Dispatch from the Negev: Bedouins brace for doom, under Prawer Plan

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Bedouin children play in the unrecognized village of Assir in the Negev. The village was established by the Israeli military in the 1950s and now is under threat of eviction by the Prawer Plan. (Photo: Allison Deger)

In the Negev there is a village called Hiran where Jewish-Israelis live in caravans in a wooded forest planted by the Jewish National Fund. It’s a familiar scene in the West Bank, but not so much here, inside Israel. Like settlers these villagers are not planning to stay in trailers for long. Willingly they took on a lifestyle more arduous than life in a house or an apartment because they are preparing to benefit from an expulsion. Nearby Bedouins residing in the village of Umm el-Hieran will be evicted soon under the Prawer Plan, a Knesset bill that is likely to evict more than 30,000 Bedouins from their villages. And the villagers of Hiran are hovering until that happens.

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Amneh Abu Alkin in her home in Umm Batin. (Photo: Allison Deger)

A few kilometers from Hiran and Umm el-Heiran is another Bedouin encampment, Umm Batin. Down a sandy hill Amneh Abu Alkin is perched on a rug under a plastic covering supported by four posts. Back in 2007 Abu Alkin lived in a concrete house, and concrete stops wind and rain from flooding a bedroom. But like half of the some 200,000 Bedouins in the Negev, Abu Alkin resided in an unrecognized village, meaning her last home was demolished. Then in 2003 the state recognized her village but refused her house, and every other structure, a building permit. The law only allows her to construct with flimsy material like plastic and tin.

In the tent she points to a refrigerator, explaining it has been here for only ten days because regular visits from the Ministry of Interior end with confiscations of her appliances. But at that moment she was stocked, she even had a gas stove top. Like the residents of Umm el-Hieran, Abu Alkin is also facing an eviction from the Prawer Plan. But she said that her husband is trying to negotiate an exchange from the government for an apartment in a “planned township,” localities built by the state that offer all of the amenities that are not available without a building permit: water, sanitation, electricity, paved roads, and access to education and health care.

Yet Abu Alkin is stern when she says that moving to the township is not her first choice. Planned townships have a reputation for being urban projects dabbed between desert hills. There is no vital economy– and no grazing lands for herds, a primary source of sustenance for many Bedouins. These Cabrini-Green models have become rife with crime, the logical outcome of warehousing people outside of a city with no job prospects.

“The planned towns evolved quickly into pockets of deprivation, unemployment, dependency, crime and social tensions,” notes Oren Yiftachel, professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University, who argues these localities have proven themselves as unfit options. Yiftachel is one of the few experts in the field of Bedouin sector planning. He has testified in court and helped author an alternative “Master Plan” [PDF] that city workers could execute to recognize Bedouin villages without conflicting with nearby Beersheba’s most recent urban development scheme.

One of the reasons why the government group that drafted Prawer did not look to recognize more Bedouin towns is because they determined the villages interfere with city plans to expand industrial zones, Jewish National Fund forests and Jewish-Israeli localities. Hiran is an example of a locality that is locked into the district’s future blueprints, partly marked up in the location of the Bedouin village of Umm el-Heiran. These types of conflicts, the Prawer Plan says, should be resolved in favor of the planned villages over the existing villages. In practice this means: the Bedouins will have to move out so the Jewish-Israelis can move in.

Still, Yiftachel says these conflicts are few and far between and should not create the pretext for outright barring widespread recognition of Bedouin areas. He explained in a round-table last week in the Bedouin township of Hura that during the research leading up to publication of “The Master Plan for the Bedouin Villages,” Yiftachel conducted the first ever survey of unrecognized villages. He’s doing the work government officials should be doing. Rather than meeting with villagers and taking into consideration their particular type of settlement with unique characteristics, the government has decided to exclude Bedouins and Yiftachel from the planning process. Yiftachel says Bedouin villages should be thought of as a “special settlement type that have their own logic”– not unlike the recognition granted a kibbutz or a moshav (Jewish communal towns).

