Bedouin citizens of Israel formerly embraced a nomadic lifestyle, drifting between Arabia and the Sinai; but since 1948 many have permanently settled in the southern part of Israel. They established their settlements on any convenient unoccupied land, where they grazed their flocks and planted crops. Israeli authorities have established several towns and even a large city, Rahat, for Bedouin occupation, and in recent years have legalized numerous unrecognized settlements; but many Bedouin still live in the “dispersion,” a collection of hundreds of illegal favelas built on state land that resemble garbage dumps with scattered satellite dishes.
Throughout the years there have been various programs in which the state offered plots of land or homes in or near the recognized towns, along with agricultural land to replace state land on which Bedouins were squatting. Success of these programs was mixed. About 3/4 of the roughly 200,000 Negev Bedouin live in recognized towns.
The Negev Bedouin are virtually all Muslims. The population is significantly younger and is growing faster than either the Jewish or non-Bedouin Arab sectors, with (as of 2009) a fertility rate of 5.7, compared to Jewish and other Arab rates that are close to 3. Some 30% (as of 2002) of married Bedouin men have more than one wife.
Their political loyalties are primarily to their tribe or clan, though they are citizens of the state of Israel. A small number choose (it’s optional for Arabs) to join the IDF. Probably an equally small number of them identify with anti-state groups like Hamas. Those that vote lean towards the Ra’am party of Mansour Abbas (not to be confused with Mohammad Abbas of the PLO), a party whose official ideology is Islamist and associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Abbas has adopted a pragmatic approach – i.e., obtaining money and benefits for his constituents – in preference to an ideological one. This, and the deadlock resulting from the fourth successive election in two years, has led to Ra’am becoming the first Arab party to join a governing coalition in Israel.
Apparently the price paid to Ra’am for joining the coalition was astronomical, close to 30 billion shekels (US$9.6 billion) for programs to benefit the Arab sector. One of the promises made to them was that structures in unrecognized Bedouin settlements could be hooked up to the national electrical grid. This past week, the coalition, in one of the most raucous Knesset sessions ever, kept its promise to Mansour Abbas, passing an amendment to the Construction Law (referred to as the “Electricity Law”) permitting connection of illegal structures to electrical and other utility systems.
Normally, a structure built without a permit on land that the builder does not own cannot be connected to the national electrical and water systems. This has been described as “one of the state’s most effective tools against the national epidemic of illegal construction.” There have been exceptions when the state planned to legalize or otherwise regulate the structure, but these have been few. It will now be possible for tens of thousands of homes and other structures built illegally on state land to become permanent. To add insult to injury, an attempt to include “young Jewish communities” in Judea and Samaria to the law was voted down.
The law was passed by the Coalition with a vote of 61-0 after much of the Opposition walked out. Supporters say that it will save lives by eliminating unsafe electrical connections and will result in the Bedouins paying for electricity instead of stealing it. Opponents say that it will formalize the illegal occupation of state land, and permanently eliminate the possibility of relocating squatters. Israel Harel writes,
What’s the big deal? All they did was whitewash the (intolerable) status quo, in which thousands of illegal buildings are connected illegally to utilities, mainly electricity, putting lives in danger. Very humane. But – and it is a big but – in so doing we determine, in both theory and practice, that the piratical construction that extends over hundreds of thousands of acres will become permanent. Let’s recall that the so-called Kaminitz Law [increasing enforcement of building codes – vr] was suspended as a preface to the Electricity Law. Thus, the government put an end to existing plans to help the residents of the “Bedouin dispersion” to move, at almost no cost to them, to planned communities built by the state connected to modern infrastructure.
In 2005, the state of Israel tore Gush Katif from itself. Now, after the Electricity Law, it is ripping away large parts of the Negev too. In the area that extends eastward from Be’er Sheva nearly to Dimona, and southward from Be’er Sheva to the mountains of the central Negev, an independent regime will be established that will operate – and already does operate – according to Bedouin law. The neighboring state, Israel, will pay for this regime, according to the provisions of the most recent national budget.
Recently, there has been a sharp increase in crimes committed by Bedouins in southern Israel: car theft, drug offenses, agricultural theft, theft of weapons and ammunition from IDF bases, the use of firearms, and protection rackets. Women are harassed on the streets. Criminal activity is in the open, policing is ineffective, and judges give light sentences to those arrested, because they fear retaliation. Residents of the area complain of a “wild west” atmosphere; not long ago there was a shootout between gangs in the parking lot of a hospital emergency room.
One of the promises that the government has made, both to Jews and Arabs, was that it would crack down on crime among Arabs. So in November, the police took a stab at cleaning up the Negev, sending 1,200 policemen, with IDF assistance, into the area. They made a total of 12 arrests and confiscated a few makeshift weapons (in fact, the Bedouin are armed to the teeth with stolen military weapons) and some marijuana.
The Bedouin do not accept the idea that there is land which belongs to the state; as far as they are concerned, land belongs to whoever cultivates it. So this week the Jewish National Fund tried to plant trees on state land that Bedouins had decided was theirs. A riot ensued (encouraged by Hamas), in which cars were burned and rocks placed on railroad tracks. The planting continued this morning (Wednesday), but after Ra’am threatened to topple the government, a “compromise” was reached in which the tree-planting was delayed. Israel Harel’s words about “an independent regime” operating according to “Bedouin law” are apparently no exaggeration.
It seems that the Right’s worries about the consequences of including an Islamist party in the coalition were well-founded. Of course, the present coalition, which includes both Ra’am and the left-wing Meretz party, only exists because the Right has split itself over the question of Binyamin Netanyahu. Could we work any harder to defeat ourselves?