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Israel renews effort to displace Bedouin

Netanyahu's new plan would uproot thousands of families in the Negev desert who struggle with poverty and land restrictions not imposed on Jews. Hugh Naylor reports from Jerusalem

Bedouins build a makeshift house in Al Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert as they mark one year since its destruction by Israeli authorities.
Bedouins build a makeshift house in Al Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert as they mark one year since its destruction by Israeli authorities.

JERUSALEM // In recent years, the increasing number of Israelis crowding into Jerusalem and the coastal plain centred in Tel Aviv have intensified moves by authorities to encourage development in the Negev, the vast desert encompassing southern Israel.

Standing in the way of that ambitious undertaking - at least in the view of some Israelis - are some of the 190,000 Bedouin already living there.

In 2011, when an Israeli government committee recommended that more than 30,000 Bedouin living in some 35 unauthorised encampments be transferred to unspecified locations, there was outrage from Bedouin leaders, Israeli human rights organisations and liberal Israelis.

They described it as "undemocratic" and the enshrinement of "wholesale discrimination" against the Bedouin.

The committee's plan offered general promises to fund development and unspecified housing alternatives but in the view of its critics, it fell far short of adequately settling disputes over land that the Bedouin had used for generations.

Now, in the latest bid to move ahead with Israel's development plans in the Negev, the cabinet of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has approved a new plan that would legalise many of the 35 unsanctioned encampments, which are currently denied water, electricity and other public services.

Although the latest proposal is notably less draconian than its predecessor, Bedouin leaders and civil-rights activists are still wary. They call the plan vague and discriminatory against a minority community that struggles with poverty and state-enforced land restrictions not imposed on Jewish citizens.

"There are certain things that are clearer but the overwhelming majority of the document is vague and can be interpreted in different ways," said Thabet Abu Ras, an expert on Bedouin issues at Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel.

The latest plan is the work of Benny Begin, son of the former prime minister, Menachem Begin. Before stepping down from the cabinet where he served as minister without portfolio, Mr Begin was assigned to re-examine 2011 Prawer Plan, named after Ehud Prawer, Mr Netanyahu's director of planning.

Oren Yiftachel, an advocate for Bedouin rights and professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said Mr Begin's suggestion to legalise as many unauthorised Bedouin enclaves as possible was an improvement over the Prawer Plan.

"The Begin document is more general and not concrete enough, but it has statements the government never approved before. It said the vast majority of unrecognised villages will remain and very few will be 'replanned', or evicted," Mr Yiftachel said.

"Prawer refused to mention any recognition of any village. He stubbornly refused it," Mr Yiftachel said.

Still, Mr Begin's plan, expected to be put to a vote in parliament soon, did not detail how many Bedouin would be uprooted or where they would be relocated.

That uncertainty has further strained the state's relations with Bedouin citizens, who serve in Israel's military but face restrictions similar to Palestinians living in the occupied territories, such as regular demolitions of homes in the unrecognised villages.

During and after its establishment in 1948, Israel expelled Bedouin or confined them to an area in the northeastern corner of the Negev called the Siyag. Their ancestral land was confiscated by the state. Many of the new occupants of the Siyag were eventually relocated into government-built townships, which were soon plagued by unemployment, crime and overcrowding.

The head of the local council in the unauthorised village of Al Sira is sceptical about the Begin plan.

"The main aim of the government is to concentrate Bedouin into as small amount of space as possible to confiscate our land," said Khalil Alamour, 47. "These townships are negative for us - they are very poor, crowded, have high rates of violence, unemployment and they are not attractive for the Bedouin."

He and Bedouin rights advocates also criticise another measure passed by the cabinet last month, which modified the Prawer Plan's compensation scheme for disputed land.

Pending Bedouin land claims deal with about 4 per cent of the Negev, or just over 60,000 hectares. That figure includes areas in unrecognised villages and land that has been confiscated by the state for Jewish communities.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer at Adalah, said the conditions to compensate Bedouin with cash or alternative plots of land were so stringent that claimants would receive far less than deserved if they agreed to settle with the state. She called the changes "superficial" ones designed to hasten parliament's passage of Bedouin land measures.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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