Regulating Bedouin Settlement: A Disengagement Plan for the Negev

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Ms. Ronit Levine-Schnur analyzes the Bill to Regulate Bedouin Settlement in the Negev 5773–2013, which is intended to end the land dispute between the State of Israel and its Bedouin minority, warns that it seems to be motivated by an exaggerated fear of a Bedouin takeover of the Negev, and offers an alternative approach.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Knesset today is deciding the future of the governmental bill for regulating Bedouin settlement in the Negev, which passed its first reading in the Knesset in June 2013 after a heated debate. The proposed law would implement a "once-and-for-all" solution to the land dispute between the State of Israel and the Bedouin minority, especially regarding the sprawl of dozens of "unrecognized villages" that are home to approximately 90,000 people. The dispute stems from different understandings of the right of the Bedouin to the lands they occupy, which they have held, in some cases, for many decades. The Supreme Court has adopted the State's interpretation of the relevant Ottoman and Mandatory laws, according to which the Bedouin have almost no chance of being recognized as landowners. Nonetheless, the Israeli government has long realized that rebutting all the claims would be a Pyrrhic victory, for where would the Bedouin go after the land is pulled out from beneath their feet? For this reason, the State offered plots of land in permanent settlements—free of charge or at a subsidized price—to all those who abandon their claims.

The current bill would require those Bedouin whose claim of ownership has not yet been settled to choose, within a short period of time, whether to receive monetary compensation and land compensation, with limited affinity to the original claim, or to pursue their claims in court. When this period has elapsed, the State will consider itself free of any obligation—moral or otherwise—toward those who will be left homeless by eviction. The bill also includes an option whereby any Bedouin in the Negev who does not own a residential plot can receive one in exchange for leaving the land he or she currently occupies. At the end of the grace period for compensation and receiving plots, the State will be entitled to evict people and raze buildings after accelerated proceedings, and any pending claims will be dismissed.

New legislation regarding this matter is a valuable opportunity to open a new page in the relationship between the State of Israel and the Bedouin, based on guaranteeing a minimum standard of living and mutual respect—respect for the rule of law by the Bedouin and respect for human dignity by the State. But does the bill before the Knesset meet these expectations? A thorough analysis of the complex legal arrangements in the bill reveals that it fails to do so. Examination of its details reveals that the law would consistently deny the Bedouin procedural rights that are standard in the Israeli legal system. For example, when the State wishes to evict squatters after a certain amount of time has passed since they took up residence (36 months), it must approach the court for each case individually, in order to give the squatters the right to plead their case. The present bill, in contrast, grants the State the authority to evict tenants even if they have occupied the land for decades, without benefit of trial and with no possibility of delaying the eviction by means of a court injunction (except on very limited grounds set forth in the bill).

Moreover, the bill's provisions infringe the rights and dignity of the individual by giving the State excessive power. For example, those who opt for the compensation track cannot state any kind of preference as to the location or type of land they will receive, much less request that their existing residential community (with its family ties) be preserved in the resettlement process. Choosing the compensation track is irreversible, even though claimants do not know what they will receive ahead of time. In addition, the bill would punish one co-owner of a single plot for the actions of the other: if two people jointly occupy a plot of land and one elects not to receive compensation, the compensation of the other may be negatively affected. Finally, the bill stipulates that after the arrangement period ends, all claims that have not been settled will be dismissed if the plaintiffs have not stated their preferred track (compensation or legal redress in court)—even though these suits were filed over 30 years ago and the State is obligated by law to submit them for judicial ruling in cases of dispute.

It therefore appears that the bill is motivated by fear of a Bedouin takeover of the land of the Negev. This fear is why the bill would grant the State unusually strong powers and harsh means. But the intensity of this concern is extremely exaggerated, and raises suspicions that it is affected by unacceptable prejudice. For example, despite what one might think based on the public discussion of this issue, the land in question constitutes less than 2% of the territory of Israel and less than 3% of the Negev. In addition, over two-thirds of all Bedouin claims have already been decided in favor of the State.

This could have been Israel's finest hour, had the last step in settling the relatively few remaining land disputes been the adoption of an arrangement that guarantees the survival of existing Bedouin residential communities to the maximum extent possible (as long as there are no environmental or national concerns) and that offers significant incentives to those who voluntarily choose  the compensation track, while at the same time upholding the procedural rights to which the Negev Bedouin are entitled.


Ronit Levine-Schnur is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.