The Prawer-Begin Law and the Relocation of Negev Bedouins

The Prawer-Begin Law

On June 24th, 2013 the Prawer-Begin bill regarding the regularization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev passed a vote at the Knesset in the first one of three readings required to become law.

This bill addresses the controversial issue of regularizing Bedouin settlements in the Negev.

The substance of the law includes the following directives:

    1. Recognizing some of the unrecognized villages that are located within an area North-East of Beersheba known as the Siyag
    2. Relocating nearly 30,000 Bedouins, from unrecognized villages located outside the Siyag and slated for demolition into seven townships within the Siyag
    3.Granting compensation for resettled Bedouins in possession of land property claims in the form of money or land up to 50% of the original land or value.

The Prawer-Begin Law was drafted after a commission regarding the formalization of Bedouin settlements in the Negev headed by former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg released a recommendations report. The government believes the measures are necessary in order to provide the Bedouin communities access to services such as roads, water, electricity, placing populations on the path to modernity.

Opponents to this law include NGOs such as Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights, and Rabbis for Human Rights. They believe this is a racist law that treats Bedouins differently from other Israeli citizens and fails to recognize the historical and cultural bonds between the Bedouin communities and the land. This lack of recognition results in compensation that falls short of what they ought to be. The overcrowded relocation townships are no more than impoverished dormitory towns depriving the Bedouins of their tribal way of life and traditional social fabric. The purpose of the law is simply to confiscate land that legitimately belongs to the Bedouins in order to expend the Jewish population in the Negev. Planners from Bimkom and ACRI have put together an alternative plan to recognize all 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages.

Is this law infringing on the legal rights of the Bedouins?

Historical Background

The current Bedouin population in the Negev desert is estimated at 200,000. Bedouin communities have lived in the Negev since prior to the State of Israel’s inception. Bedouins had their own internal legal system to define land ownership, acquisition, and inheritance based on tribal laws and customs. The bond between the land and its owner was part of a power construct that ruled the Bedouin society. Advocates for Bedouins’ rights claim that their land property rights were recognized by both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, and even by the early Zionist pioneers purchasing land from Bedouins. As an example, the Ottoman state purchased land from Bedouins in order to build the city of Beersheba in 1899. A Zionist land survey by the Israel Land Development Company (ILDC) in 1920 identified 2.66 million dunams (or 51x51 km2) of Bedouin-owned land, about 35% of which were cultivated.

To be more specific, during the Ottoman rule, Bedouin tribes refrained from registering their land in the Land Registry books sometimes for lack of knowledge of the procedure to follow, or for fear of it being used for military conscription or tax collection. But the Ottomans and then the British rulers recognized the internal Bedouin land ownership system and used Bedouins records as proof of ownership and transactions.

During the war of 1948, the great majority of the 90,000 Bedouin population fled the conflict to neighboring Jordan, Egypt, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The remaining Bedouin population was relocated to the Siyag area, amounting to about 15,000 people. After the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Bedouins, like all other Israeli Arab citizens, were under a military regime, during which restrictions of movements were in place, limiting access to education, health and public transportation, until it was lifted in 1966. Israel recognized almost no indigenous land rights mostly because of a lack of documentation deemed valid, and because Bedouins were considered by the government nomads with no permanent home. Most of Bedouin land was declared dead land (mawat) or uncultivated, amounting to more than 1.2 million dunams (or 35x35 km2).

Today, Bedouins living in unrecognized villages get no access to water, electricity, roads or public transportation. A water cistern has to be filled periodically from the nearest water reservoir at a higher cost than running water. A Supreme Court ruling established that all children must receive education but schools are without electricity or air conditioning.

photo credit: Flash90

Left: High School in the unrecognized village of Wadi Al Na’am

Right: Water cistern in the unrecognized village of Al-Araqeeb

Starting in the late 1960s, Israel launched a program of resettlement of the Bedouins into seven permanent urban townships: Tel-Sheva, Rahat, Arara-Banegev, Kusayfa, Segev-Shalom, Hura and Laqiya. But this urbanization process, meant to bring modernity to the populations, was forced onto the Bedouins not unlike what was done to indigenous populations in other parts of the World.

Learning from Similar Cases

The Bedouin case shows similarities with that of American, Canadian, and Australian indigenous populations treatment by governments. One would think that Israeli decision makers would have consulted with their counterparts in those countries to learn from their experience. It would appear that they have instead chosen to repeat the same mistakes.

Under international laws, indigenous populations have been recognized as vulnerable populations often the victims of abusive governments that must benefit from protective measures against forced evictions, discriminations, and neglect. But these are recent developments that did not exist during the colonization of North America and Australia.

