Bedouin settlement
Bedouin settlement Israel news photo: Flash 90

The Cabinet voted Sunday to approve changes proposed by Minister Benny Begin in the plan to legalize piratic Bedouin settlement in the Negev. The changes are described by opponents in the pro-Jewish settlement NGO Regavim as "an historic mistake." The changes still require approval by the Knesset in order to become the law of the land.

The plan will add more Bedouin settlements to the list of those that will receive official recognition, and increase the amount of land that will be handed over to Bedouin as part of an agreement.

MK-elect Moshe Feiglin said that Begin was acting dishonestly by bringing the plan to the government a short time after elections, when he is about to leave his office as minister after being voted out of Likud's leadership. He accused Begin of "abandoning the Jewish settlement enterprise in the Negev."

According to the government, however, Minister Begin's recommendations were formulated in the wake of "unprecedented consultations" he held among Negev Bedouin, during which he and the Construction and Housing Ministry Authority on Formalizing the Status of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev officials met with over 1,000 Negev Bedouin, as well as their relevant groups and organizations.

Regavim noted that Begin did not meet with its representatives.

In its decision, the Cabinet adopted the recommendations of the commission chaired by retired Supreme Court Judge Eliezer Goldberg, which proposed "to recognize – as much as possible – each of the unrecognized villages in which there is a minimal mass of residents, such as will be determined, and which will be able to bear municipal status, and on the condition that such recognition will not contravene the district master plan."

Regarding ownership claims, it was decided – inter alia – that compensation, in land or money, will be given for all of the area in question (and not just half, as determined by a decision of the previous government).

The Cabinet approved draft legislation that sets a binding framework, and allocates time, according to which if one seeking ownership does not – within five years – agree to the proffered compromise, his ownership claim will no longer have any value and the land will be registered as state land.

Regavim noted that unlike the previous plan, under Begin's changes, when there is dispute over land ownership between the State and a Bedouin, the burden of proof will be on the State to show that the land belonged to it, and not the other way around.

A spokesperson for the Regavim organization, which petitioned against the cabinet's discussing of the issue Sunday, said that it was unfair for the government to make a decision of such great importance when it essentially was no longer in charge. According to the spokesperson, the government tried to hide the fact that the decision awards an extra 50,000 dunams of land to the Bedouin, and will greatly compromise the ability of the state to administer the Negev.

The plan significantly strengthens enforcement authorities in the field, according to the government. It will be submitted to the 19th Knesset as soon as a new government is established.

The Cabinet will also invest an unprecedented approximately NIS 1.2 billion in a five-year plan to promote the economic development and growth among Negev Bedouin, and will also invest hundreds of millions of shekels in developing infrastructures in Bedouin communities.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the Cabinet, "The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society. All governments avoided dealing with this issue, but this brave decision will facilitate the continued development and prosperity of the Negev, for the benefit of all its residents."

Minister Begin said, "This is the most extensive arrangement that the state can propose. The plan is an expression of the Government's goodwill and readiness to reach a solution. From the Government's point-of-view, it is important that the plan be set in legislation. The Bedouin are citizens with equal rights and constitute an inseparable part of the Negev. There is the responsibility to assist the Bedouin in alleviating their plight and ensuring a more positive future for their children. Now, we expect the Bedouin to respond to this proposal."

Minister Moshe Yaalon said, "This is an historic decision that all previous governments avoided making. The current situation is good only for the Islamic extremists and lawbreakers and for those who want to assail the State of Israel; therefore, it must be fundamentally changed."

Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said, "Every day that passes without a decision – the situation approaches a point of no return. Approving the law is very important also for its enforcement on the ground."

Minister Avi Dichter said, "This is the most correct, fair, generous and strong proposal that can be made today. If we wait, the situation will intensify and the price will be higher."