Joel Haber
Tour Guide, Comic, Foodie, Israel-Lover

Go For The Gold(berg)

Qasr al-Sir, a Bedouin village near Dimona, recognized in 2003. (Photo copyright Joel Haber 2013)
Qasr al-Sir, a Bedouin village near Dimona, recognized in 2003. (Photo copyright Joel Haber 2013)

The Bedouins’ historical desire to be part of the State, and their great disillusionment with the way they have been treated, intensify the sense of alienation and radicalization, and strengthen the process of Palestinisation and Islamisation.
— Ehud Prawer in a report for the Council for National Security, January 2006

One of the more negative stories of this past week was the violence that surrounded Bedouin protests against the Prawer-Begin Plan. While I completely condemn the violence, I must say that the Bedouins’ complaints are valid. Prawer-Begin is drastically flawed. Israel should listen to the Bedouins’ arguments with an open mind, and address them for the sake of both justice and pragmatism.

The plan currently being debated in Knesset was designed to solve “the Bedouin problem.” But what is that problem, exactly? You may know about land disputes between the Bedouins and the State. You may also have heard about Bedouins living in unrecognized villages that are not connected to water, electricity or roads, and are full of houses not built to safety standards.

But did you know that these are not the same issue. Many of the land claims the Bedouin make are in areas in which they no longer live, or which are part of planned and recognized Bedouin towns.

Plus, there are other aspects to “the Bedouin problem.” Poor economy, high crime rates, lack of access to health services and weak education. And while Prawer-Begin may solve the first two problems, it does so by heavy-handedly squashing them, thus exacerbating the social challenges.

This can’t be a good idea from a practical perspective. Before the 1948 War for Independence, there were somewhere between 70,000-110,000 Bedouins in the Negev. Following the war, the 12,000 or so who remained were those who cooperated with us. Their loyal IDF service in the ensuing years is well known.

But we responded to their service by treating them as a threat. Thus, Bedouin volunteer enlistment numbers have been dropping rapidly, indicating their increased alienation.

Prawer’s plan is another governmental misstep, further aggravating this problem. Do we really want to turn our most loyal Arab population segment into the ideological equivalents of our most problematic, the Palestinians?

The commission’s charge (at least in theory) was to find a way to implement the ideas of the earlier Goldberg Commission. Notably, Goldberg consulted with the Bedouin community. Prawer’s plan, alternatively, moved ahead without talking to them. His report’s “father knows best” tone suggests that we know what is really good for the Bedouins and we’re going to give it to them, like it or not.

Goldberg’s plan suggested a comprehensive solution to many issues. Prawer follows the outlines of this solution, but the main changes it makes reduce financial compensation, minimize the amount of land Bedouins would receive and move more Bedouins from their homes.

Is this implementing the Goldberg Plan or denuding it? How could Prawer have so completely forgotten what he wrote back in 2006, quoted at the beginning of this piece? How could he so drastically alter the Goldberg Plan which he was tasked with implementing?

The argument from the Right is that the Bedouins have no legal ownership claims, and thus they should be happy with whatever we give them. They also see no reason for us to compensate the Bedouins at all, so anything we give is charitable. Prawer-Begin’s changes seem to be in keeping with this philosophy.

Meanwhile, the argument from the Left is that virtually all Bedouin land claims are valid, even without real documentation, and that the community has been shafted by a biased government. Thus, any plan that does not recognize every village and land claim is inadequate.

The fact is, our courts are extremely fair on civil rights issues, and are typically more in keeping with left wing opinions. When they have repeatedly struck down the legality of most of the Bedouin land claims, they were not the puppets of a right wing government. They offered well-reasoned responses, using both Ottoman and British legal precedents. The Left doesn’t have a viable case.

Still, anyone who removes their ideological goggles and looks at the situation honestly can recognize that the Bedouins have been living in the area for hundreds of years. To say they have been squatters for their entire existence here is asinine. They must have some claim to the land, even if not along the specific land boundaries they demand. Thus, Goldberg wrote in his report:

What is needed is a practical initiative, going beyond the strictly legal aspect, which will lead to a fair and implementable solution to the struggle over land and the confrontation over patterns of settlement, a solution that will renew the Bedouin’s faith in the State and its intentions.

In other words, in the absence of a valid claim from the Left, the Right’s claims should not win outright. We need to present a solution that is truly just so that we can stop turning the Bedouins into our enemies.

Goldberg suggested legalizing the unrecognized villages “as much as possible,” except when there are legitimate obstacles to doing so.

Prawer-Begin’s changes will require moving 30,000-40,000 Bedouins from these villages into new locations. They point out that this is a small minority of the 220,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev. But if that 30-40,000 is compared just to those who live in unrecognized villages (somewhere around 90,000), the percentage being moved rises to about 30-45%.

Is moving a third to nearly a half of them in keeping with Goldberg’s recommendation to recognize as many as possible? Or are there other reasons for moving the less conveniently located Bedouins? Some are being moved to make way for Jewish construction, indicating there is no reason the Bedouins can’t remain there other than their religion.

Others on the Right complain that the Bedouins will receive a much higher amount of land per person. But this is another example of twisting statistics to suit their position. If the Bedouins want to live a more agrarian lifestyle, don’t they need more land? As an apartment-dwelling Jerusalemite, I have less land than my friends who live in houses in smaller towns. You don’t hear me complaining that that is unfair!

Bedouins have been citizens of Israel since 1954. Thus, they should contribute to our society as much as anyone else does. Don’t just give them the agricultural land; help them to succeed and produce more on it! There are already a number of privately owned Jewish farms in the Northern Negev. Can’t the nearby Bedouin contribute as much to the region as the Jews can?

So what is the solution? Let’s return to the (already accepted) tenets of the Goldberg Report. They were fair to both sides, aimed towards solving many of the problems the community faces, and most importantly were developed in consultation with the Bedouins themselves.

At the same time, this problem needs to be addressed relatively quickly, and so we should not just throw the Prawer-Begin Plan out the window. Rather than simply passing the bill and imposing this unjust and impractical plan on the Bedouin populace, open a period of intense (albeit relatively brief) consultation with them on how best to alter Prawer-Begin. Use that to shape a modified Prawer-Begin plan, balancing their legitimate desires with the equally legitimate desires of the State, most importantly realigning it with Goldberg.

Finally, we know that some Bedouins will need to be moved. But rather than moving them into more urban centers that increase their social problems, focus on creating recognized agrarian settlements for them. Something along the lines of Bedouin Moshavim. The Bedouins stopped being truly nomadic a very long time ago. But that doesn’t mean that they should entirely give up their connection with the land.

They may end up with more land per person than the national average, but they will also contribute more to our society. And as an added benefit, they might also start to like us again.

About the Author
Joel Haber (aka Fun Joel) is a licensed Israel Tour Guide. Born and raised in New Jersey, he spent many great years in NYC, and a few more in LA before making Aliyah in 2009. Interests include Israel, food, and making people happy.