UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto

UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto

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The Canadian Jewish News - August 30, 2012

Bedouin issue remains a priority in Israel

By Joel Shupac

One of the existential issues that the State of Israel now faces is the resolution of Bedouin land claims and economic development in the approximately 60% of the State comprised by the country's Negev region.

The Bedouin issue has been pushed to the back burner by the controversies over national service by Haredim and Israeli Arabs and the proposed legalization of West Bank settlements, but the resolution of the land title and development issues in the Negev will have an immense bearing on the economic and demographic development of the State.

The Arab Bedouin who have inhabited the large desert area in the south of Israel as nomads for centuries are at the centre of the conflict, which pits the desire of the Bedouin to preserve their culture against the State's determination to use the land and its resources for productive purposes and to foster Jewish settlement in the region.

Historically, allocation of land among Bedouin tribes was by oral and customary arrangement which the Bedouin regarded as binding, a position not accepted by the Israeli courts but, problematically for the State, finding increasing acceptance as 'indigenous rights' by international bodies like the UN and EU. Indeed, UN agencies such as UNESCO and the Council on Human Rights, farcical as the latter arguably is with its membership composed in part of brutal dictatorships, are already seized of the issue and producing reports depicting Israel as a despoiler of indigenous rights.

The era of modern land registration was inaugurated in the Negev by the ruling Ottoman Empire in 1858 when legislation created different forms of land tenure, such as the category of 'Mawat', meaning desert land which could be registered as private property when cultivated. The Bedouin however, fearing compulsory taxation and conscription by what they regarded as an alien occupier, chose not to register their title.

The British Mandatory authorities encouraged the registration of land claims in 1921, but the Bedouin again declined to do so, although some voluntary payments were made to the Mandatory authorities, arguably to provide a quasi-legal basis to their land claims. These were not accepted by the Israeli courts as the basis of legal title.

When the State of Israel arose in 1948, the majority of the region's Bedouins moved across the new borders to Jordan, Egypt and the Gaza Strip, leaving 11,000 in the new state's territory.

Acting pursuant to the regime of military law which governed the predominantly Arab-inhabited areas of the State prior to 1966, Israel's policy was to concentrate the population in the northeast quadrant, the so-called 'siyag' or 'enclosure'. The area was defined by the locations of the future cities of Beersheva, Rahat, Arad and Dimona, in order to facilitate the provision of services to the Bedouin, wean them from their nomadic existence, and in the view of the Bedouin, to make land available for Jewish settlement.

The new, relatively impermeable borders of Israel made nomadic existence impractical. The Bedouin spontaneously created "unrecognized villages", a term coined by Israeli officials. There are now about 38 such settlements, where about 71,000 Bedouin live, nearly 40% of the 191,000 Bedouin in the Negev. The unrecognized settlements, which constitute 2.7 per cent of the land area of the Negev, lacked infrastructure and municipal services. They are not connected to the national water and sewage systems or the electrical grid. Rates of unemployment and crime are high.

As the Bedouin population expanded, their existence was marked by a set of unique problems arising from features of Bedouin society such as nomadism, clan divisions, and polygamy. Despite progress in areas, such as education and health care, their condition continues to deteriorate because of rapid population growth, coupled with a host of social and economic problems that make them the poorest population group in the State.

The settlement patterns feature clans living together, physically separated from other clans, and in cohabitation of extended families. As one might expect from a population that was nomadic within living memory, flocks of sheep must be readily available for sustenance. Such patterns are hard to reconcile with the modern town planning principles of a Western state, where residential units are not expected to grow exponentially to accommodate extended family growth.

As well, the lack of organized transportation services in the unrecognized villages has contributed to their economic isolation, inability of residents to work in the cities and low female participation in the work force.

Attempts by the State to address the problems of the Bedouin in the Negev have run afoul of a dilemma which appears existential: the Bedouin define themselves in relation to the land, yet it appears that their integration into Israeli society can only be achieved by becoming productive citizens in a modern economy.

The Government has struggled to resolve the clash of rights and goals by appointing a judicial inquiry chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, and subsequently by appointing a committee headed by Ehud Prawer, head of the policy planning committee in the Prime Minister? Office, to advise on implementation of the Goldberg Commission report.

