The Negev desert last week was carpeted in an incongruous green. The young wheat moved noiselessly in the wind. Even the sheep, in their cool mud paddocks, looked less miserable than usual. But a tour through the region, made in an attempt to gauge the feasibility of the government’s plan to resolve the Bedouin land claims, depicted a human landscape scarred by decades of distrust and a horizon tinged with streaks of hopefulness amid dark clouds of looming conflict.

The tour began with a presentation by the head of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, who has initiated an industrial park owned by the Bedouin city of Rahat, the Jewish town of Lahavim and the Bnei Shimon Regional Council. The plan is to draw 40 large-scale factories to the 1,100-acre development zone just outside of Rahat. Sodastream, of recent fame, is in the midst of building a bottling plant that will employ 700 people, many from the surrounding Bedouin towns. A carton factory is in the works, as are an academic college, servicing 3,000 students, and a hospital that would alleviate the strain on Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, where there is a constant shortage of beds.

“I asked myself, do I want war with my neighbors?” said regional council head Moshe Paul. The answer being no, he said, he decided to build the joint venture on state lands, leased to the regional council, and to distribute the profits in a way that would induce local cooperation: 44 percent to Rahat, 37 percent to Bnei Shimon, and the remaining 19 percent to Lehavim.

Bnei Shimon Regional Council head Moshe Paul with the plans of the industrial park (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Bnei Shimon Regional Council head Moshe Paul with the plans of the industrial park (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Amar al-Huzeil, the deputy mayor of Rahat, told me after the tour that he backs the development project in “the clearest possible terms,” but conceded that even here, as everywhere in the northern Negev, “maybe 40 percent” of the land on which the project is to be built is claimed by other individual Bedouin, not party to the development.

And this is at the heart of the issue that plagues the Negev and the Bedouin community today: land and economic development. The former shackles the latter. Only once the land claims have been settled, most everyone agrees, can the glaring economic disparity be reduced, the educational results raised, the birthrate slowed. Only then does the Negev stand any chance of attaining sustainable, equitable progress.

Yet the necessary agreement, one that balances the rule of law with the Bedouins’ historical claims and current, disparate aspirations, appears, at present, to be well beyond reach.

Um-Namailah, a dense smattering of gray, corrugated-tin structures that is home to several hundred families, is a case in point. The Bedouin call it an unrecognized village. The first part of that statement is undoubtedly true. It is unrecognized by the state. There is no electricity, no public transportation, no paved roads and no healthcare center. However, it is not a village. It is a form of rural sprawl that today covers vast swaths of the 1,100-kilometer-square area between Beersheba, Hebron, Dimona and Arad. No state authority planned or sanctioned um-Namailah. It grew with the Negev Bedouin population, which has, quite extraordinarily, been doubling itself every 15 years since the founding of the state. But before hearing the residents of um-Namailah, who oppose the plan, or the government officials seeking to advance it, a few historic milestones, lining the path to today’s grim reality, must be visited.

Ottomans, British, Israelis

The first significant shift in the status quo came in 1858, when the Ottoman Empire, seeking to set a uniform standard across its entire domain, introduced a land-classification system that split all land into five categories: private, public, holy and, most important to the Bedouin issue, miri – state land that can be cultivated by the individual, who is free to take the profit and pass the quasi ownership to his heirs; and mawat, which translates into dead or desolate lands that cannot be owned, even by virtue of habitual cultivation, without a written deed.

For years, this new classification system had no bearing on the Bedouin of the Negev. According to retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg’s 2008 report, the Bedouin tribes lived in “near-complete freedom,” with “anarchy” governing the Negev desert during those years. Ibn Khaldun, the seminal Arab scholar of history and social philosophy, aptly described the desert tribes of the region, albeit several hundred years prior, as finding sustenance “wherever the shadow of their lances falls.”

