Today, we participated in an emergency meeting organized by the Land of Israel Caucus in the Knesset to demand security and safety for the Negev.
Meir Deutsch, Regavim’s Director General, spoke to the Members of Knesset about the Negev predicament, and explained why Bedouin settlements that have been legalized are, in effect, still squatter camps.
The retrospective legalizations have not provided appropriate solutions for the Bedouin residents, nor have they solved the root problem of the loss of governance in the Negev.
The government decision to approve three Bedouin settlements and to connect illegal structures to the electricity grid could either lead to the regulating of settlement in the Negev and the Galilee, or the exact opposite: the abandonment of these areas. The devil is always in the details.
Regulating Bedouin settlements in the Negev and merging them into legal towns – yes. Encouraging more lawlessness – no.
Regavim has also been at the forefront against Ra’am’s Electricity Law, which endangers the rule of law. Ra’am, headed by MK Mansour Abbas, has threatened to dismantle the government coalition if its proposed amendment to the Electricity Law, which seeks to connect tens of thousands of illegal structures to the national electricity grid, is not passed.
The legislative amendment seeks to connect existing and all future illegal structures. This extortionate bill endangers the rule of law and national planning and construction policy. And it’s clear that approval of this law will result in a surge in illegal construction.
One of the state’s most effective tools against the national epidemic of illegal construction is the existing ban on connecting structures erected without a permit to the electricity grid.
Although there’s a certain degree of logic in approving electrical connections for structures for which the government intends to approve permits, a wholesale whitewashing of illegal construction would be a disaster.
Structures that lack permits should meet basic criteria to be approved:
Only structures built before 2018 and the enactment of the Kaminitz Law, which included clear and enforceable criteria for construction.
Only structures for which a detailed outline plan has been submitted by the state, and not by various entities such as local authorities.
A bank guarantee of NIS 40,000 should be deposited. If the plan is not approved and a building permit is not obtained, the guarantee will be forfeited.
If judicial or administrative orders of demolition for the structures haven’t been issued.
The connection will be temporary; permanent electrical connection will be contingent on approval of the state’s plan and issuance of a building permit.
The coalition depends on the votes of the Ra’am party so it is about to pass a law that effectively rewards illegal construction, which is a serious problem in the Arab sector.
Without fanfare, the Ra’am party recently submitted one of the shortest bills in Israel’s legislative history. Amending only three words – “14 Sivan 5777 (May 31, 2007)” to “30 Kislev 5785 (Dec. 31, 2024)” – the Islamist party aims to legalize electricity hookups for tens of thousands of illegal homes built in the Arab sector over the course of decades.
Israel’s Electricity Sector Law enabled thousands of illegal Arab-sector structures, some of them decades old at the time, to be hooked up to the main grid. The law, passed in 1996 as provisional legislation limited to two years, stipulated that only structures not slated for demolition could be connected. But as everyone knows, there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary fix, and if you give an inch they’ll take a mile.
In short order, Arab MKs made uncommonly good use of this common wisdom: They submitted a bill to “amend” the temporary law, which was extended several times through political deals cut in shadowy Knesset corridors, until it finally expired on May 31, 2007.
The law applied only to “structures which the government has no intention to demolish,” but since then, every year many thousands more are added to the already-staggering tally of illegal construction in Arab communities in the north and the Bedouin hinterland of the Negev. The burden on law enforcement agencies results in skewed enforcement priorities and a dismal situation on the ground: Demolition orders against “old construction” are no longer applied for or enforced, and as time goes on, more and more illegal structures slide, unobstructed, into this category.
Illegal construction is a national epidemic, and its primary victims are the residents of these communities who continue to suffer from a lack of adequate infrastructure. It is impossible to pave a road or build a park if an illegal house is built on land slated for public use; high-speed internet lines, fiber optic cables, sewage, water and gas lines can’t be improved if public utility corridors are filled with illegal structures that the state has chosen to ignore and eventually ‘legalize.’
