Illegal Bedouin encampment in the Negev

The Regavim Movement reacted to the findings of the State Comptroller, released today (Wednesday) in a report focusing on governance in the Negev: “The government can turn the situation in the Negev around – by enacting five practical recommendations that arise from this in-depth and comprehensive report.”

Meir Deutsch, Director General of Regavim: “This is a comprehensive and thorough report that touches upon the core problems at the heart of the dire situation in the Negev, the critical issues that impact the future of the region. Many of the issues raised by the State Comptroller have been at the top of Regavim’s agenda for years, and the report’s findings bear out all of our claims: ‘Whitewashing’ or ‘legalizing’ illegal construction in the absence of prior planning perpetuates and exacerbates the loss of state land in the Negev. The State Comptroller’s report must not be allowed to languish on a shelf and collect dust; the government must distill operational decisions from this important study and take action without delay.”

Regavim has recommended five practical steps that the government must extrapolate from the report’s findings.

1. Geographic registration: 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.

The solution: 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. Failure of the “legalization” method – The State Comptroller’s findings support what Regavim has been explaining for years: The rural communities of the Neveh Midbar and Al Kasum Regional Councils are nothing more than a fiction, and both the state and the residents are paying a very high price to support this fiction.

These communities were 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, in an attempt to take retroactive action against the facts on the ground created by rampant illegal construction. This ‘legalization’ method has been an abject failure, as these local authorities 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.

The non-solution: This “legalization” method entrenches and exacerbates the problems of illegal construction, massive loss of state land and inadequate solutions for the Bedouin citizens living in these communities. Yet the extortionist demands by the Raam 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 and “whitewash” them. The State Comptroller’s report leaves no room for doubt: This will make an already bad situation even worse, and will replicate the failed model of Neveh Midbar and Al Kasum.

3. Removing 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 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 solution: 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.

Tarabin, part of the Al Kasum Regional Council

4. Creation of 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 solution: 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 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.

Aerial photo of an illegal Bedouin encampment

5. Creation of 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: Establish a specialized police unit tasked exclusively with 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.

Regavim has uncovered a racket in which the Bedouin are paid off not to damage property they wrongly claim as their own.

Israel’s government pays millions of shekels to Bedouin under the guise of “school security” in a massive protection racket, an investigation by Israeli NGO Regavim revealed.

Regavim, which focuses on land issues, ‘followed the money’ through the judicial system, and forced the Bedouin municipalities of southern Israel to admit that every year, millions of shekels classified as “school security” expenditures simply vanish into thin air.

But vast swaths of land slated for development and construction within the municipal boundaries of the Negev’s Bedouin towns have languished for decades under the threat of violence by the self-proclaimed “owners.”

Although the Israeli government does not officially recognize these discredited ownership claims, when Bedouin municipalities build public-use structures such as schools, kindergartens  and health clinics, they do so on land that has been untouched due to these phony ownership claims – and pay huge sums under the guise of “security services.”

In effect, the government is paying these “owners” not to damage the structures erected on land for which they have no legal right of ownership.

Regavim requested a breakdown of expenditures for school security in Bedouin municipalities. These budgetary items were then compared with the same data provided by Jewish municipalities in the Gaza-border region, which is classified as a high-security area.

The Naveh Midbar Bedouin municipality, which has 21 schools in its jurisdiction, spent nearly NIS 6.8 million for “security” in 2016, and a similar amount in 2017. In 2018, that expenditure rose to NIS 7.3 million.

The Al Kasum Regional Council, which provided the budgetary data we requested only after we were forced to submit a Freedom of Information petition through the courts, is home to 22 schools, and its security budget for 2016 stood at some NIS 9 million. In 2017 the security budget grew to NIS 10.5 million, and in 2018 it stood a NIS 11.7 million.

How do these sums compare with the security outlays in Gaza-border Jewish communities? The Merhavim Regional Council’s 10 schools were protected by a mere NIS 965,000 in 2016; the cost of security remained unchanged in 2017.

The Bnei Shimon Regional Council, which provides security for 7 schools, spent NIS 690,000 in 2016, and only NIS 665,000 in 2017.

The Ministry of Education does not cover security costs for educational institutions in local council jurisdictions; these sums are covered by the Israel Police.

The Ministry of Interior Security, for its part, clarified that it does not employ any security personnel in the Naveh Midbar or Al Kasum Municipalities; no such position or job description exists.

The Police Department’s response to Regavim’s inquiry further clarified that the Ministry contributes hundreds of thousands of  shekels per year toward the security budget of the older, more well-established Bedouin towns of Hura and Lakiya, but these outlays do not hold a candle to the astronomical sums spent in Naveh Midbar and Al Kasum.

Regavim discovered this isn’t the end of the saga. On-site inspections in the schools of Naveh Midbar and Al Kasum proved that there is no security at all. The gates are wide open, anyone and everyone can come and go at will; no guard posts, no guards.

The security budget for each of these institutions is NIS 30,000 per month – whether there are 1000 students, or 80 students. The municipalities explained that this is spent for “night-time security,” a recognized expense only for dormitory schools (which do not exist in the Negev Bedouin sector).

“These findings indicate that the municipalities in question are paying “internal protection money” to the people who claim ownership of the land on which the schools were built,” says Amichai Yogev, Regavim’s Field Coordinator for the Southern Region.

“The official documents provided by the municipalities do not answer the real question – where is all of this money going – but they do illustrate beyond a shadow of doubt that these inflated budgets are a mechanism of unparalleled, hard-core corruption.”

“According to data provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, over 95% of these municipalities’ budgets is funded by the government through a variety of ministries, and they are classified in the lowest cluster  of the socioeconomic scale,” Yogev emphasizes.

“The bottom line is that the money that could and should be used for the benefit and welfare of the students is ending up in someone’s pocket. Someone is enjoying a fat payoff, at the expense of the very real and very critical needs of the community as a whole. The Israel Police must conduct a full and thorough investigation, and bring the guilty parties to justice.”

This article appeared on World Israel News