In the United States, the initial policy of European settlers towards indigenous populations was a government policy aimed at the “extermination” of the Indian problem and the forced relocation of most indigenous people onto reservations, followed by a policy of assimilation. Starting in 1952, the Bureau of Indian Affairs using the Indian Relocation Act, moved thousands of natives into urban centers where they reached 60% of the whole native population. But without any support in this difficult transition, many decided to return to their reservations. A process of alienation, impoverishment and the lack of economic opportunities led to the marginalization of both rural and urban native populations, characterized by low per capita income, substandard overcrowded housing, and malnutrition, exacerbated by hostility in schools, neighborhoods and workplaces.

During the colonization of Canada by Europeans, treaties were negotiated with First Nations that resulted in the transfer of lands to the Crown (government owned-land), with a provision for “reserved lands” for indigenous peoples. Indigenous or First Nation people migrated to urban centers starting in the late 1960s, reaching 50% of the total indigenous population today. Cities filed to provide for the promised economic opportunities and quality of services. The urban indigenous have fallen behind non-indigenous populations in terms of education, income, and poverty rates. Urban life has deteriorated their access to community, places, and practices important to cultural survival. A perceived hostility has exacerbated their alienation. Efforts have recently been made to reduce marginalization of urban First Nations by developing an educated and skilled workforce while taking into account their unique cultural values.

Ancestral Aboriginal populations from Australia had a nomadic lifestyle of hunters and gatherers, with a spiritual attachment to the land. The British considered the country as terra nullius (belonging to no one). No traditional property right that may have existed prior to European settlement was recognized. Many Aboriginals were displaced from their land for use by European farmers, often with violent confrontations and massacres, with military involvement. Eventually the government transferred the Aboriginals into reserves in remote areas. Following WWII, the Australian government attempted the assimilation of Aborigines into the Australian society by absorption into urban areas. Urban Aborigines, making up 70% of all Aborigines today, are disproportionately young, poor, living in overcrowded conditions (or homeless) and unemployed. Australia failed to provide Aboriginals with the full rights of citizenship until 1967. An Aboriginal land right legislation was passed in 1974 providing for indigenous self-determination in rural area, leading to the development of a Community Housing Program.

In all three nations of United States, Canada, and Australia created by colonization, indigenous people continue to be neglected and hold disadvantaged positions within the dominant society. In urban contexts, their marginalization results in lower income, higher unemployment, lower life expectancy, poor health, higher rates of criminality, and welfare dependency. Root causes include a loss of land and sovereignty, cultural genocide, lack of education, and discrimination in the job market. Attempts at assimilation have mostly failed for lack of cultural sensitivity by governments.

The same lack of sensitivity is responsible for the failure of urbanization of the Negev Bedouins in Israel. Resettlement into townships was done without proper planning for employment infrastructures. As of 2008, about half of the Bedouin population was already living in townships. Bedouins have been deprived of their agriculture and pastoral lifestyle but no substitute activity has been provided, resulting in a high level of unemployment. Township infrastructures remain inferior to those of Jewish towns. One adverse effect of impoverishment and lack of proper health infrastructures is the return of diseases such as polio.

The abrupt transition from traditional lifestyle to urban setting has resulted in the destruction of the social fabric of the Bedouin culture. Teenagers, having lost traditional references and the respect for elders that was so important in the village, contest parental authority and redirect their anger and feeling of injustice towards their elders. This results in an attitude of revolt, recourse to substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) and a propensity to join criminal activities and possibly Islamist movements.

Double Standard

Besides depriving Bedouins from their traditional identity after a hasty urbanization, the Prawer-Begin law is also a means of legalizing property rights and provision of services that creates a double standard between Jewish and Bedouin citizens of Israel. A Human Rights Watch report from 2008 describes how single family farms owned by Jews in the Negev are easily regularized and receive services while the 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages that meet the criteria formulated by the Central Bureau of Statistics are denied the same services. Israeli Law Professor Alexander Kedar has established that Israel’s treatment of Bedouins’ access to land amounts to discriminations, violating international law, when individually-owned farms are granted to Jews only. To expose the injustice done to the Bedouins, NGOs that advocate for their human rights protection, such as Adalah, Bimkon, or Rabbis for Human Rights, organize learning tours of the disputed region.