Despite the often-heard complaint that national planning authorities have failed to advance development plans for Arab communities, the responsibility actually lies with local authorities. Moreover, dozens of detailed plans for housing construction in the non-Jewish sector, drafted and approved by the state, have hit a brick wall – literally – because dozens of structures were built illegally during the approval process on land slated for development, burying any hope of alleviating the housing crisis under illegal single-unit structures built without regard for the environment or the current and future needs of the community.
The prohibition against connecting illegal structures to electricity is one of the state’s most significant tools in the fight against illegal construction; it helps ensure that crime doesn’t pay. Yet since the expiration of the “temporary” legislation, the Arab parties have tried no less than 10 times to revive it; each time, MKs of the Zionist parties blocked it.
But now, because the coalition depends on the votes of Mansour Abbas and his colleagues in the Arab bloc, Ra’am is demanding that the law not only be re-enacted, but applied retroactively from its expiration 15 years ago. A deal has begun to take shape; according to the details that have leaked out – despite attempts to keep them hidden away in the shadowy Knesset corridors – the coalition will pass the Electricity Law in the next Knesset session in exchange for the Joint Arab List’s abstention or outright support for the state budget.
If the coalition allows this law to pass, the ramifications will be both immediate and far-reaching: Not only will it reward construction offenses in the Arab sector, it will in effect create two separate legal systems for planning and construction in the State of Israel. While in the Jewish sector the National Planning and Construction Law is alive, well and strictly enforced, tens of thousands of illegal homes in the Arab sector against which the law has not been enforced due to bureaucracy and incompetence will be connected to infrastructure, granting them a legal seal of approval.
It is said that there is no death penalty in the State of Israel, but it seems that Israel’s Planning and Construction Law is already strapped to the electric chair, and the coalition’s trigger finger is hovering “ten degrees to the right” of the power switch.
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.
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.
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.
What are the “new settlements” in the Negev that Raam Party leader Mansour Abbas is demanding?
When you imagine the establishment of new settlements, you probably think of architects and engineers who sit down together and plan framework and infrastructure of any new settlement down to the smallest detail.
But things in the Negev work differently. Hundreds of thousands of illegal homes and structures throughout the Negev are scattered across enormous swaths of land. The policy that Abbas is pushing for is to simply draw an imaginary blue line around each cluster of illegal structures and call it a community. Does that solve water, electricity, and construction problems? Is this a sensible, environmentally or socially sustainable utilization of the land? Of course not! Will it restore the land the state has lost to the huge expansion of illegal construction? No; quite the opposite.
The new agreement means that the State of Israel (and the Jewish residents of the Negev) will cede more and more land in the Negev for Bedouin “settlements,” and equitable, sustainable long-term planning be damned!
The bottom line is that Ra’am’s “nice ideas” are a disaster for the Negev, for Israeli sovereignty over what amounts to two thirds of the country’s total area, and for future national development.
Don’t be fooled: If Ra’am get their way, the country will essentially be split in half, with the northern and southern parts divided by a midriff section controlled by Bedouin clans – devoid of modern planning, beyond the reach of Israeli governance, a breeding ground for stunted communities with no sources of legal employment or industry and no prospects for development. The Zionist vision for the Negev and for the country will be nothing more than a distant memory.
The details of the coalition agreements publicized in the media yesterday evening (7 June) reveal that Bennett and Saar, who blamed Netanyahu for the failure of governance in the Negev, are not only failing to provide solutions – they are exacerbating the problem.
Aside from approving the whitewashing of thousands of illegal structures on about 11,000 dunams of land to create three “new communities“, the coalition agreements do not stipulate what will happen to the rest of the illegal Bedouin squatters’ camps nine months from now, and neither Bennett’s Yemina Party nor Saar’s New Hope Party will have the ability to influence the outcome in a government kept afloat by Mansour Abbas and his Islamist Raam Party.
The coalition agreements place both the Bedouin Settlement Authority and the Knesset’s Interior Committee, the key actors in the Negev issue, under the complete control of the left-wing bloc and Raam.
This situation has unparalleled destructive potential, setting a course for total abandonment of the Negev while rewarding rampant illegal Bedouin construction that imperils the healthy development of the Negev, home of the vast majority of the State of Israel’s land reserves.
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