Community leaders slam government initiative to move 36,000 people, but some say the project is a step in the right direction
A plan to forcibly relocate 36,000 Bedouins in southern Israel is generating a backlash from leading members of the community.
Israel’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel recently announced that some 64,000 acres of land in the Negev would be reclaimed by the state within the next four years as part of an initiative to extend a highway and expand a military base.
More than 250,000 Bedouin live in Israel, of which an estimated 100,000 reside in unrecognized villages that lack regular access to water or electricity. Most lead a traditional lifestyle and subsist on farming.
“Uri Ariel’s plan is racist and is intended to uproot the Bedouin,” Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, told The Media Line. “But this project won’t come to fruition because people are not simply goods that you can move from one place to another.
“People want to live their lives; they were born here, their culture and heritage are here so we should recognize that this is their home.”
Wadi Naam is home to nearly 15,000 people and is Israel’s largest unrecognized Bedouin village. Located just south of the city of Beersheba, the town is made up of hundreds of makeshift shacks—all built without authorization—sprawled out across miles. The area is littered with refuse and residents live only a short distance away from a toxic waste dump.
Despite the less-than-sanitary conditions, inhabitants are intent on remaining on land their families have inhabited for generations. They argue that ownership claims have repeatedly been ignored or rejected by Israeli authorities.
“[These villages have] a very young population,” Dr. Yeela Raanan, an Associate Professor at the Sapir Academic College and campaigner for Bedouin rights, told The Media Line. “Half the population is under the age of 18, which means this community will double in size within 20 years. Israel’s idea is that the people of this village will not be able to [spread] outwards, they will have to build [upwards].”
A maze of power lines built by the Israel Electric Corporation crisscrosses through Wadi Naam, part of a large plant constructed in the heart of the town. Despite its proximity, residents are not connected to the grid and mainly rely on solar power for their daily needs.
“Everything is difficult in the unrecognized villages,” Alasam affirmed. “There is no electricity, no infrastructure and no roads. In the winters, the children don’t make it to school because they cannot. So there are no lessons.”
The Negev Bedouin, considered part of Israel’s Arab-Muslim minority, rank lowest in the country in terms of socio-economic status. According to the Inter-Agency Task Force, an organization that raises awareness of Israeli Arab issues, “per capita income [for the Bedouin] is 50 percent that of the rest of Arab society in Israel, and 22% the national average,” while the unemployment, poverty and birth rates are the highest.
There are currently an estimated 45 unrecognized Bedouin villages scattered throughout southern Israel and many of those places that have received official state recognition, such as Umm Batin, lack access to power.
Newly-installed lampposts line the main road leading into the village, although none are functional. Roughly 5,000 Bedouins inhabit the town, which will have to absorb 1,000 additional people in the coming years if the relocation project advances.
“We are very worried about Ariel’s plan because it troubles our lives,” a resident of Umm Batin told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “I think that all the Bedouin need to stand up, oppose this project and protest on the streets.”
However, not everyone views the proposal in the same negative light. Regavim, a right-leaning Israeli NGO focusing on land rights, views it as a step in the right direction and a way to modernize the area.
“We don’t think that the country can develop, particularly the Negev region, if people just put up villages, towns, individual homes, farms, wherever they want and then expect the state to connect them to water and infrastructure,” Naomi Kahn, Director of the International Division at Regavim, explained to The Media Line. “These people are citizens and they should get all the services a modern state has to offer and you can’t do that if they’re not organized into planned communities.”
In response to concerns that the Bedouin could be in danger of losing their traditional way of life, Kahn believes this is a “false narrative” and a long-standing “excuse” to avoid reaching a permanent solution.
“No matter where Israel plans roads in the Negev, Bedouin immediately go there and stake claims,” she asserted. “The state constantly improves the packages being offered so the Bedouin who are living illegally understand that time is on their side.”
Indeed, Israel has made several past attempts resettle the Bedouin, albeit none were accepted. Most notably, the “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev,” also known as the Prawer Plan, was formulated in 2011 and proposed to relocate up to 70,000 Bedouin to government-recognized towns. The initiative was heavily criticized by international human rights groups that accused Israel of discriminatory practices and, following widespread demonstrations in 2013, the plan was shelved.
Then-Likud minister Benny Begin, who helped draft the legislation, wrote in a report that the “regularization” of these communities was a “top priority” but that internal challenges within the Bedouin sector made moving forward with resettlement projects almost impossible.
“Meetings revealed a difficulty resulting from the lack of a central leadership agreed upon by the Bedouin in the Negev,” Begin wrote. “Bedouin who have land ownership claims in the Negev stated that there was no official body authorized to represent them and insisted on their right to conduct the negotiations with the state’s representatives on their own.”
This lack of cohesiveness, coupled with reported internal frictions between Bedouin clans, have contributed to the ongoing dispute. Compounding the problem, according to Kahn, is Israel’s lack of a comprehensive long-term vision for the Negev.
“The state of Israel never said: ‘This is what we want the Negev to look like in 20 years. Rather, they’re addressing individual issues, individual ownership claims—putting out fires really.
“A lot more work has to be done and has to be done quickly because the Negev is stagnating and that’s affecting all of the state of Israel’s progress,” Kahn concluded.