JNS.org – While the international community often focuses on the legal status of Jewish construction in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, two Israeli government initiatives—a proposed transfer of Israeli land near Jericho to Palestinians and a law that would retroactively legalize tens of thousands of Bedouin structures in the south—are highlighting the issue of illegal Arab building across Israel.
At the forefront of tackling this issue is Regavim, an NGO that tracks illegal Arab building and prosecutes it in Israeli courts.
A Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria proposal to transfer 2,000 dunams (500 acres) of Israeli land to Palestinians near Jericho, in the Jewish-controlled Jordan Valley, represents the continuation of a pattern in which Arabs living in Areas A and B, which are under Palestinian municipal authority, are being legally permitted to relocate to large tracts of land in Area C, areas designated for Jewish residence under full Israeli control.
The move is being criticized by Jewish regional councils for being conducted at a time when Arabs can build almost at will in Areas A and B, while permits for Jewish building in Area C are being severely restricted as a result of what many believe to be the Israeli government’s efforts to pacify the international community.
“If a Jewish family puts up a patio on a house—anywhere in Israel—without a permit, municipal authorities can come into your house and get you to tear it down,” Ari Briggs, the director of Regavim, told JNS.org.
“Jews are forced to adhere to a very strict building framework, while Arabs in many parts of the country are given a free hand. And this is exactly the opposite view that the international community has of Israel,” Briggs said.
Regavim—whose name comes from the Hebrew word “regev,” meaning a small patch of land, originating from a Zionist poem about reclaiming the land of Israel “dunam by dunam, regev by regev”—works to track illegal Arab building across Israel, with a particular focus on the Negev in the south of the country, the Galil in the north, and in Judea and Samaria.
While dozens of NGOs focus on relatively limited incidents of illegal Jewish building, Regavim is the only NGO focusing its energies on the rampant pattern of illegal Arab building taking place across the country.
Currently, Regavim has 30 cases being tried in Israeli courts, with up to 140 investigations being conducted at any time.
Many of Regavim’s current efforts are focusing on the south, where the largest numbers of illegal structures exist. The government is currently attempting to put a stop to illegal building, but those efforts give rise to controversy.
A new law known as the Prawer Law, which would retroactively legalize tens of thousands of Bedouin structures, is drawing ire from the anti-settlement NGOs, but not because the Prawer Plan—if passed—will seemingly reward decades of illegal construction on state lands and nature reserves. Rather, the plan has angered the NGOs because it stipulates that several thousand Bedouin must relocate from positions in close proximity to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone, a site that has been deemed unsuitable for residential zoning due to the pollutants emitted from the factories.
Bedouin have been actively opposing the law in recent weeks. At a recent protest, Atiya al-Aassm, head of the Regional Committee for unrecognized villages in the Negev, is reported to have said in an address, “We want to tell Prawer, [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni and all decision-makers that we have endured 65 years of water scarcity and all forms of torture, and we will continue to endure and will not give up one inch of our land.”
“I urge the Ministers not to pass their discriminatory law; do not drive us to violence,” al-Assam said.
While the NGOs are accusing Israel of enforcing discriminatory policies against a minority population, Bedouin have for many years been building with no municipal planning, permits, or compliance with modern building standards on land that they never formally owned. As a result, the structures are not legally connected to Israel’s electricity grid or national water carrier.
According to Regavim, more than 90,000 of 210,000 Bedouin live in more than 2,000 separate unauthorized encampments, covering 800,000 dunams (200,000 acres) in the northern Negev between Beersheva, Dimona and Arad.
“Ninety percent of these structures are built on public lands, owned by either the state or the Jewish National Fund. And they have become much more brazen in their land grabs over last 10 years,” Briggs told JNS.org.
“Everybody understands that because Israel is such a small country, land is one of the most critical resources to safeguard,” he said. “Bedouin are claiming ownership of a parcel of land more than double the size of the Gaza Strip.”
The new law would recognize more than half of the Bedouin homes in their current locations and transfer additional large tracts of land in strategically planned areas to the nomadic Bedouin to build formal communities.
According to the Prawer Plan, more than half of the land that Bedouin currently reside on would be legally transferred and formally established as Bedouin communities. Bedouin would then be compensated for the remaining lands they currently claim and receive tracts of other land for the establishment of permanent communities.
The plan calls for investment of 9.5 billion NIS into Bedouin communities in the next five years. Development of Bedouin infrastructure will reportedly be administered with coordination from 16 government ministries and agencies.
The need for clamping down on illegal Bedouin building is obvious. Bedouin are known for having among the fastest population growth rates in the world.
According to Briggs, Bedouin sport a growth rate 5.6 percent and double their population every 15 years.
“Polygamy is a common practice among Bedouin, with each male averaging three to four wives, and an astounding 20 to 30 children per male,” Briggs said.
Bedouin live in the Negev in areas of the country that are not considered by any authority to be disputed territories—meaning Bedouin live under full Israeli sovereignty and must adhere fully to Israeli law, which they currently do not.
“Living in illegal structures keeps Bedouin off the legal grid, so to speak, so they can’t be tracked,” Briggs explained. “They are untraceable. They don’t have a legal address and don’t pay any forms of taxes. This is despite the fact that they have full Israeli citizenship, with formal identity cards, and the right to vote in Israeli elections.”
Furthermore, Bedouin are well known for criminal activity, including running mafia-style protection rackets, forcing landowners and even government-owned companies including Israel’s National Road Authority to pay fees to guarantee the protection of their infrastructure and equipment.
According to Briggs, the situation is beyond unlawful.
“The Bedouin are running major crime and smuggling rings. They are responsible for the smuggling of everything from drugs to women to weapons,” he said.
Israeli farms “need to be protected with prison-like fences to protect crops, animals and equipment,” Briggs asserts.
“The government needs to do a better job protecting the land in the Jewish state,” he said.