Bedouin rally in Negev (file)
Bedouin rally in Negev (file) Israel news photo: Flash 90

Recent years have seen a concerted and high-profile campaign demanding that the Israeli government recognize illegal Bedouin settlements in the southern Negev region, which accounts for 60% of the Israel's landmass. 

Left-wing NGOs and Arab activists claim that Bedouin tribes were forced to build illegally due to government discrimination, and say that far from illegally squatting, they are the rightful owners of the land. But legal experts and many Israeli officials say the claims are spurious, and that the campaign is simply another attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel through false accusations, and to forcefully Arabize the Jewish state.

The campaign came to a head last year with the proposed Begin-Prawer plan, which would have seen the state grant 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.

But by the end of last year the bill had failed, amid fire from all sides of the political spectrum. Whereas nationalist MKs were angered at the huge swathes of land being granted for free to illegal Bedouin squatters, left-wing and Arab MKs argued that the concessions simply were not enough.

The debate, however, rages on, and pressure continus to mount on the government to make even larger-scale concessions to the Negev Bedouin, who number some 60,000 (or around 25%) of the region's population. 

One Israeli rights organization has responded to the pressure by compiling a comprehensive report debunking the "myths" it says surround the current discourse advocating for Bedouin land ownership in the Negev. 

The new English-language report by Regavim, which advocates for fair allocation of land in Israel and campaigned successfully against the Begin-Prawer plan, focuses on six key arguments, including whether the Bedouin are indigenous to the northern Negev; whether Bedouin villages constitute historical structures; the claim that only 45 unrecognized Bedouin villages exist; whether Bedouin tribes have been neglected by the State in terms of building rights; whether government budgets are discriminatory against Bedouin tribes; and the percent of Negev lands to which Bedouin tribes lay claim.

Among other issues, the report disproves claims that the nomadic Bedouin are "indigenous" to the Negev, and through the use of historical documentation and aerial photos illustrates how "ancient" Negev villages - including the infamous al-Araqib settlement, a frequent site of clashes between law enforcement and radical activists - were only established very recently.

Amazingly, far from being discriminated against, as is often argued, the report cites official figures illustrating how governmental participation in the budgets of Bedouin local authorities is almost twice as high as its participation in budgets of Jewish development towns. Figures also show how only 40% of property taxes in the Bedouin sector are collected annually by Israeli authorities, compared to 71% for Jewish municipalities.

But perhaps the most important revelation in the report is the gap between the claim by Bedouin groups that their demands cover only 5% of the Negev, and the real figure, which amounts to a full 23% of the land allocated for residential settlement. Similarly, although activists claim the calls for legalization include only 45 illegal settlements, in reality the figure is far higher, as each such "village" includes dozens - sometimes hundreds - of satellite settlements, numbering up to 2,000 individual illegal villages and hamlets. 

"For years, organizations with very clear political agendas have warped and falsified facts on the ground. Which have in-turn, been accepted as the truth by the general public and even elements in the Israeli government," said Regavim Director Ari Briggs. "This Regavim report demolishes the six major myths on Bedouins in the Negev."

"Regavim irrefutably dismisses and invalidates these old mantras, using concrete research and evidence that includes aerial photography, maps and historic documentation," he added.

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