Touring unrecognized villages

On August 2nd, 2013, I joined a political tour of the northern Negev led by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis For Human Rights. The tour included a visit to two unrecognized villages at the following locations:

    Al-Araqeeb village (coordinates 31° 20' 2? North, 34° 48' 8? East)
    Wadi Al Na’am village (coordinates 31° 9' 48.19? North, 34° 49' 19.75? East)

In the village of Al-Araqeeb, we met with Sheikh Sayyah, the leader of the village, who gave us a historical background. The land where the village is located was purchased from other tribes in 1905. Outside the village is a graveyard as old as 1914, says the Sheikh. The village has been demolished and rebuilt 53 times as of July, 2013. The population has been slated for relocation to one of the seven townships. The leaders have taken the case to the Supreme Court, hoping that the villagers’ property documents from 1905 will allow for the village to be recognized. The Sheikh depicted how government contracted airplanes sprayed their fields with Round-Up ® weeds management product, destroying their crops, and causing the death of sheep. Up to 4,500 olive saplings have been uprooted and the government requested a payment of NIS 2 million for the successive demolitions during 2010. The Israeli government inaugurated the “Ambassador Forest” in 2006 planted in the vicinity of the village with funds from the Jewish National Fund in partnership with the evangelical Christian channel God-TV in the presence of dignitaries from 49 countries. Planting has been suspended until the case of the village is resolved.

photo credit: Flash90

Rabbi Arik Ascherman with Sheikh Sayyah asking visitors to help with their struggle

The visit of Wadi Al Na’am village confirmed similar harsh measures against citizens of the state. What can justify these actions on the part of the Israeli government?

The Government’s Justification of the Prawer-Begin Law

Rabbi Ascherman provided a possible justification for the Prawer-Begin law based on a security concern that prevailed in the 1950s when the first attempts were made at urbanizing the Bedouins. At a time when Egypt and Jordan encouraged terrorist incursions from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (under Egyptian and Jordanian occupation), Israeli strategists had a concern about a continuous zone of high Arab population density in the northern Negev region connecting Gaza and the West Bank, easing infiltrations. But this preoccupation has mostly disappeared today as the border with Gaza is highly sealed and the West Bank under occupation. Still, recent unrest in the Sinai Peninsula after the fall of Egyptian Presidents Mubarak and Morsi could revive this justification. Lawlessness prevails in the Sinai where Egyptian forces are unable to control Salafi jihadists and Bedouin tribes responsible for organized crimes, kidnappings and smuggling of goods into Gaza. But the Bedouins of Israel have consistently demonstrated their loyalty to the state and disconnect from the Sinai Bedouins, sometimes volunteering in the Israel Defense Force, and praised for their skills as desert trackers.

Rawia Aburabia is an attorney for The Association for Civil Rights in Israel. With her colleague Suhad Bishara from The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, she sent in April 2012 a memorandum to then Minister Ze’ev Binyamin Begin describing their objections to the Prawer-Begin law, denounced as an injustice. The minister’s reaction would have been interesting to hear, but no response to this memorandum or invitation to express these objections was extended to Rawia and Suhad by the Israeli government.

To hear the government’s position I requested an interview with Ariel Rosenberg spokesperson for the Construction and Housing Ministry but my request remained unanswered.

A right wing NGO, Regavim, supportive of the relocation plan expresses probably the closest view to the government’s position through Ari Briggs, the international relations director of Regavim. According to Briggs, the objective of the law is to stop uncontrolled illegal Bedouin settlement expansion. The status of indigenous people attributed to the Bedouins, and the protection that comes with it, is contestable as most of the Bedouins arrived in the late 18th and 19th century from the Arabic Peninsula. A court judgment from March 2012 rejected the claim of land ownership dated from Ottoman rule, based on evidence that no settlements existed before the British Mandate.


The various positions about land ownership and indigenous rights are debated in the courts with a high level of technicality making it difficult for a non-expert to have an opinion. But the defenders of the Prawer-Begin bill have failed to address the fact that the relocation of Bedouin populations in urban settings deteriorates the social fabric of the ethnic group. Regardless of the legitimacy of the government land claims, this relocation approach fails to address the basic human security needs of the Bedouins, and in particular to provide employment that is adapted to their skills, while their previous lifestyle, on subsistence farming and goat herding, provided a means of survival. For the NGOs supportive of the Bedouin cause, Adalah,ACRI, Bimkom, and Rabbis for Human Rights, the only fair solution is to recognize the 35 unrecognized villages of over 400 inhabitants, with their land claims amounting to no more than 5.4 % of the Negev surface.

The Prawer-Begin law has the characteristics of a nationalist move to expropriate Bedouin land in a legal way and acquire it for use by Jewish communities and the creation of army bases. This is a domestic issue, regardless of the regional connection between the Israeli Bedouins and Bedouins of the Sinai, Gaza, and the West Bank. The Bedouins of Israel are Israeli citizens and this kind of double standard among citizens constitutes an injustice tantamount to a form of discrimination that erodes the democratic character of the state of Israel.

In his address to the visitors of his village, Sheikh Sayyah declared that the Bedouins are willing to die in order to defend the right to their land. The passing of this law could lead to a violent confrontation with disastrous consequences. A fair resolution of this issue would, on the contrary, allow Israel to stand out by comparison to Egypt that has neglected its Bedouin population in the Sinai, and would reinforce the loyalty of Bedouin populations towards the state of Israel.