Goldberg? terms of reference stated that it was to ?ecommend to the government a policy for regulating Bedouin settlement in the Negev, including legislative proposals and amendments?

Goldberg recommended that the Government extend legal recognition to most unrecognized villages, that others be moved to alternate sites, that some Bedouin complainants be compensated monetarily and others with land. Its report, submitted in 2008, was written in conciliatory and positive language and proposed giving the Bedouin the ?ight to ownership?of land, in consideration of their ?istoric connection?to it.

By way of contrast, the controversial highlight of Prawer? recommendations, which were approved by the Cabinet in 2011, is to move close to 30,000 Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages to expanded areas of existing Bedouin towns such as Rahat, Kseifa and Hura.

Bedouin who live or work on land over which they claim ownership are to receive replacement land of half the area they claim, and to receive monetary compensation for the balance.

Minister Binyamin Begin has been tasked with consulting interested parties regarding the implementation of the Prawer recommendations, and to recommend amendments where necessary. A five year implementation period is contemplated, with the amount of compensation to be reduced over the course of that period as an incentive to settle all outstanding legal claims. At the conclusion of the five year period, land which has not been the subject of the claims process will be registered as state land.

Bedouin representatives and human rights organizations have complained that the Prawer report diverges from Goldberg in that the latter made a greater effort to legalize Bedouin settlements where possible, and had no relocation component. They also took exception to the fact that Prawer appeared to drop Goldberg's finding that historically, the Bedouin had been wronged and that the injustice needed to be ended.

Bedouin villages that fall within the master plan for the Beersheva area, which have access to public infrastructure, would become recognized communities. The Prime Minister's Office has not foreclosed the possibility that new Bedouin towns would be established within lands currently inhabited by Bedouin tribes.

Prawer proposed criteria for recognizing Bedouin villages, including meeting minimal levels of population density, contiguity and economic sustainability. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) criticizes these criteria as flouting principles of equality and justice in the distribution of resources. "If the same criteria were applied to the Jewish population, whole settlements - including community settlements..., kibbutzim and moshavim - would be doomed," according to the Association.

The final settlement of all land claims and title issues is regarded as the precondition to further economic development of the Negev, much as it is in Canada with respect to aboriginal land claims. It is only on the basis of legally recognized title that development of resources such as solar energy or ecologically sustainable agriculture with Bedouin participation could proceed.

Prawer has set out a timeline for property claims to be filed within two and a half years, and final resolution within five years.

The plan also provides for a NIS 1.2 billion (Cdn. $ 307 million) scheme for economic development of the Bedouin population, intended to significantly reduce the economic and social gaps between the Bedouin and Israeli society as a whole. This represents a substantial increase in the amount proposed by Goldberg, and points to the Likud-led Government's intention to move decisively in the direction of creating social peace and prosperity by improving the life of the Bedouin.

Images of bulldozed villages, a necessary corollary of coerced relocation - especially when taken out of context of the larger scheme - would be extremely damaging to the State when widely broadcast around the world.

The Bedouin are the poorest of Israel's population groups. They have, moreover, shown a marked loyalty to the State, going back to its beginnings. The high enlistment rate in the IDF by Bedouin youth has recently declined, perhaps as a result of the argument over the future of the Negev. Islamic groups, particularly from the north of Israel, have made efforts to disseminate an anti-Israel ideology among the Bedouin.

Substantial improvement in the Bedouin living standards would benefit them and the State. It appears that economic development of Israel's Bedouin and the Negev will hinge on the final settlement of legal claims. It is only by entering into a social contract with the Bedouin of the Negev, rather than by imposing a solution, however generous, that peaceful economic development, including increased Jewish settlement in the area, can proceed without a descent into civil strife.

The broad outlines of such a grand bargain would appear to require legal certainty and the abandonment of land claims on one hand, and a large social investment in the Bedouin population on the other. Although the problems are urgent, much work in the area of negotiation remains to be done

Joel Shupac is vice-chair of the Israeli Arab Issues Committee of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

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November 2011 Toronto Conference

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