“Gorgeous homes in Israel, no cash down,” the email subject line read. “All you need is the chutzpah to steal the land.”
Attached were photos of three stunning houses, each surrounded by desert scrubland. “The problem is, there are thousands more like them,” wrote the sender, Potomac resident Gerson Panitch, “and they are all built by Arab and Bedouin squatters on stolen Israeli government land, all inside the Green Line.”
Panitch then invited his email’s recipients to an evening at his home, where they would learn more about “a problem few have the courage to discuss.”
Fifteen people took up his offer. On Nov. 20 they heard a presentation about the 210,000 Bedouin who live in the Negev, given by Ari Briggs, international relations director of Regavim, the Society for the Protection of Land in Israel.
Regavim is one of the nongovernmental organizations jockeying for influence in a long-running debate over how to regulate the settlement of the semi-nomadic and agricultural Bedouin and legalize their villages. The issue is as old as the state itself, but has come to a head this year as the Knesset considers legislation called the Prawer-Begin Law.
Known formally as the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, the legislation was drawn up by former Likud Knesset member Benny Begin and approved by the Cabinet in January.
It calls for Israel to officially recognize and register the vast majority of Bedouin settlements throughout the South, and compensate the residents of 35 unrecognized villages — some 30,000 to 40,000 people — who are to be moved off state-owned land into towns built by Israel for them.
In June, it passed the first of three votes, or readings, by the Knesset necessary to become law.
The plan has sparked protests in Israel and drawn condemnations from international bodies. On Saturday more than 1,000 Israelis demonstrated against Prawer-Begin in the Negev. The gathering grew violent as some protesters threw rocks and firebombs at police. Hundreds more protested in Haifa, Jerusalem and elsewhere. There were at least 15 arrests, according to the Associated Press.
Regavim has been on record as opposing the legislation, but in an interview with WJW, Briggs said that opposition is qualified.
“We say, we need three amendments: We need to see a map of the day after” the law goes into effect — “what is the northern Negev going to look like? We need incentives to ensure the Bedouin join [the effort], carrots and sticks. All [Bedouin] property claims [and compensation] should be part of the process at the front instead of at the back.”
In Briggs’ view, the Bedouin are leading the government by the nose. Bedouin have “moved out of legal towns to illegal towns to get government compensation,” he said. And the government is soft on the Bedouin because it fears a harsh international response if it acts.
The result, he argued, is that the government gives preferential treatment to Bedouin construction. He said that if he wanted to enclose a porch in his home, he would first have to go through months of government red tape. “And if I do it without a permit, I’d eventually get a fine from the local government.”
Not so the Bedouin, he said, who build illegally and live in “Beverly Hills-style houses.”
Who are the Bedouin?
In essence, the tug of war over the Bedouin is part of the ongoing dispute between the Israeli right and left about whether the land of Israel is the property of Jews or its residents.
Those on the right, like Regavim, see the Bedouin as encroaching on the Jewish patrimony. “Ninety percent of the pre-’67 land is state-owned land. That’s the Jewish people’s biggest resource,” Briggs said.
From the left, groups like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, point to decades of discrimination and neglect of the Bedouin community and call for fair treatment of their fellow citizens.
They, too, reject Prawer-Begin, but do so because it is “based on an erroneous assumption that views the Bedouin as ‘squatters,’ ignoring the fact that most of the villages have been in existence in their current location since before the establishment of the State of Israel,” the group said in a statement. “Other villages were established by coercive transfer during the period of martial law [in the 1950s and ’60s]. The current plan also seeks to restrict the Bedouin to a specific area and to forcibly apply this policy.”
The 210,000 Bedouin in the Negev occupy the lowest rung on the Israeli socioeconomic ladder.
“Approximately half of the Bedouin community in the Negev, roughly 70,000 people, was living in unrecognized settlements in 2007,” according to the government. “Most of them are not connected to water and electricity, and are distant from the main roads. … The population in these settlements is increasing rapidly with high rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime.”
In addition to these symptoms of poverty are high school dropout and infant mortality rates. According to the Ministry of Health, in 2004, the infant mortality rate in the Beersheva subdistrict, where most Bedouin live, was 3.2 per one thousand for Jewish infants and 14.7 for non-Jewish infants.
ACRI and other critics charge that Bedouin were not involved in drawing up the Prawer-Begin plan. Briggs disputed this.
“Begin went to the Bedouin with plan in hand, looking for compromise,” he said. “The Bedouin are not on board, despite Begin’s best efforts.”
Briggs challenged reports that say 40,000 Bedouin will be displaced under the plan. He said the number is only half that: 14,000 who live within the danger zone of the Ramat Hovav Toxic Waste Disposal Facility and 6,000 who live in hard-to-access areas.
U.S. Jews respond
In place of Prawer-Begin, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said that “any Bedouin resettlement or economic advancement plan should be based primarily on the recognition of the unrecognized villages. They should receive proper town planning and new infrastructure should be invested in. This would go some way to alleviating the injustices resulting from past discrimination against this group.”
As Briggs was speaking in Potomac, protests flared in Israel over the government’s announcement that it was planning to demolish two unrecognized Bedouin villages and build two towns for Jewish Israelis in their place.
The Israel Supreme Court is considering an appeal of the decision from two Bedouin villagers. And meanwhile, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee continued its discussion of Prawer-Begin.
The countrywide demonstrations on Saturday show that the issue is taking on a life of its own and could ultimately affect Israel’s security and the peace process with the Palestinians, says Rabbi David Shneyer of the Washington-area Kehilla Chadasha and Am Kolel communities, who also made the argument in an op-ed in the Nov. 21 issue of WJW.
“You have for the first time in 60 years Bedouin demonstrating against the Israeli government,” says Shneyer, who became involved in the Bedouin issue six years ago. “Non-Bedouin Arabs are seizing on this issue to express their own sense of frustration and injustice.”
Shneyer was among the American clergy from the Reform and Reconstructionist movements who have come out in opposition to Prawer-Begin, under the banners of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Some 775 clergy and seminary students, including about 15 from the greater Washington area, signed a letter calling on the Knesset to reconsider the bill and urged the government to “treat Israel’s Bedouin population as equal citizens, involve community members in policy decisions that affect their future, and work together to develop zoning plans that meet their needs.”
But the injustice gap is wide. Back in Potomac, Gerson Panitch said he chose the wording of his email invitation to his parlor meeting with a little showmanship in mind.
“I was trying to get people’s attention,” said the patent attorney who does business in Israel. “Who’s interested in an email that says, ‘The Bedouin Problem’?”
People are “basically stealing the land,” he says. “But the government doesn’t care.”
Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community and Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase will hold a human rights concert and symposium focusing on Israeli Bedouin. The program will be Sunday at 4 p.m. at Temple Shalom. There is a fee. For reservations and information, [email protected] or 301-349-2799.
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.