A February 2013 shot of an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

A February 2013 shot of an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

A major tribal conflagration, though, moved the powers that be in the Ottoman Empire to, in 1896, mark the tribal boundaries on a map. The lines, Goldberg wrote, did not imply ownership, but merely a separation between the tribes. Others, such as the organization Bimkom, have argued that, quite to the contrary, the fact that Jews paid the Muhammadin tribe in 1901 and the Atta’una tribe in 1913 for the lands on which Beersheba and Kibbutz Ruhama were founded, respectively, attests to the legal status of their ownership. [Dr. Yosef Ben-David, a renowned geographer and scholar of Bedouin life under Israeli rule, told the Goldberg Commission that the acceptance of the sale was testament only to the fact that the Ottomans and later the British were eager to see the lands moved out of Bedouin hands and, therefore, registered the sale in as formal a manner as possible.]

Former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg in February 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg in February 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

The British, after years of dwindling and increasingly inadequate Ottoman rule, ushered modernity into mandatory Palestine. Among the sweeping reforms, the colonial power conducted a census and began collecting taxes. In 1931, there were 65,000 Bedouin in the Negev. Uneager to pay taxes or to serve in the army, and perhaps altogether distrustful of the swift changes, few formally registered or claimed ownership over mawat lands when given the chance during the early years of British rule.

In the fall of 1948, amid the war, the IDF ousted the Egyptian army from most of the Negev desert, and the Bedouin, whether by force or by choice, fled for Sinai, Jordan and the Mount Hebron region: in 1951, there were only 12,740 Bedouin remaining in the Negev.

Today, there are 220,000. All are citizens of the state. All were corralled, in 1955, the same year they were given citizenship, into the sayag, a 1,100-km-sq area tracing the swath of land between Beersheba, Hebron, Arad, and Dimona. The fact that the Abu-Rabia, Abu Karinat, and Huzeil clans, among others, already lived there did not deter the state, which told the Bedouin that the relocation was temporary.

It was not. And it created two main types of land claimants among the Negev Bedouin today: those that hail from the sayag region and have remained there but do not have paperwork to prove ownership, and those that were brought to the sayag and claim land elsewhere in the Negev.

The unrecognized village of um-Namailah in February 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

The unrecognized village of um-Namailah in February 2014 (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

From May 1971 to October 1979, Israel opened the courts to the Bedouin communities to make formal land-ownership claims. Some 3,300 claims were listed — today there are 12,000 claimants — asserting ownership or entitlement to roughly 220,000 acres of land, almost all in the sayag. The claims cover almost all of the sayag area, which amounts to about a twelfth of the entire Negev. (The Negev itself constitutes some 60% of Israel.)

In the 35 years that have ensued, Israel has resolved, via compensation, only 12 percent of the cases, representing 18 percent of the land. Crucially, of the 80 cases heard in the Beersheba District Court, Justice Goldberg wrote, “not one single verdict of all the verdicts handed down to this day, has accepted the Bedouin plaintiff’s claim of ownership over the land he has filed for.”

“It can be said,” Goldberg continued, “that in so far as the legal battle of ownership is concerned, the hands of the Bedouin, also in the future, will be on the bottom.”

This is largely because Plia Albeck, the head of the Civil Department at the State Attorney’s Office for more than two decades, a pivotal figure in the legal battles over land in the West Bank and the Negev, ruled in October 1975 that all of the land within the sayag was muwat land and therefore “the Bedouin may not attain any rights, neither through ongoing holding nor cultivation.” The land belonged to the state.

Nonetheless, she wrote, “it is unfeasible from a human perspective, and it stands to reason that this will be upheld by the Supreme Court when it is asked to address the land holdings issues, that the Bedouin will be moved off the entire sayag area without compensation.”

She was right. Her position was upheld by the Supreme Court. In a landmark trial known as the Washleh case, the court rejected the tribe’s claims to land in Qasr a-Sir, outside Dimona, on the basis of continued use and cultivation over generations. Instead, the court asserted that the land was too far from a recognized village to be considered anything but mawat; it was desolate and had been for ages; it was not registered in the tribe’s name at any point in time; and the tribe did not ask for it be put down in its name in 1921 when the British conducted the historic land survey.