“Many Jews didn’t have their land registered properly–including my parents,” said Yiftachel, addressing the inherent discrimination in the Prawer Plan, which subjects only Bedouins to this special process. he continued.

What is most unfortunate is that Abu Alkin didn’t choose this life. In the 1950s Bedouins in the Negev were rounded up and dumped behind checkpoints in an area called the Siyag zone. After 1966 when formal military rule for Israel’s Arab citizens ended, displaced peoples like Abu Alkin were forbidden from constructing in their original villages and were not granted permits to continue living in the Siyag. But with no place to go Abu Alkin and the others stayed in the former military zone where they had at least made a semblance of a new life in the new Jewish state.

Over the years Abu Alkin has languished in her village, despite the upgrade to a “recognized” village. In Israel it is not uncommon in the few instances where villages were “recognized” that municipal services never arrived–or had to be enforced through a court order, which could take decades. So she and her family are cutting their losses. With the Prawer Plan posing an eviction date, it’s either living in the streets or living in the projects. She would, however, prefer to stay in her current village, so long as the state will agree to finally recognize her property and allow her to hook up to the city grid. In the Negev, even a Jewish-Israeli pet cemetery is connected to electricity, but the state says it’s too difficult to get to her remote locality.

For the 35 unrecognized villages holding out for an upgrade of status that mimic the very conditions Abu Alkin finds unacceptable, the Prawer Plan will abruptly end the possibility for thousands to finally regularize their villages.

In the 1970s the state opened a massive land registration project, which theoretically could have ended the unrecognized village phenomena. Over 3,000 claims were accepted, but after the government processed 300 claims they refused to continue. This procedure remains frozen to date despite the passing of decades. Yiftachel has studied the original claims from that time and notes they are still reliable. Of the 3,200 filings for an area encompassing 800,000 dunums, Yiftachel only found a one-percent margin of error where multiple parties claimed the same parcels.

Then in 2008 a Knesset working group decided to re-visit the issue of unrecognized villages. The Goldberg Committee recommended registering as many towns as possible, and even acknowledged Bedouins are indigenous peoples with historic ties to the land. This put an end to the “Arab invaders” discourse. But rather than re-open the exiting system, which would have given deeds to thousands of Bedouins, the Prawer Plan instead proposed a new convoluted land registration process offering only partial property titles for Bedouins with all of the required documentation. When implemented the plan will create a new land registration process where claims are matched against aerial photographs taken by the British authorities between 1944-1945. Under Prawer, these archival images will be reviewed for signs of cultivation on the plots Bedouins say they hold titles for, and for which they often have decades or even a century of records showing tax payments. But the government won’t look at these records. Prawer does not allow the government to review documents, including ones from the Israeli Defense Forces’ archives, that confirm that a Bedouin paid taxes throughout the 1950s.

In cases where claims are approved, Prawer twists the rules and forces Bedouins to give the state half of their land in exchange for compensation. If a partial claim is approved, Bedouins can only retain 25 percent of that property. By comparison, when Jewish-Israelis register their claims, there is no law that says they must give up a single handful of the earth to the state.

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Interior of Abu Alkin’s home in the village of  Umm Batin. (Photo: Allison Deger)

With poor prospects to stay on their land, Bedouin families are shuffling their decks looking for their best chance of avoiding disaster. Some are protesting the bill, like the ten thousand who took to the streets of Beersheba weeks ago, with more protests planned in the coming days. Others are negotiating with the state for recognition.  Dr. Hana Sweid, a member of Knesset and former city planner has stated the Prawer Committee will likely recognize five unrecognized villages and said the government is presently reviewing which villages will recieve the change in status. Prawer itself says, when possible the state should recognize villages, so long as they do not interfere with future construction earmarked on city blueprints. But as for which villages will become recognized, right now it is a lottery.

Still more are leveraging their current residency for a trade into a planned township, hoping to strike a deal before Prawer goes into effect. This window of opportunity is expected to close once Prawer passes Knesset, because the law would allow the state to seize the land and a voluntary eviction would no longer be a bargining chip.

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