14 arrested at Bedouin demonstration in Beersheba

Hundreds protest government plan for Negev land ownership, block major road; 2 police injured

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli Bedouin protest against the state's impending confiscation of lands, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, in the Negev, June 13, 2013 (photo credit: Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
Israeli Bedouin protest against the state's impending confiscation of lands, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, in the Negev, June 13, 2013 (photo credit: Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

A demonstration in Beersheba Monday turned violent when police attempted to clear hundreds of Bedouin protesters from a main thoroughfare in the city, the police said. Fourteen demonstrators were arrested and two police officers were injured in the incident.

Hundreds of Bedouin were protesting against the “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev,” also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, drawn up by former Likud minister Benny Begin and approved by the cabinet in January. The plan calls for the country to officially recognize and register the vast majority of Bedouin settlements throughout the south of Israel and to compensate the residents of 35 unrecognized villages who are to be moved off state-owned land.

Bedouin and NGOs from the Arab sector see the plan differently. “The Prawer plan will uproot 40,000-50,000 people from their homes and kick them off their land,” Salah Muhsan, a spokesman for Arab rights NGO Adalah in Israel, told The Times of Israel. “They will be moved into cities with poverty and unemployment.”

“Bedouin are agriculturists, and know how to live in open space,” Muhsan added, arguing that the plan to move them into cities would destroy their way of life.

The Negev Regional District police had given Monday’s demonstrators a permit, but when the crowd starting blocking Reger Boulevard near Soroka Hospital, causing major traffic jams, they violated the terms of the permit, according to police. When police, some mounted, tried to clear the protesters off the road, some resisted violently, they said.

“Blocking a road is not a violent act,” argued Muhsan. “Our experience with the police has been very bitter.”

Monday’s protest was accompanied by a general strike declared by the High Steering Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel. Other major protests have been scheduled, including in Wadi Ara in northern Israel.

The Knesset Ministerial Committee on Legislation in May approved the bill, which outlines the framework of government policies vis-à-vis the Bedouin population in the Negev, the evacuation of unrecognized villages, and the ownership of land.

Approval of the bill was based on three key changes to the original Begin Plan, negotiated between members of the Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home parties and Begin and National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror.

A major clause inserted into the bill asserts that a map demarcating the area in question would accurately show the lands set to be allocated for the plan and clearly differentiate between parts allocated for the Bedouin and those that weren’t designated for their use. Ministers also reserve the right to look at the map before final approval.

The second change limits the period needed for implementation. The Begin Plan originally called for a time frame of five years, but the new bill will aim to implement the plan within three years, without the option to further push off the implementation. Thus, the current government can ensure that it will oversee full implementation of the plan while still in power.

Another critical issue was the supervision of the implementation of the plan. Jewish Home insisted that a ministerial committee be established to oversee implementation. MK Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) is set to chair that committee.

In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Begin Plan was aimed at ending the 65-year-old situation wherein the state lost control of land settled by semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes. It would also “put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” he said.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) slammed the bill, claiming that it seeks to “restrict the Bedouin to a specific area and to forcibly apply this policy,” while implying that “no Bedouin settlements will be established beyond this predefined area — compounding concerns of ethnic discrimination.”

The organization also alleges that the plan harms the rule of law in Israel. ”The attempt to create a special arrangement on land issues for a specific group severely undermines not just the principle of the rule of law but also the principle of equality under the law,” wrote ACRI in a statement on the issue.

It also accused the state of treating its Bedouin population like “squatters” and their ownership claims as illegitimate, while simultaneously promoting “the establishment of new Jewish communities, some of which are due to be built on the ruins of Bedouin villages.”

In late June, a slim majority in the Knesset approved the plan, following a stormy session that saw an Arab MK booted out of the chamber for pouring water on a draft of the bill.

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.

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