The Bedouin Authority is striving to differentiate itself from the enforcement agencies, and to brand itself as an agency focused on development and settlement. It is making use of its inflated publicity budget to highlight its role in building neighborhoods and laying infrastructure, but in practice it is mainly involved in the destruction of villages and the eviction of residents. Recently, the Chairmen of the Local Bedouin Councils and representatives of the Joint List in the Knesset have called for its dissolution.
Khalil Elamor and Haia Noach, Haoketz, 05.10.20 – Published in Hebrew in Haokets
Surprises do not only occur in fairy tales, sometimes they occur within the context of Israeli politics / bureaucracy. So it was that the following quote appeared on the Bedouin Development and Settlement Regulation Authority’s Facebook page, against the background of a dramatic golden sunset:
“Special interests and personal stakeholders are disseminating accusations that the Bedouin Authority is a partner in the destruction of houses, and that the Bedouin Authority does nothing of value!! This is false, lies and fabrications! The sun will always shine in the east. The Bedouin Authority invests billions of shekels in the development of Bedouin settlements in the Negev. More than 100,000 living units have been planned. More than 30 new neighborhoods have been developed in all of the settlements. The Authority will open five new industrial areas in the coming year. Over 1,000 classrooms have been built […] Stop believing the lies, the facts are already out there, you can see it with your own eyes. The Bedouin Authority does deeds and doesn’t engage in idle talk.”
We will ignore the ridiculous picture of the sunset. We will ignore for the moment – certainly, only for the moment – the sarcastic style typical of the Bedouin Authority’s CEO, Yair Maayan. We will not relate to his blatant effort to hold on to his position along-side the Minister Amir Peretz, who was expected by many to replace the CEO and to implement policies entirely different from those of his predecessor. We will ignore the extension of Maayan’s tenure, which was carried out behind the scenes shortly before the election, and became known to the public only after it. We will not focus on Maayan’s clumsy and self-righteous attempts to put on new feathers in honor of the boss.
We will not dwell on the fact that the Authority was entrusted with the construction of five industrial zones in 2012, as part of the five-year plan that was then being implemented. Whereas of now, in the middle of 2020, only two have been built (or rather expanded – they were actually built earlier). We will not embarrass anyone by mentioning that 4,469 children currently have no place in kindergarten, in spite of the fact that the Compulsory Education Law was applied to the Bedouin settlements over two decades ago.
Instead, we will carefully examine the large eyes, the long ears, and especially the big mouth of the Bedouin Authority.
Selective enforcement on an unprecedented scale
The Authority is a key partner in the “Enforcement Forum”. Participants in the Forum include the police, the Building Law Enforcement Unit (Ministry of the Interior), the Israel Land Authority (subordinate to the Ministry of Housing), the Green Patrol (Ministry of Environmental Protection), the Regional and Local Councils and other law enforcement agencies. The Forum is coordinated by the Southern Administration for the Coordination of Enforcement of Land Laws in the Ministry of Homeland Security.
This is not a passive forum, but rather an operational one. The Forum convenes weekly and makes decisions regarding enforcement policy and enforcement activities, which are realized by way of orders to relinquish all control over lands (hands-off orders), demolition orders, execution of demolitions, filing lawsuits, and other like-minded tools. In 2019, the Forum held 50 meetings that were conducted with great diligence, a very exceptional level of activities for government institutions. This is not just about setting the overall policy, but rather a very particular and meticulous monitoring of enforcement, in every village and in every home, and in making operational decisions. The Forum sets priorities and guidelines for the destruction of up to 2,500 buildings every year in the Bedouin communities.
This activity is very intense. Admittedly, some of the demolition is being carried out by the homeowners themselves, after they are served with a demolition order. Often, there is no need to actually serve an order. The effect of intimidation is enough: the owner is threatened with violent demolition, a lawsuit, a fine and having the cost of the demolition thrown on his family, so he chooses to demolish the house himself. No one wants to experience in his village the violence that has been experienced firsthand by the residents of Umm al-Ḥīrān, al-ʿArāgīb and other villages.
However, in spite of the proliferation of “self-demolition”, enforcement activity is still conducted with the highest intensity: in 2019 1,558 demolition orders were issued and 2,241 buildings were demolished. In 2018, approximately 20,700 dunams of sown fields were “plowed under” for the purpose of destroying crops, an area larger than that of Ramat Hasharon.
