UN decries plan that would raze some Bedouin villages

Commissioner for human rights calls Negev Desert proposal ‘forcible displacement,’ charges Israel with discrimination

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Navi Pillay, United Nations high commissioner for Human Rights, on Thursday slammed the Israeli government’s plan to resettle some Bedouin communities in the Negev while recognizing others.

The “Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev,” also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, was 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 — some 30,000-40,000 people — who are to be moved off state-owned land.

Pillay focused on those who would be forced to move off land they claim ownership to.

“As citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouin are entitled to the same rights to property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel,” she said in statement. “The government must recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.”

She charged that the Israeli government “continues to actively pursue a discriminatory policy of forced displacement against its own Arab citizens.”

Two years ago, Pillay visited Israel and expressed concerns that Bedouin villages in the Negev were still unrecognized.

In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Begin Plan aimed to put an end to 65 years during which the state lost control of land settled by semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes. It would also “put an end to the spread of illegal construction by Negev Bedouin and lead to better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” he said.

Pillay, however, said the plan illicitly removed citizens from their land. “I am alarmed that this bill, which seeks to legitimize forcible displacement and dispossession of indigenous Bedouin communities in the Negev, is being pushed through the Knesset,” Pillay continued.

She contended that the bill offered limited and inadequate compensation for moving to one of the seven Bedouin cities created by the Israeli government.

“If this bill becomes law, it will accelerate the demolition of entire Bedouin communities, forcing them to give up their homes, denying them their rights to land ownership, and decimating their traditional cultural and social life in the name of development,” she said.

Pillay urged Israel to adopt the findings of the 2008 Goldberg Commission, which recommended that the government recognize as many villages as possible. “Respect for the legitimate rights of minorities is a fundamental tenet of democracy,” she said.

Pillay did not address the issue of illegal construction in the Negev, a concern of Israeli NGO Regavim. “There has been much attention focused on settlements deemed ‘illegal’ in the West Bank,” Ari Briggs, Regavim’s director of international affairs, told JTA, “including forced evacuations. Far less in the public eye have been shocking illegal land grabs on this side of the Green Line, in the Negev.”

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 Prawer-Begin Plan, negotiated between members of the Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home parties, Begin, and National Security Council chief 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 span 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 (Jewish Home) is set to chair that committee.

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. It is expected to go through the second and third readings before the end of July.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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