New Negev town plan kiboshed by illegal Bedouins

Earlier this week, the government announced that it was setting up five new towns for Jews in the Negev - but there's a problem.

Moshe Cohen ,

Bedouin community
Bedouin community
Hezki Ezra

Earlier this week, the government announced it was setting up five new towns for Jews in the lower Negev, near Route 80.

But a problem has cropped up with the plan: At least two of the towns are on lands occupied by thousands of Bedouin, living in illegal communities. Past experience has shown, according to officials within the Housing Ministry, that removing these Bedouin from state land is usually very difficult, accompanied by years of court cases, or very expensive, as it would entail compensating the families.

The project was initiated by Housing Minister Yoav Galant, but is opposed by several key figures in the Treasury, according to media reports. The costs of removing and resettling the Bedouin – in addition to the likely opposition from the people living there – coupled with the costs of setting up infrastructure for several new small towns in outlying areas, are just too high.

The issue of illegal Bedouin settlement on state lands has long plagued Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Bedouin live in dozens of small towns that are not connected to utilities, causing pollution and interfering with IDF exercises that require large open areas.

About 260,000 Bedouin live in Israel, mostly in and around the Negev in the arid south. Members of this minority regularly settle on land they do not own, and then violently refuse to evacuate it.

The government has for several years been trying to pass Prawer Plan, which would offer some of the Bedouin generous compensation for land they had grabbed, and relocate them to communities that could receive proper services from the state.

The plan, which was first proposed in 2012, gives Negev Bedouin 180,000 dunams (45,000 acres) of state land for free, additionally granting them "compensation" for the state land many Bedouin are currently squatting on. Arab and left-wing opposition to the bill focuses on it moving 30,000-40,000 Bedouins from illegal outposts and villages, and demolishing 40 illegal settlements

The bill passed a preliminary ministerial vote in 2013, and was debated in the Knesset at the end of that year for its second and third reading before then Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin decided to scrap the bill.

Both right-wing and left-wing MKs expressed strong opposition to the bill – the latter because it limits Bedouin to specific areas and will require the relocation of thousands of Bedouin from dozens of illegal settlements, and the former because it is considered by many to be too generous in granting large parcels of land to them.

The Bedouin leadership has refused to accept the plan, which they claimed violates their rights. According to nationalists, this is because the Bedouin know that they have more to gain by continuing to grab land by force.

In a statement, the Housing Ministry said that “all issues regarding this plan will be dealt with in a manner that respects the law. The question of Bedouin settlement of the Negev is an important one, and requires extensive treatment, as has been discussed numerous times in the government.”