The Israeli Knesset recently passed the controversial Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement, also known as the Prawer Bill, which would force the relocation of over 30,000 Bedouin currently living in "unrecognised" villages in the Negev Desert to be concentrated in recognised communities; land claims would be compensated. The disputed bill passed its first reading by 43-40 votes. It will be submitted for two more readings, before becoming law.
In response to the passing of the bill, some Arab-Israeli legislators poured water on the document and tore it apart as they condemned it as racist and discriminatory. Several of them were removed from the chamber for doing this. While the government claims that this bill aims to enable the Bedouins to take advantage of the growth opportunities available to all citizens of Israel, it represents in fact the most recent example of decades of marginalisation, discrimination and dispossession of this section of the population. The bill will not only force the relocation of tens of thousands of Bedouin, but will also destroy their traditional way of life and the historic right to their land. At the same time it will condemn them to a life of poverty and alienation in towns established especially for the purpose by the government.
Although they are Israeli citizens, the Bedouin have been discriminated against historically by the government. They have traditionally had their own system of land ownership and engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, the Bedouin faced severe movement restrictions while, in 1951, the imposition of military rule forced them to move to an area between Dimona, Arad and Beer Sheva. When military law was finally lifted in 1966 both the government and the Bedouin started claiming ownership over vast areas of the Negev and tried to register land. Many of the land claims have remained unresolved.
In 1963, Israeli General Moshe Dayan declared that the Bedouin should be transformed into an urban proletariat. This has become the objective of the Israeli state. It has built seven towns for the Bedouin and demanded that those living in the unrecognised villages move into them. Many Bedouin have refused consistently to relocate to the towns, claiming that their agricultural practices are incompatible with urban life.
The Bedouin currently represent 30 per cent of the Negev population and claim only 5.4 percent of the land. Around 90,000 of the 200,000 total number of Bedouin live in 45 villages, ten of which are in the process of being recognised by the state. The other 35 are not officially recognised by the Israeli authorities and are, therefore, denied access to services such as paved roads, water, sanitation, electricity and rubbish collection. The unrecognised villages have some of the highest poverty rates in Israel, with over 71.5 per cent of Bedouin households living below the poverty line in 2007, compared to 54.5 per cent in non-Bedouin Arab households and 16.2 per cent in Jewish households. Only 28 per cent of Bedouin children complete high school.
The new bill would force the Bedouin to leave their villages and traditional lifestyles and settle in overcrowded and impoverished towns, which fall under the lowest socio-economic standards in Israel, as they suffer from high-levels of unemployment and poverty and often lack basic services, just like the Bedouin villages. After relocation, most of the unrecognised villages will be destroyed. The bill therefore condemns the entire Bedouin community to an urbanised life of marginalisation and poverty within Israel.
Moreover, Jewish-American NGO T'ruah highlights the fact that the Prawer Bill is extremely problematic and must not be passed, because it disregards Bedouin property rights and fails to recognise Bedouin land ownership and ignores many Bedouin villages' historic ties to the land, while its proposal for compensation in alternative land or money at a maximum rate of 50 per cent of the actual value is arbitrary and unreasonable. T'ruah further emphasises the fact that the Prawer Committee did not consider the people affected by the plan adequately and failed to consider alternatives seriously, and that it constitutes unlawful racial discrimination with regards to land, planning, provision of government services and the criteria for the establishment of towns between Arabs and Jews in the Negev. Moreover, the Bedouin were only consulted about the bill's content after the government's plan to displace them was almost finalised, while a Bedouin-developed proposal was practically ignored by the state.
If implemented, the Prawer Bill aims to compress to the largest extent possible the space inhabited by the Bedouin and allow the Jewish population to take over the Negev. It will also strip the Bedouin of their right to choose where to live and threatens to destroy their lifestyle, while ignoring their traditional connection to the land.
While striving to remove the Bedouin, the government is providing incentives for Jewish citizens to move to the Negev in order to shift the population significantly to the detriment of the local Bedouin residents. While the Israeli government is forcing the Bedouin to urbanise, Jewish-Israeli citizens are encouraged to live wherever they want, from agricultural villages to cities, towns or individual farms. In 2010, the Israeli government recognised retrospectively dozens of individual Jewish farms, built illegally without approval, while refusing to recognise the Bedouin on their rightfully-owned lands.
Simultaneously, the government and media have been leading an aggressive campaign of incitement and disinformation for Israeli citizens, by claiming that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev and that they only have grievances and demands but never solutions. The Bedouin are further delegitimised as threatening, violent individuals and criminals.
Instead of aiming to remove the Bedouin from their villages, the Israeli government should simply recognise them, thus allowing them access to services, including education, health care and adequate infrastructure, as well as employment opportunities that they have been denied strategically since the founding of Israel. Through this, the Israeli government will prove its willingness to treat the Bedouin justly and to recognise them as equal citizens of the state.
Raluca Besliu read Refugees and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.