Negev negativity

Negev negativity

Local rabbis add their voices to Bedouin dispute

A demonstration in the Negev against the Prawer-Begin plan. Oren Ziv/

Fifteen policemen were injured and 30 arrests were made when protests in Israel against a government plan to modernize the living conditions of Israel’s Bedouin citizens turned violent last weekend.

The plan, which would develop the Negev and end the legal limbo in which many of the once nomadic Bedouin have lived since the creation of the State of Israel, would require more than 30,000 Bedouin to leave their villages and move to new settlements that would be created for them.

Opponents of the plan had called for “Days of Rage,” and the protests in the Negev and elsewhere in Haifa were matched by protests around the world.

In northern New Jersey last month, however, several rabbis lodged a quieter protest, signing their names to a petition protesting the Israeli plan distributed by Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. (The organization formerly was known as Rabbis for Human Rights ““ North America.)

“Demolishing villages and dispossessing people of their land build animosity among the Bedouin towards the state,” reads the petition, which garnered the signatures of 780 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical and cantorial students.

“Forcing more Bedouin into impoverished urban settings with high unemployment and few economic opportunities will further entrench cycles of poverty,” it continues. “To treat the Bedouin population in this way runs contrary to the Jewish values on which the State of Israel was founded.

“The prophet Micah warned us about such abuses of power, saying: ‘They covet fields, and seize them; and [they covet] houses, and take them away; thus they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.”

Local signers include Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah in Wayne; Rabbi Israel Dresner, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne; Rabbi Barry Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, who is the director of the Jewish Publication Society; Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck; Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Fair Lawn; Cantor Orna Green of Teaneck; Rabbi Mark W. Kiel of Woodcliff Lake; and Rabbi Jonathan Woll of Glen Rock.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, who lives in Teaneck and is Truah’s director of North American programs, also signed.

“As Jews in the Disapora, we have a responsibility to speak out because we care about the state of Israel and the people of Israel,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director. “Much like we speak out against human rights violations when they occur in the United States.”

At issue is what is known as the Prawer-Begin plan – a proposal that aims to legalize the status of Israel’s Bedouin. More than half of the Negev’s 210,000 Bedouin live in legally recognized settlements, but 90,000 live in areas whose legal status never was formally defined. While some of them have successfully received land titles through protracted court battles, no formal planning process was set up until now that would allow them to legally build on the land where they lived, even if they proved ownership.

As a result, the Israeli government now considers 60,000 Bedouin buildings to be built illegally.

The Israeli plan aims to resettle the Bedouin into new villages that would be constructed for them, along with the creation of new economic opportunities. All told, the plan would spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years, with some of that sum going to settle land claims and some on the creation of infrastructure.

The overall goal of the plan, according to the Israeli foreign ministry, is to integrate the Bedouin into Israeli society and thereby “to afford Bedouin children a better future.”

“To oppose the Begin Plan is to oppose improving the lives of Bedouin children,” a foreign ministry position paper posted on its website declares.

“Without formalizing the status of their settlement, the Bedouins will not be able to benefit from the many resources that will be made available to the Negev in the coming years, and it will not be possible to fully fulfill the task of developing the Northern Negev for all of its residents,” wrote former Israeli minister Benny Begin in a report he prepared for the government laying out the plan.

The precise implementation of the plan is the subject of legislation that is expected to be finalized and approved by the Knesset in the near future.

But statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman imply that the plan’s focus may not be only on the well-being of the 30,000 Bedouin who will be dislocated as 25 of the existing 35 Bedouin settlements are razed.

“We are fighting over the national land of the Jewish people,” he said this week in response to the demonstrations.

Critics of the Israeli government’s approach to the Bedouin have pointed to the recently announced plans to raze the unrecognized village of Umm el-Hieran and replace it with a new development meant to house Orthodox Jews. Five hundred Bedouin live in el-Hieran; they were relocated there by the Israeli government in 1956.

This “demonstrates that the primary motivation behind these plans is the government’s racist policies towards Arab Bedouin citizens,” said a statement issued by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Bedouin opposed to the plan have said that being moved into urban or semi-urban towns and villages will undermine their traditional agrarian way of life.

Joshua Bloom, director of Israel programs for Truah, said, “The government is treating the Bedouin as a hindrance to the Jewish settling of the land of the Negev, rather than seeing the Bedouin representatives as equal citizens of the State of Israel who have longstanding land claims that predate the state.

“We’re interested in seeing a negotiated solution that engages the Bedouin communities in Israel as equals partners in that negotiations,” he said. “To date, we have not seen that level of engagement from the Israeli government.”

Truah has not yet received a response to its petition, which it presented to both the Knesset Interior Committee and to Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, director of the Headquarters for Economic Community Development of the Negev Bedouins in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Major General Almog was just quoted as saying that 80 percent of the Bedouin in Israel agree with the government’s plan, yet there appears to be no substantiation of that claim,” Mr. Bloom said.

Addressing the protests, Mr. Bloom said that “we do not condone the use of violence to achieve a political aim. The fact that some minority of participants in the protests that occurred over the weekend engaged in violent acts is not justified. We pray for the recovery of the police officers and civilians that were injured.

“However, the protests showed just how much of a tinderbox the situation is and how much potential there is to turn what has been a stable relationship between an Arab population and its Jewish neighbors into one that has the potential to become an ongoing conflict between the state and its citizens.”

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