In the coming years, the Negev Desert is expected to enjoy great growth and prosperity, and the Negev Bedouin should be part of that bonanza.
Indeed, the government plans to invest more than 10 billion shekels ($2.75 billion) over the next 10 years in upgrading Bedouin communities in the Negev, including magnanimous settlements of Bedouin land claims. So what could be bad about this?
Nevertheless, the government's blueprint for Bedouin life in the Negev has set off a firestorm, with Arab MKs threatening mass disturbances if the legislation is passed. Hard left-wing and right-wing nongovernmental organizations oppose the government bill too, arguing that it is either insufficiently generous or too generous to the Bedouin. Some feverish contraption called "Rabbis for Human Rights" has circulated across North America a wildly over-the-top attack video called "It Hurts." Actor Theodore Bikel (who starred as Tevye in the "Fiddler on the Roof" stage show more than 2,000 times) complains in the nasty video that "it hurts that the descendants of Anatevka may expel 40,000 Bedouin, just as the czar did to the Jews of Russia."
About 200,000 Bedouin live in Israel's south, making up 30 percent of the Negev's population, sprawling uncontrollably and illegally across ever-greater tracts of land in the northern Negev. Every year, 2,000 illegal structures go up. Almost half the Negev Bedouin live in 40 non-recognized rural "villages" where little, if any, municipal services exist, including basic water and sewage infrastructure. There is no municipal planning or taxation.
Some Bedouin shanty towns sit on land allocated for public use, such as the national toxic waste depository at Ramat Hovav. It's no surprise that these Bedouin communities suffer from high rates of unemployment, poverty, criminal activity and Islamic radicalization. The matter is exacerbated by the accelerated rate of the Bedouin community.
While the transition of nomadic societies to 21st century lifestyles is a problem not unique to Israel, Israel's plan to tackle the issue may be the most comprehensive attempt to address the issue anywhere in the world.
The government's Prawer-Begin plan has been carefully thought out. It is based on the recommendations of a committee chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, and named for a professional team of high-ranking officials, headed by Ehud Prawer and former minister Benny Begin (who proposed the plan to the cabinet in January). The plan is now being quarterbacked by the highly respected Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, who heads a Prime Minister's Office directorate for economic and community development of the Negev Bedouin.
This will be one of the largest infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the Israeli government, with a state investment of at least $2 billion. Most of the Bedouin living in unrecognized villages will be able to continue to live there, with the communities being properly zoned and bolstered with electricity and water infrastructure and access to modern health care and social services.
Only 30,000 of the 100,000 Bedouin who live in squalid and illegal encampments will be forced to relocate, and the move will be to developed lots in nearby farming, suburban or urban communities, with compensation. Half of these residents (15,000 Bedouin) need to move for their own good, because they're squatting in the toxic waste dump.
Hassan Kaabia, a Bedouin officer in the Israel Defense Forces from the village of Kaabia who now works for the Foreign Ministry, says that the sedentarization of the Bedouin people is necessary and inevitable, and the alternative is poverty, crime and illness. The state also has to protect its most limited natural resource -- land -- through organized planning.
"This transition, difficult as it may be, is fascinating and another piece in the cosmopolitan mosaic that is the modern State of Israel," he says.
Support for the plan crosses party lines. MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah, and formerly Kadima and Likud), was interior minister and led negotiations with the Bedouin on land issues during Ehud Olmert's premiership. He says that "this law creates an opening for an agreement. It's unfortunate that people are so angry. The goal here is to regulate the land and find the best solution for the Bedouin community as a recognized community."
Avi Dichter (formerly Kadima and then Likud, and former head of the Shin Bet security agency) says that "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."
Benny Begin emphasizes that "the Bedouin are citizens with equal rights and constitute an inseparable part of the Negev. We have a responsibility to assist the Bedouin in alleviating their plight and ensuring a more positive future for their children. We expect the Bedouin community, with whom we have engaged in an unprecedented, extensive hearing process, to approach this matter responsibly."
Previous Israeli governments have attempted partial solutions to the Bedouin issue, but all failed because they lacked a comprehensive framework aided by a specific law. The current Netanyahu government should be praised, not vilified, for proposing a comprehensive, judicious (and very expensive) plan that will both facilitate proper development of the Negev and ensure advancement for the Bedouin community.
The current situation is good only for extremists who thrive on unrest, and for those who always seek to assail the State of Israel.