban planning or infrastructure exacerbates, rather than solves, the problems of the Negev. This “legalization” method has been an abject failure, as municipalities and the Bedouin Regulation Authority are forced to deal with the near-impossibility of providing infrastructure for unplanned “communities,” including paved roads, electricity, water and sewage infrastructure.
Despite the fact that this “legalization” method entrenches and even encourages illegal construction, massive loss of state land and inadequate solutions for the Bedouin citizens living in these communities, the extortionist demands by the Ra’am Party in the current government coalition seek to continue this destructive practice, through the “recognition” of new settlements and expansion of “communities” in these municipalities to include additional squatters’ camps. The State Comptroller’s report leaves no room for doubt: This will make an already bad situation even worse.
The solution: Remove obstacles to development and construction processes. The “rural Bedouin communities” (with the exception of Tarabin and Bir Hadaj) were built on land for which there are outstanding ownership claims—land on which no Bedouin is willing to build or settle, and which cannot be utilized for the creation of infrastructure or other public installations. The state and local authorities’ responses to the long list of lawsuits and petitions filed by Regavim is now joined by the State Comptroller’s report; all are in agreement that the main obstacle to the development of infrastructure, as well as to the building permit process, is first and foremost the fact that towns were built on land covered by ownership claims.
The government must stop expanding municipal “blue lines” and abandon the practice of creating new communities based on pre-existing illegal squatters’ camps. The only logical path forward is to create new communities exclusively on state land, in strict adherence to all relevant professional standards for planning and infrastructure development.
3. Create a municipal authority under the auspices of the Bedouin Authority: The fact that Bedouin municipalities provide services to the squatters’ camps that lie beyond their own jurisdictional borders places even greater stress on local governments that are already among the nation’s weakest. Aside from the more basic question of the legality of this “arrangement”—in which municipalities are active beyond their jurisdictional lines—it invites large-scale corruption and waste.
The creation of a separate authority responsible for providing municipal services to the squatters’ camps, under the jurisdiction of the Bedouin Regulation Authority, will relieve the existing local authorities of the burden they are currently shouldering. As in all other areas of the country, the Bedouin municipalities of the Negev will maintain responsibility for the provision of services only for the citizens living within their jurisdiction. This will clarify where each resident of the unrecognized settlements is to receive services and significantly reduce double-reporting, corruption and waste. The new municipal authority will be a less localized body, making it much stronger and less easily manipulated than local authorities, and subject to far fewer local pressures.
4. Create a specialized police unit to protect infrastructure: One of the harshest findings of the State Comptroller’s report is the unfathomable destruction of national water, electricity and energy infrastructure throughout the Negev, and the staggering costs for the national economy and the Israeli taxpayer. The report indicates that national utility corporations contend with hundreds of incidents of sabotage and theft in the Negev each year: break-ins at electricity substations, theft and damage to generators, transformers and electric lines, water siphoning resulting in tens of millions of shekels of losses each year and hundreds of cases of “improvised” illegal electricity hookups. Apart from the direct damages amounting to hundreds of millions of shekels in stolen water and electricity, and the loss of tax income had these commodities been consumed by law-abiding customers, the utility companies are forced to invest heavily in security.
The solution: a specialized police unit tasked exclusively with the protection of infrastructure. This unit will reduce the damage to physical infrastructure components and the economic damage caused to the national economy, and cut off the massive “protection” network that has sprung up around national infrastructure installations in the Negev. The government’s investment in this specialized unit will cover itself very quickly.
If the self-described “government of change” actually intends to bring real change to the Negev, then it must implement these crucial operational decisions without delay. Swift and decisive policy can turn the situation around quickly and dramatically. There is no time to lose.
Naomi Kahn is director of the International Division of Regavim, a research-based think tank and lobbying group dedicated to preserving Israel’s resources and sovereignty.