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Israel freezes building enforcement in Ra’am stronghold

Official says there will be no moves against building violations in Bir Hadaj in the south, a power base for MK Said al-Harumi, for a month

The sun goes down in Bir Hadaj, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)
The sun goes down in Bir Hadaj, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Israeli authorities have agreed to temporarily cease enforcement of illegal construction in a southern Bedouin community where the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party enjoys substantial backing, the government official tasked with managing Bedouin affairs said.

Over the next month, judicial proceedings concerning construction violations in Bir Hadaj will not be held and demolition orders will not be carried out, said Yair Maayan, who manages the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev.

Action will continue to be taken against any new illegal building in the village, Maayan told The Times of Israel.

Ra’am, whose support is crucial to the new government, campaigned in part on ending home demolitions and legalizing unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev desert. The Islamists secured a pledge to legalize three townships in their agreements to join the coalition.

Bir Hadaj is a stronghold of Ra’am MK Said al-Harumi, who reportedly threatened to vote against the government when it was sworn in last month over potential demolitions in the community — a move that could have thwarted its formation.

The report noted the decision on Bir Hadaj came after the government voted Sunday to move the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev from the Economy Ministry to the Welfare Ministry, in response to a Ra’am threat to break with the coalition.

Lawmaker Said al-Harumi pauses during an interview at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Monday, June 28, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

According to Maayan, Bir Hadaj residents met with Bedouin Authority officials to discuss legalizing construction in parts of the town that have not yet been recognized by the government.

“During the meeting, the committee announced its decision to enter into an accelerated dialogue to promote construction in the town, after many years of stagnation,” Maayan said.

The Israeli state has often clashed with Bedouins over illegal construction. Around 90,000 Bedouins live in unrecognized villages scattered across the southern Negev desert. Much of the construction in these villages is illegal, as the towns do not exist in the eyes of the law.

Although Bir Hadaj was officially recognized by Israel in 2004, the tension between the two sides has continued. Many town residents live outside the town borders demarcated by the government, and have refused to move. Bir Hadaj residents, for their part, also allege that the state fails to provide them adequate services.

Maayan denied any connection between alleged pressure by Ra’am or al-Harumi to the discussions.

Bir Hadaj town council-member Salim Denfiri also said in a phone call that al-Harumi had no connection to the matter. But he did claim this was the first time Maayan had come to the town to negotiate with residents.

“This whole negotiating process is empty talk, and nothing will come of it,” Denfiri said pessimistically.

Former premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and its right-wing religious allies ripped the government and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the report.

“Bennett is continuing to sell off the Negev wholesale. What else will he sell to Ra’am to keep his seat?” the Likud said in a statement.

Extreme-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionism party charged the government was “abandoning” the Negev.

“This is a scandal… that they are so quickly selling the Negev to lawbreakers,” he tweeted.

A herd of sheep seen in a Bedouin village in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, January 21, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ben Gvir said he intended to appeal to the High Court of Justice “if this illegal policy is not canceled immediately.”

In joining the coalition, Ra’am became the first Arab Israeli party to do so in decades and the first to be a crucial element in maintaining the government’s fragile majority.

Right-wing members of the opposition have charged that this would allow the Islamist, non-Zionist party to extort the government and lead to decisions that will harm national security.

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