That decision has never been reversed. And till today, as both sides weigh the incomplete Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev (also known as the Prawer Plan) – a piece of legislation that has received hundreds of millions of dollars of funding but has not yet been written into law – the central issue is just that: ownership vs. compensation. Does the state own the land and is therefore within its right to move the Bedouin into either new or already existing towns and villages, with relatively scant compensation? Or do the Bedouin citizens own the land and therefore should be allowed to remain in place or, if moved, then only by consent and only with the assistance of handsome compensation?

Police and protesters clash at a rally where around 1,200 demonstrators gathered in the southern Israeli town of Hura during a protest against the government's plan to resettle Bedouin residents of the Negev, November 30, 2013. (Photo credit: DAVID BUIMOVITCH/FLASH90)

Police and protesters clash at a rally where around 1,200 demonstrators gathered in the southern Israeli town of Hura during a protest against the government’s plan to resettle Bedouin residents of the Negev, November 30, 2013. (Photo credit: DAVID BUIMOVITCH/FLASH90)

From um-Namailah to the general’s office

Walking along the unpaved paths to Jalal Ziadna’s house in un-Namailah, I passed a dozen Islamic Movement flags, the occasional chicken, some sheep and a thin gray horse. Ziadna welcomed us into a tin-walled receiving room, a modern version of the old goat-hair tents, and offered a group of journalists a seat on the cushions. “There is a war going on here between the Zionist movement, which wants to complete its assertion of control over the entire land of Israel, and the Bedouin, who stand in the way,” he said.

He described life in um-Namailah, noting that the village receives water from the state but little else: no roads, no medical clinic, no sewage treatment and a situation that he described as “partial electricity.” Daily, he said, he lifts his own handicapped son in his arms and walks him to a waiting school bus, which cannot enter the narrow and muddy village streets. Ambulances, too, he added, frequently refuse to enter the town and, in the summer, fire trucks “are not be able to make it in here.”

Ziadna said that he has “no problem with the state of Israel,” and that he sees himself as a citizen of the state, but “these lands have been ours not since the founding of the state but, rather, since 2,200 years ago.”

Speaking fluent, even elegant Hebrew, he said that Uzi Chitman’s classic Israeli song, Kan – “Here I was born/ Here my children were born to me/ Here I built my house – with my own two hands/… And after 2,000 years, my wanderings are over” – “I feel it was written about me.”

Compensation in exchange for relocation, he said, was out of the question.

Atieh al-A’sam, the head of the council of unrecognized villages, described the Negev, in pre-state terms, as stretching from “Faluja to Um Rash-Rash” – or Kiryat Gat to Eilat. On that stretch of desert, 13 million dunam ( 3.2 million acres), there are 220,000 Bedouin, he said, representing more than 30 percent of the total population, yet living on three percent of the land mass. Half live in recognized towns and cities, half live off the grid. The Prawer Plan, he said, “talks about deportation, seizure of lands, destruction of villages. It does not talk about construction of villages. It does not talk about recognition of villages. In essence, the Prawer Plan says, we want to concentrate the Bedouin on one percent of the Negev, destroy 30 unrecognized villages, deport 50,000 from these villages to authorized existing towns. That is the Prawer Plan in general.”

He said he was “very worried about violence” should the law be passed, describing a progression that could lead to a situation where “either I am pushed into a void or I push you into one.” Not a few of those who are familiar with the dispute fear a replication of a Palestinian-style, land-based uprising among the Bedouin. In November, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman depicted the struggle in nationalistic terms: “We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people and there are those who intentionally try to rob and seize them,” he said.

MK Talab Abu-Arar, a trained lawyer from the village of Arara, took a similar tack. He said that the mission of the Prawer Plan “is to Judaize the Negev…and to bury the existing villages.” He described Israel as “a democracy for Jews” and as “racist toward its Arab citizens,” and said, when pressed, that he would accept nothing less than the recognition of all of the Bedouin settlements in the sayag.

