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Al-Asam’s objection is more basic — namely that Bedouin are the only residents of the Negev to have their residences determined by the government. He said, “The government allows Jews in the Negev all types of different dwellings — kibbutzim, moshavim and towns…. What we are asking is, treat us like other residents of the Negev and allow us to choose where we live.”
Mark Regev, spokesman for Netanyahu, said that the Bedouin until now have been subject to “unacceptable levels of underdevelopment and poverty.” By recognizing many previously unrecognized communities and urbanizing residents of others, the state will end uncertainty over the status of their dwellings and “bring the Bedouin into the mainstream as owners of property and assets,” he told the Forward.
Once the status of Bedouin areas is regularized in Israeli law, the government plans to invest billions of shekels in infrastructure that it has refused to establish in unrecognized villages because they are regarded as a legal anathema. Regev called the process “affirmative action” and a “process of empowerment.”
But al-Asam, one of the leading political advocates for residents of unrecognized villages, claimed that the government’s logic that recognition will kick-start infrastructure building is flawed — as it didn’t need to withhold infrastructure in the first place. “These are rights that the government is obliged to give,” al-Asam said, referring to the provision of infrastructure.
“Anyone who opposes the program should ask themselves what is so good about the status quo,” Regev said in response to claims raised by critics of the plan.
The Begin-Prawer plan was adopted by the ministerial legislative committee and passed Israel’s Knesset in first reading by a close margin of 43-to-40.
The near-defeat of the bill, an unusual political outcome for legislation sponsored by the coalition, energized American critics of the plan, who believe that adding the weight of Diaspora Jewry to the voices calling to reconsider the program could tip the balance. “We want members of Knesset and ministers in the Netanyahu Cabinet, especially those from the more moderate wing, to take note of the fact that a significant part of American Jews and American rabbis and leaders are asking them not to take further action on this bill,” said Doni Remba, executive director of Jewish Alliance for Change and co-director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel.
As well as the Bikel video, Remba and other activists in the United States, have organized petitions to Netanyahu and brought over speakers, both Jewish and Bedouin, to speak out against the proposed legislation. The issue has been raised in discussions hosted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and in conference calls with supporters and opponents of the bill in Israel.
On the organizational front, however, results have been mixed. Critics of the plan registered a major victory as the Reform movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination, joined the campaign. In a June 9 letter to Netanyahu, Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, called for a halt in legislative actions on the plan. “Adopting the Begin Plan at this point is premature,” he wrote. “It is clear that more research is necessary to investigate the possible consequences of this plan and its implementation.”
Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis also joined the call, but the two other major streams, Conservative and Orthodox, did not take a stand.