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Stop the silent surrender of the Negev


When Israel realized that it could no longer ignore the massive spread of illegal Bedouin settlement in the Negev, it developed generous programs to regularize the situation. In 2007, it established the Goldberg Commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg. Following the publication of its recommendations, the Chairman of the Policy Planning Division of the Prime Minister’s office, Ehud Prawer, was appointed to lead a committee to convert those recommendations into a viable Government program. In 2011 the committee's report was published, and approved by the Government.  


 The Prawer plan calls for a massive initial investment of NIS1.2 billion and the legalizing of many of the illegal Bedouin settlements established in the Negev.  For those 20,000-30,000 Bedouin whose settlements cannot be legalized, it offers generous gifts of land of up to 5 dunam per family, thus rewarding the Bedouin’s illegal behavior with private land in the land registry


The next step was to propose legislation based on the Prawer plan, and so, a few months later, the Government published, for public comment, a memorandum of law prepared for the Ministry of Justice. The Government charged Minister Benny Begin with the important task of completing the process and converting the proposals into law. He initiated a review process that included opening his door to any and all comments on the program, and extensive meetings with Bedouin in the field. He heard the many reservations of the “trained” Bedouin representatives, “trained” by the likes of NIF’s Shatil, NCF and ACRI, with regards to the program and the law. Boiled down to 2 words, the “training” is too just “say no” and Israel will always come back with a better offer.


Obviously the procedure of 'listening' brought the Government bureaucracy to the conclusion that the Bedouins do not intend to cooperate with the program. An amended memorandum of the law has not yet published, but reports from behind the scenes tell of severe erosion of the original positions of the program, as predicted by the “trainers”. The Government bureaucracy has apparently despaired, and is unwilling to apply red lines and confront, if necessary the Bedouin population. They are now attempting to remove every barrier and eliminate any conditions prescribed in the past, in order to appease the Bedouin population. Put simply, Regavim reports the bureaucracy within the Israeli Government dealing with the proposed law is prepared for a full surrender. Unfortunately, this is not a slippery slope; it could be the bottom of the slide. If this shocking appeasement is not stopped now, there is no knowing how far the program leaders will buckle and how much more land they will give away. We should note that at this stage the Bedouins, with their many false claims, are totally unwilling to compromise – not a big suprise.

To understand the problematic nature of the principles that presently guide the Government bureaucracy, which deals with the Bedouin challenge, examining the state's handling of the illegal activity around the Bedouin settlement of Bir Hadaj will give us a good idea of their ineffectiveness. Bir Hadaj also happens to be the town the Israeli Police raided this week to recover stolen IDF jeeps used by Bedouin gangs to smuggle drugs and weapons.

Bir Hadaj is a town established by the State in the last decade in order to regulate the homes of residents scattered in the surrounding area.  Each family was offered 5 dunams in the newly established town with all services provided, such as water, electricity, sewerage, schooling and health services. One of the incentives of the Government to ease the Bedouin from their illegal residences in the surrounding area was the fact that they sit on 1,900 dunam (~470 acres) of privately owned Jewish land. Lo and behold – instead of going to the newly established regulated community, on which the Government spent millions to establish and build legally, the Bedouins continue to settle outside the regulated community, and on private Jewish land. Amazingly enough, looking at aerial photos over the last 10 years, one can see that they are building and at an increasing rate anywhere but in the area given to them.

And what of the rule of law? If there were just one case, where no illegal construction should be justified, this should be it. Here is a clear cut case of the Government not only wanting to help the Bedouin settle legally but also providing them with everything they need to live in a legal organized fashion. However to no avail. The Bedouins continue to do as they please and the law enforcement authorities continue to do nothing. The town of Bir Hadaj, with the many millions invested in it, is nearly deserted, and illegal construction around it continues unabated.

The reason is simple. Within the new town, the Bedouin would be required to build in accordance with the law, as in any other town in Israel. They would have to build to the legally allowed size and location, submit plans, pay fees, taxes and surcharges, again like in any town in Israel. Outside the town, they are used to building whatever they want, where they want and without paying a dime. And when there is no enforcement and they have nothing to lose, why would anyone volunteer to build legally!

So, at the root of the problem, as long as there is no determined law enforcement, not only in planning and construction, but also in all spheres of society in the “no-go” zones of the Northern Negev, no plan will work. When there is no stick, all the carrots in the world only worsen the problem, broadcast weakness and further postpone the solution. Only when the Government of Israel is determined to restore the rule of law to the Negev, (recovering stolen IDF equipment is a good first step), will the Bedouin understand they have something to lose, and only thus will it be possible to speak of a historic compromise and successful settlement. From Regavim’s professional opinion the program being offered today is very far from that starting point and will only invite endless trouble. Regavim is sponsoring a major public forum at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and site tour during Hol Hamo'ed Sukkot to better understand the significance of the crisis in the Negev and discuss its ramifications on the whole of Israel.

Ari Briggs works for Regavim. Regavim is an independent professional research institute & policy planning think tank, incorporated as a private not for profit organization. The mission of the Institute is to ensure the responsible, legal & environmentally friendly use of Israel’s national lands and the return of the rule of law to all areas and aspects of the land and its preservation.