No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Israel and the Bedouins
Some of the usual suspects in the politically correct British company of Israel-bashers are at it again. This time, fifty public figures signed a letter in The Guardian on November 29, 2013 demanding that the British government protest what the letter called "forced displacement of Bedouin Palestinians" by Israel.
Not only should these automatic critics be ashamed of themselves for their insufferable ignorance and arrogance, but they are also espousing a politically reactionary, not progressive, point of view.
The letter was signed by "experts" on people, law, and conditions in the Negev in Israel, such as the actress Julie Christie, the filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and members of Parliament, including Jeremy Corbyn and Lady Jenny Tonge. Many of the signers have long exhibited their acute criticism or hostility on many occasions, having signed statements about alleged violations of something or other by Israel. It is less clear their "expertise" extends to mastery of the intricacies of Ottoman Land Law in the Middle East.
All can agree that the Bedouins, numbering 210,000 in the Negev, are the most impoverished group in Israel, and one with serious social problems. They have a high birth rate -- 5%, one of the highest in the world -- and about 120,000 are under 18 years old. They suffer from a high poverty rate and also a high crime rate. To help them over the years, Israel has provided and still is allocating considerable resources -- about 1.2 billion shekels -- for development in the Negev in areas of employment, education, infrastructure, and personal security.
The tribal Bedouin population is still partly nomadic, as well as partly settled. To foster their development and integration into mainstream society, Israel has attempted their settlement with so far partial success. Between 1968 and 1989, Israel built seven townships, including Rahat and Hura, in the Northern Negev for Bedouins and provided housing, health, utilities, public services, and education. About half of the Bedouins went there, and the rest remained in their villages.
As nomads, Bedouins have wandered across the area, and many in the Negev come from Arabia, Sinai, and Egypt. Slowly, they have been making the transition from animal husbandry to agriculture in the context of modernization and urbanization in Israeli society. The Bedouins face problems of tension between tradition and change. Most important, the problem of Bedouin ownership of land and the settlements in which they live has perplexed Israel for many years.
Israel has been confronted with a number of issues: settling Bedouin ownership claims to land, ending the villages built illegally, fully integrating the Bedouins into Israeli society and economic prosperity, reducing the economic and social gap between the Bedouins and Israel society as a whole, and in general developing the Negev with emphasis on employment, education, and the rule of law.
Instead of welcoming Israeli efforts to deal with these complex issues, the uninformed and prejudiced letter in The Guardian criticizes the Israeli Prawer-Begin plan to deal with them. This plan was presented by a committee chaired by Ehud Prawer, head of the Department for Policy Planning in the Office of the Prime Minister. The bill proposing the implementation of the plan was accepted in principle, after an impassioned debate in the Knesset, by 43-40 on June 13, 2013. It obviously will undergo revision on details before its final passage.
Land, appropriate settlement, and economic development are related. About 40 % of Bedouins live in "unrecognized villages." These villages, 45 in the Negev, were built without official permission and therefore are not recognized or eligible for municipal services. More than 70,000 Bedouins live in homes that are not regulated, in buildings constructed illegally and with unresolved land ownership claims.
The Prawer plan would lead to decision on Bedouin claims to land ownership, based on land claims made according to the land survey in Northern Negev in 1971. In a general way, the Israeli plan is concerned with economic development and growth for all in the Negev, particularly focusing on employment, and education, including higher education. Specifically, the idea is to expand existing towns and to build 41 new villages or towns, and to relocate about 40,000 Bedouins with compensation to designated towns from their "unrecognized" villages. In the new towns, the homes would be equipped with modern utilities, and the inhabitants would have title to about a quarter of an acre of land.
A major controversial problem is that of land ownership. According to the Land Law of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area for almost five hundred years, lands that were not registered as private were considered state lands. Bedouins did not usually register, largely because of fear of taxation and military duties. Israeli law on the issue is derived from British Mandatory law, which incorporated Ottoman Law to a substantial degree. Bedouin claims to land rights are hard to prove. Nevertheless, the Prawer plan does not disregard Bedouin property rights, nor does it fail to recognize appropriate land ownership or refer to Bedouins in derogatory terms. The plan for reform does not have as its objective discrimination and separation.
Critics of Israeli intentions hold that the tribal structures and agricultural way of life should be maintained in the Bedouin villages, and that the "unrecognized" villages, which cover less than five percent of the area of the Negev, should remain. It is true that Bedouins have their own culture, honor code, and code of laws. But though the status quo may be sentimentally nostalgic, to fight for its existence amounts to a reactionary argument.
Not only is the claim of beneficial association of those "unrecognized" villages to historic ties overstated, but to honor it would also mean leaving Bedouins in a less developed, really backward condition, lacking basic services of water, electricity, telephones, roads, schools, and health clinics. Do the signers of the letter know that some of the villages, which they implicitly sentimentally admire, presently consist of a few shacks made from corrugated iron?
It is hard to believe that Julie Christie and the other 49 people, actors, writers, artists, musicians, who signed The Guardian letter really want the Bedouins to remain in this condition. If they really do not approve the modernization and economic development of the Bedouins and would like to see them remain in squalor, they should say so.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.