In my travels I have seen how far awareness of the Palestinian issue has spread – in contrast to the misery of my constituents, the Bedouin of the Negev. Just last month the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to relocate up to 30,000 Bedouin from unrecognised villages in the Negev. On Thursday a national strike is planned in Israeli Arab areas in protest at this move.
The Bedouin are the indigenous owner-occupiers of the Negev – they have been there for thousands of years. Since 1948 Israel has built dozens of Jewish towns, villages, kibbutzim and farms while pushing the Bedouin into ever smaller enclaves. In Rahat, for example, there are 52,000 Bedouin living on 21,000 acres, while the regional council of Bnei-Shimon covers 440,000 acres and is home to just 6,000 Jews.
When Beersheba was occupied by the Israeli army in 1948, 90% of the Palestinian population of the Negev were deported – mainly to Jordan and Gaza. Although Israel claims that the Negev was just desert, British aerial photos from 1945 show that all residential areas in the Beersheba district were farmed.
It is estimated that 200,000 Bedouin remain in the Negev today, concentrated adjacent to the Israel-Jordan border. Israeli governments have recognised only a few Arab villages in the Negev, even though many were established before the state of Israel. The first to get recognition was Tel Sheva in 1968, followed by the approval of Arab residential areas in seven districts.
At the same time, Israel does not recognise Bedouin ownership rights. Pressure from the Jewish Agency meant that even those who farm land have no rights and are regarded as being there illegally. Despite refusing to recognise property rights, the Israeli government has announced that Arab citizens who waive the rights on their land will receive alternative land totalling around 20% of the original, plus cash for the remainder.
In 2008 Israel's Goldberg commission produced a report on the situation in the Negev, but its recommendations were not what the Israeli government expected (nor did it meet the minimum demands of the Bedouin). Consequently a new committee was established to make recommendations to the government.
Not unexpectedly, the new committee – headed by Ehud Praver, chief of policy planning in the prime minister's office – met ostensibly to implement Goldberg's recommendations. The Praver plan, however, was produced without any consultation with the Bedouin in the Negev, even though Praver's brief had been to resolve land ownership issues.
The plan, as amended and adopted, includes confiscation of half a million acres owned by Arabs in the Negev and; the expropriation, without compensation by way of alternative land, of 300,000 acres inhabited by 200,000 Arabs.
The plan ratifies all court decisions made in absentia against Israel's Bedouin citizens and prohibits the establishment of any Arab community west of Highway 40 (the main route across the Negev). While it gives a maximum of five years to investigate claims of ownership before the land is placed on the state register, the special courts for objections from Israeli Bedouin citizens will consist mainly of members appointed by the government.
The Israeli government believes that relocating Bedouin communities from unrecognised to recognised villages is the way forward. Municipalities absorbing such displaced persons will be compensated. Recognition of existing villages is still an option, but it's a last resort. Unlicensed new construction is being dealt with severely; owners of existing unlicensed buildings have time to obtain permits, after which a demolition campaign will start. The cost of demolition will be charged to the homeowners.
The position of the High Steering Committee of the Arabs of the Negev (a broad coalition of community groups – including Jewish bodies – political parties, the Islamic movement, local authorities, NGOs and the Regional Council for Unrecognised Villages) is clear: it rejects these plans as a form of ethnic cleansing. The committee also supports the decision of local Arab municipalities not to resettle displaced Bedouin from unrecognised villages, since the solution should be recognition, not displacement.
As the Israeli government's plans violate international laws and conventions, this issue will be taken to the UN and other bodies. Britain has a particular responsibility and a special role to play. After all, the Balfour declaration – which laid the foundation for the creation of Israel – states that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.