MK Talab Abu-Arar (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

MK Talab Abu-Arar (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Abu-Arar suggested seeing some of the towns that the state has built for Bedouin who agreed to relocate in exchange for compensation. Tarrabin, built several years ago, is one such place. The Tarrabin clan, which has its roots in the Sinai, lived for years on a pale, undulating stretch of land just outside the affluent Jewish suburb of Omer. In 2011, after years of negotiation, the vast majority of the tribe, some 3,000 people, accepted the state’s offer of a free plot of land, in a new recognized village, and 150,000 shekels compensation per family. The town has K-12 education, a playground, a basketball court, a medical clinic and the basic amenities provided by the state.

Abed Tarrabin, a middle-aged father of 13, in a sky-blue sweater and a turtleneck, nonetheless, seemed mournful. He had advocated for the move and would not come out directly against it, but, he said, in the nine years the high school has been running, only five people have graduated with a Bagrut certificate. The money, he added, barely covers the cost of laying foundations for the house. Incomplete houses, rather like the ones seen in the unrecognized villages, stood alongside homes of brick. “We received this village from the state as a means of transforming our mentality into something more modern,” he said. “But we did not get something better. Life in this village requires far more expenditures. Everyone is struggling to complete their house.”

Abed Tarrabin, left, alongside a translator and employee of MediaCentral (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Abed Tarrabin, left, alongside a translator and employee of MediaCentral (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

A teacher, who said his motto is “education before food,” Tarrabin appeared stuck between worlds. Listening to him speak, I thought of Moshe Dayan and his brash 1963 proclamation that, within two generations, the Bedouin would not “live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on.”

Tarrabin, though, summed up his aspirations more holistically. He said he wanted his children to be “educated, learned and Bedouin.”

This hope dovetailed with the vision laid out by the man in charge of the Prawer Plan, Doron Almog, a former general who founded and runs Aleh Negev, a rehabilitative village in the Negev that assists severely disabled young adults and children and, as a consequence, is well known and respected among many Bedouin. “There is a land dispute between the Bedouin and the state of Israel,” he said early in his presentation, “but above all it is about Bedouin as equal citizens in the state of Israel…maximizing the human potential of the Bedouin.”

Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, left, is chairman of the committee to implement the Prawer Plan (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, left, is chairman of the committee to implement the Prawer Plan (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Almog, serving under Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir as the point man for the plan, said that, as opposed to al-A’sam and Abu-Arar’s reading of the plan, a significant chunk of the $300,000,000 to be invested by the government in the coming five years would go toward development of Bedouin towns, compensation, and economic development and not merely toward burying the existing villages.

Frustratingly, though, he would not specify which villages might stay in place, which would be removed and how many Bedouin would be compelled to uproot themselves from their current stations.

Seeking a more concrete answer, I contacted Benny Begin, who, for two years, up until January 2013, was the minister in charge of the plan. He refused to speak about the plan but did direct me to the January 2013 report he submitted before stepping down. In it he wrote, in bold, that “the vast majority of the residents living in areas that today lack the planning authorization will be allowed to continue living there in the future, in authorized settlements.”

Likud Minister Benny Begin (photo credit: Flash90)

Benny Begin (photo credit: Flash90)

He did not elaborate and refrained from saying how many of the 50,000 illegal structures in the sayag would be moved or demolished.

He did, however, frame the issue in a way that implied a deep understanding of the scale and significance of the challenge facing Israel. “The matter of the Negev Bedouin is linked to the essential questions regarding the proper relationship between a state and its citizens, between the majority and minority, between the collective and the individual and the individual and the collective,” he wrote.

“This public discourse also raises contradictions within the Bedouin community regarding tradition and innovation, old and young, women and men, Bedouin who claim land and those who do not, those who claim land within the authorized villages and those who claim land outside of them, between the burdens of the past of the hopes for the future. This discourse,” Begin added, “is oppressed by a lack of trust between the Bedouin and the state of Israel and darkened by slogans heard from those who reject all compromises, Bedouin and Jews alike.”