THE BLOG
12/18/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

How to Begin After Prawer-Begin

This week, when we begin reading the book of Exodus in synagogue, we hear about how Pharaoh and the Egyptians "squeezed" the Israelites (Exod. 3:9) -- it means the Egyptians deprived the Israelites of space to live, according to one midrash. Last week, the Prawer-Begin Plan -- which would have "squeezed" the Bedouin, expelling some 30,000 Bedouin in Israel's Negev from their villages and concentrating them in urban townships -- was killed by the government, when one if its Knesset authors admitted that they had never consulted with the Bedouin community.

Village of Wadi el-Na'am, courtesy of Bustan, see savethenegev.org for more info

Now that the Prawer-Begin Plan is dead, it's time to look at how we got here. Why are there so many unrecognized Bedouin villages? Did they spring up not only carelessly but nefariously, as many supporters of the Prawer-Begin Plan maintained?

Some of these unrecognized villages, like Al-Araqib, predate the state of Israel. No one outside of a bureaucrat or ideologue could maintain that these villages deserve to be demolished. Others, like Umm al-Hiran, sprang up in the Negev when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) moved all the Bedouin tribes living in the southern Negev to territory in the northern Negev in the 1950s, and created a closed military zone out of their ancestral lands. To most people, it would seem that the government of Israel implicitly accepted responsibility for helping the Bedouin create a new home by the very act of moving them. But since the Bedouin were not "our" people, not Jews (even if they were "our Arabs," serving in the IDF), Israel has never recognized the Bedouin's right to live in the very places that the IDF had moved them to.

As the government's Goldberg Commission recognized, these two categories include many of the unrecognized villages. But because the Bedouin in these villages were deemed squatters, they have never been given public services, or registered to vote, or protected by zoning laws. That's over half a century without the institutions of medical care, without running water or electricity, and without any kind of planning. That's over half a century during which various heavy industries and toxic waste dumps were built in Ramat Hovav, close to the unrecognized village of Wadi el-Naam, because officially, the village wasn't there, and unofficially, the government wanted to drive the Bedouin from the land and "concentrate" them in government-planned townships where they had no land claims.

The Prawer-Begin Plan was an attempt to make a law that would override any rights these villages might have to use the courts to prevent their demolition. (We still have to worry about extremists like MK Miri Regev in Israel passing an even worse law.) The goal of Prawer-Begin was to implement the government's long-standing objectives: to turn the desert into an array of Jewish "pioneer" communities that would conquer the desert on behalf of the Jewish people. The complaint that the Bedouins take up too much space in the Negev (even though they only occupy about 5 percent of the land) is a direct consequence of an ideology that says the land of Israel is for the people Israel.

Why do the Bedouin "take up so much space," to paraphrase the people who would anathematize and condemn their culture? Think a brief moment of the relationship between ecology and society: the less productive a land is, the more area each family and village must use to get its sustenance. That is the only way one can live within one's means in the desert. What is not sustainable, and what does harm open space, permanently? The establishment of dozens of small suburban bedroom communities, served by parks with green lawns -- the dream of state planners who really don't care about desert ecology or the environment.

Bedouin sprawl is better than Jewish suburban sprawl for the desert and for human beings. Does that mean Bedouin culture is ecologically pure? Of course not. Bedouin culture is a mashup of ancient ways that once worked, with polluting technologies like diesel generators, and with enormous population growth (created in part by the good and holy impact of modern medicine). The unrecognized Bedouin communities are expanding without the benefit of zoning or planning -- which is a direct consequence of the government's refusal to recognize them.

In fact, the state of Israel, if it were to work with the Bedouin instead of against them, could help Bedouin culture make the full leap into modernity without destroying their way of life, for example, by setting up the Bedouin villages -- whether they are unrecognized or not -- with solar panels so they won't burn petroleum diesel. More importantly, it could learn from Bedouin culture something about how to live in the desert. But as long as the policy of the government continues to be based on the wish that the Bedouin would not take up any space at all, that they simply would not exist, it will never be able to respond to these problems. That will create a legacy that is of the legacy of Pharaoh, not the Jewish people. And that will end up in the worst of all possible worlds, for the Bedouin, for the desert, and for all Israel.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal