Israel Must Work With Bedouin To Develop Negev for All

Forced Removals and Hostility to Ancient People Must End

Ancient Peoples: Bedouin woman gathers firewood at a settlement in the Negev desert. Why doesn’t Israel work with the ancient people, instead of fomenting conflict, Theo Bikel asks.
getty images
Ancient Peoples: Bedouin woman gathers firewood at a settlement in the Negev desert. Why doesn’t Israel work with the ancient people, instead of fomenting conflict, Theo Bikel asks.

By Theodore Bikel

Published December 26, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(JTA) — This past May, I made a YouTube video with the Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights that drew a parallel between my role as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which the Jews in Sholem Aleichem’s tale faced expulsion from the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, and a Knesset proposal to forcibly displace up to 40,000 Bedouin-Arab citizens. The video included anguishing footage of the July 2010 demolition of the unrecognized Bedouin village of El-Araqib.

The proposal, known as the Prawer-Begin plan, has reportedly been withdrawn, but this is not certain. A Knesset committee debated the bill even after the supposed withdrawal. There are also indications within the governing coalition that force may yet be used to expel thousands from their desert homes with a law shaped to be more punitive than Prawer-Begin.

The Bedouin have been living in the territory of the Negev Desert for many generations. After Israel’s War of Independence, during which some Bedouin actually fought for the emerging state, much of the population was uprooted and concentrated in a siyag, or enclosure, in a barren part of the Negev’s northeast.

Subsequently, the government maintained a policy of ambiguity. Villages that became home to roughly half of Israel’s Bedouin were not officially recognized and were denied state services, such as utilities and roads. But the government largely left these villages alone. During the 1970s, the government allowed the villagers to file legal claims for their land. These were contested over many years, with two-thirds eventually denied.

Six years ago, the government organized a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and a former state comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, to prepare recommendations regarding Bedouin property rights and unregistered villages. In 2008, the commission proposed that the homes and villages be legalized, pursuant to a regional plan, and land claims resolved. The implementation of these recommendations, however, was outside its purview.

The following year, the government organized a committee headed by the former deputy chair of the National Security Council, Ehud Prawer, to draft an implementation program. The committee included no Bedouin and prepared its work without consulting the affected communities. The resulting plan called for expropriation of at least half the claimed land, at minimal cash compensation, and the forced relocation and destruction of at least 25 villages where 35,000 to 40,000 people reside. Even this proposal was too generous for one committee member, who called for the expropriation of all claimed land.

Benny Begin, recently retired from the Knesset and a former cabinet minister, was tasked with further shaping the Prawer Plan into legislation. He supplemented it with programs for urban development to address the historical neglect of Bedouin residing in seven poverty-stricken and crime-ridden urban townships. But with the details of relocation left vague and uncertain, most Bedouin in the 35 unrecognized villages understandably viewed Prawer-Begin as a scheme that threatened them with dispossession and forced urbanization. Those previously pushed into towns generally found inadequate employment opportunities and poor social conditions. Understandably, most Bedouin distrusted this kind of deal. In addition, some Bedouin prefer agrarian lifestyles for cultural reasons and were deeply disturbed by the prospect of being forced out of their homes and lands.

Jewish groups both inside and outside Israel also spoke out against the proposal. In the Knesset, a mix of left- and right-wing legislators opposed the government bill. Those on the left objected to the prospect of forced relocation, while the right opposed Begin’s proposed package of inducements and compensation for the Bedouin.

Israel and its Bedouin citizens are at a crossroads. They could return to a hostile policy that destroys homes and fields and condemns thousands of Bedouin to displacement from their unrecognized villages and neglect in the townships. Or the government could implement provisions of the Goldberg Commission, resolving land claims and legalizing villages as part of a regional plan developed in consultation with the affected population. Bimkom, an Israeli planning group, has suggested an alternative master plan, to guide the integration of these villages into a broader regional framework.

Working in this way, Israel can move forward to restore trust between the state and its Bedouin citizens, and to establish a constructive program of developing the Negev for all.

Theodore Bikel is an internationally acclaimed singer and actor who serves as board chair of Partners for Progressive Israel.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.