David Ben-Gurion had a vision of the State of Israel as a moral and social beacon, as a “light unto the nations.” Sixty-five years later, is that what it still is?
Israelis are engaged in a contentious political debate about the proposed “Prawer-Begin Plan” before the Knesset, which would relocate Bedouin from “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev to “recognized” towns. Supporters of the relocation plan say it will improve medical and education services to the Bedouin and improve their quality of life. Opponents say it is discriminatory, paternalistic, and intended to clear larger tracts in the Negev for Jewish settlement. Who is right?
Major challenges and opportunities face Israel in the Negev. The Negev contains 8 percent of Israel’s population and 60 percent of its landmass. The IDF is moving into the Negev, building and expanding bases, and bringing new families into the region. Developing the Negev — another dream of Ben-Gurion’s — eases population pressures on urban centers. Today, if you want to be to a Zionist, you have to invest in the “periphery.”
Among the biggest challenges facing the Negev is that 30 percent of the population (about 200,000 people) are Arab Bedouin. The gaps between the Arab minority and Jewish majority are huge, in all aspects of life. Of this Bedouin population, 82,000 are living in “unrecognized villages,” 50 percent are living under the poverty line, and only 28 percent complete high school. Arabs comprise almost 20 percent of the country’s citizens, yet only 8 percent of Israeli GDP. Failure to develop the Arab workforce amounts to a loss of almost $9 billion a year (all Israeli government figures).
The Bedouins in Israel have undergone a rapid transformation from nomadism to a sedentary rural lifestyle, and more than half have become urbanized. The Negev is becoming increasingly domesticated, with highways, railroads, agricultural projects, IDF training bases, and air-conditioned towns and cities.
The rate of growth of the Negev Bedouin is the highest in the world — the Bedouin population doubles every 15 years. By 2020, the Bedouin population will be 300,000. Today, almost half of Negev Bedouin citizens are living in seven government-planned towns: Tel Sheva, Rahat, Hura, Kseifa, Ar’ara Banegev, Lakiya, and Segev Shalom. They receive services provided to all Israeli citizens. However, these planned towns are urban centers, giving little consideration to the traditional Bedouin way of life. Forced urbanization has been disastrous: Unemployment is high, and Bedouin towns rank among Israel’s 10 poorest municipalities.
During Israeli military administration (1948-66), Bedouin were transferred from most of the region into the northern Negev, referred to by the Bedouin as the Siyaq area. This territory comprises about 2 percent of the Negev. The government planned townships to “concentrate” Bedouin without consulting them. Those who refused to live in these seven townships (as internal refugees) live in what are referred to as the “unrecognized” villages.
In 35 villages unrecognized by the government, Arab-Bedouin citizens receive no basic services like running water, electricity, garbage collection, proper education, or social services. They live under continuous threat of home demolition and crop destruction because under law they are illegal. People of “unrecognized” villages are the only population in Israel not classified in the governmental Central Bureau of Statistics socioeconomic scale. The community suffers from high unemployment and illiteracy, with the poorest health and welfare indicators in the country.
These “unrecognized” villages have formed the Regional Council of the Unrecognized Bedouin Villages (RCUV) as a representative community-based organization. The council is an elected body and represents residents of the unrecognized villages.
The Prawer-Begin plan — shelved in December, but still being developed by the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee — was prepared without representation from the Bedouin community and will unnecessarily uproot 20,000-40,000 Bedouins. An alternative master plan, submitted by the RCUV and Bimkom — Planners for Planning Rights — proposes to keep all 35 unrecognized villages intact and to connect them to infrastructure and services, while saving Israel massive resources for uprooting villages that existed since before the state was established.
In one troubling case, the “unrecognized” village of Um al-Hiran is slated for demolition in order to make way for Jewish residential units. Unlike those in many other unrecognized villages, the homes in Um al-Hiran are built from stone (suggesting that residents expected the village to be recognized and that their homes would be permanent and not subject to demolition).
Bedouins of Um Al-Hiran strongly oppose being forced out of their homes again after being compelled to move there by the IDF in 1956. Bedouins see no reason why Um al-Hiran could not be allowed to remain as a neighborhood in the new Jewish community.
What can be done? A new land bill should be created with Bedouin involvement that recognizes villages based on equal criteria for all Arabs and Jews in the Negev. Instead of forcing a plan for Bedouin concentration and displacement, which will deepen the conflict, the new plan should recognize existing “unrecognized” villages and grant planning rights — including access to education, employment opportunities, and infrastructure — to Bedouins. A good plan respects human rights of Bedouin and includes them in the process to bring about a lasting solution for all residents of the Negev in the spirit of equality. Let’s be a light unto the nations.