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I am one of 620 rabbis and cantors who signed a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu (http://bit.y/BedouinRabbis – “Clergy United Against Bedouin Dispossession”, organized by T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights) asking the Israeli government to set aside the Begin-Prawer Bill as unjust.

The bill’s authors say that the bill will settle land ownership disputes between Israel’s Bedouin Negev citizens and the state, compensate the 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin being moved from their homes to new recognized villages, and ensure their well-being by affording them regular access to water, electricity and other services.

However, there is far more here than meets the eye.

The 190,000 Bedouin Arabs of the Negev, among the poorest in the country (71% live below the poverty line), are full citizens of the State of Israel. 90,000 of these Bedouin live in 45 villages of which 35 have not been recognized by the government and are therefore not provided the most basic services. Only ten of the 45 villages are expected to receive formal government recognition.

The bill will forcibly move these Bedouin from villages in which they have lived for generations because the state does not recognize their property claims. Why?

First, the Bedouin who lived on their land under Ottoman and British Mandate control had “understandings” with the authorities about which lands belonged to them. The formal process of regulating land ownership under the British Mandate (1917-48), however, was never carried out in the Negev, though many landholders elsewhere in the country were officially registered.

Second, the Bedouin had their own traditional system of property acquisition that was acceptable under Ottoman and British rule, and so they were given the impression that registering their land in the government Land Registry was not necessary.

Third, Israel’s War of Independence dislocated thousands of Bedouin. Immediately after the 1948 War, Israel declared the lands temporarily evacuated by Bedouins to be “abandoned land.” The IDF confiscated that land and turned it into military training zones and built yishuvim (Jewish communities) on the land of abandoned villages.

Dr. Dan Gazit, an archaeologist who has spent decades living and working in the Negev, claims that an archive in the Beersheba Municipality that existed during the British mandate era documented all land ownership data for the Bedouins of the province, but was “lost” during its transfer to the State Archive. He has written:

“The State of Israel, which disappeared the Bedouin ownership date of their lands in the Negev, is now expelling them from their land, claiming that they have no official ownership documentation.”

This is a classic “Catch 22!”

“The Begin-Prawer Plan” will force the displacement and eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossess them of their ancestral property, and damage the social fabric of their communities thus putting thousands of families at risk of falling further into poverty, unemployment and crime.

What is recommended instead is for the Israeli government to recognize formally the unrecognized 45 villages, all of which have met the same criteria required of new Jewish communities to be registered, and thereby afford them adequate water, electricity, plumbing, health care, education, and employment.

The unfairness of this bill is stunning in another way. There are currently 100 Jewish villages in the Beer Sheva District of the Negev with an average population of only 300, far fewer than the Bedouin villages which have between 400 and 4800 residents. Jewish villages, however, have had no difficulty attaining land and formal recognition thus affording them the necessary infrastructure from the Israeli government including water, electricity, plumbing, health care, education, and employment.

The premise behind the Begin-Prawer Plan is that Bedouin Arabs are usurpers of the land upon which they live because they lack documentation, but that is a problem created by the state of Israel, not the Bedouin themselves who are victims of bureaucratic neglect.

The Prophet Micah (2:2) warns us: “And 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.”

What pans out at the end of the day is that this Begin-Prawer bill is a land grab by the state of Israel of property lived on and possessed by Israeli Bedouin Arab citizens.

Jewish tradition teaches that the highest moral duty is to treat strangers and the most vulnerable in our midst with kindness and justice. The irony in the case of the Bedouin is that as citizens of Israel they are NOT strangers at all, but part of the fabric of Israel’s democracy.

If Israel is to embody the best of Jewish ethical tradition (as it does in so many areas) and the highest democratic standards, then the Knesset must defeat this bill.