This enforcement is unprecedented relative to other regions. No other population in Israel is subject to enforcement of planning and building laws to this extent. For example, in 2018, 430 orders were issued in the south for “the eviction of trespassers”, for the purpose of clearing the land. This, out of a total 519 such orders in the entire country. 628 eviction operations took place in the south, compared to 511 in the north. Of the 46 houses demolished as a result of orders from planning committees throughout the State of Israel, 41 were demolished in the south.
The enforcement is also exceptional in its operating format: “Yoav” – a special patrol unit with more than a hundred armed police officers and dozens of vehicles – specializes in locating construction violations among the Bedouin, and accompanies contractors assigned with carrying out the demolitions. Just how special is the unit? The governmental decision that first set up the unit contains a clause that limits the activities of the unit to those mentioned above, unless there is a specific authorization of the CEO to exceed those limits.
And most importantly, and this is an Olympic record in unprecedented selective enforcement: according to the sweeping enforcement policy, which is currently practiced in the Negev, the enforcement is not limited to actual new construction that is carried out without a permit. In the Bedouin villages, replacing a window in a building built ten years ago immediately turns it into “new construction,” allowing demolition orders to be activated. Even an old hut roof that was repaired after being damaged in a storm is immediately defined as “new construction”, a definition that justifies demolition.
There is no need to expand on the wholesale disregard for massive violations in agricultural settlements: the latest State Comptroller’s report revealed in detail the relaxed and conciliatory manner in which the Southern Sharon Regional Council enforces planning and building laws on its affluent residents, who are also its constituents. The Bedouin can justifiably die of envy. It is no wonder that Ayelet Shaked openly complained when the “Kaminitz Law” was enacted, warning that it would harm Jewish farmers as well.
The role of the Bedouin Authority – branding versus reality
The Bedouin Authority is striving to differentiate itself from the enforcement agencies, and to brand itself as an agency focused on development and settlement. It is making use of its inflated publicity budget to highlight its role in building neighborhoods and laying infrastructure. Its drones make sweeping video clips of new roads and its officials open schools. They smile from ear to ear and photograph the launch of a course for medics and training for innovators. Great branding.
The Authority’s CEO claims that it has no enforcement powers. However, that is not precise. It is true that the Authority was not created by law (it is an administrative office), and as such does not have any enforcement powers defined by law, and there is no specific funding in the Authority’s budget for supervision and enforcement. That being said, Government Decision 1999, from the 15th of June 2009, which brought to the creation of the Authority, defines among the “functions of the Authority and its main powers” the following authority: “Providing recommendations regarding the order of priority for enforcement.” As stated above, in practice, its actions extend far beyond recommendations: the Authority is a major partner in making decisions.
The Authority argues, in its defense, that its role in the Enforcement Forum is of the nature of an “observer only.” This is a blatant plea of innocence, of the kind that would make even the wolf from the legend blush. The role of the Authority in the Enforcement Forum is not only as a partner in enforcement decisions. It deals, among other things, in coordinating “enforcement promoting regulation,” that is, demolition aimed at exerting intense pressure on residents, with whom the Authority is allegedly “negotiating.” The pressure is intended to force them to agree to “negotiate”, and/or to “agree” to the conditions set by the Authority in the so-called “negotiation”.
The method is clearly put forth in the report of the Southern Administration for the Coordination of Enforcement for 2016: “Together with the Bedouin Authority, the Southern Administration acts in the field of enforcement promoting regulation, according to the priorities set by the Bedouin Authority arrived at in a joint deliberation at the beginning of the work year. The deliberation includes identifying issues for treatment, focusing on population concentrations, in which the Authority has an urgent interest in initiating the promotion of regulation […] and is encountering refusal and/or non-compliance with the agreements.” The Southern Administration’s 2019 report also states that enforcement promoting regulation is carried out “in coordination and close cooperation” with the Authority.
The Authority is also a partner in setting priorities in the handling of legal cases. It is a partner in directing enforcement to specific villages or buildings. It was in this way that it introduced violent enforcement into negotiations regarding the realization of recognition of the village Bīr Haddāj. The Authority sees destruction and dialogue as “interlocking tools,” sticks and carrots. If destruction is not enough, sometimes it supplements those oppressive measures other wholesale enforcement, such as utilization of income tax laws, agricultural regulations or environmental regulations.
“Forced consent”: the coercion exerted by the Authority
The coercion of the Authority is intended to make the residents bow their heads and “agree” to the planning that it proposes. This, for example, is what Yair Maayan, head of the Authority said to the State Auditing Committee, regarding Bīr Haddāj: “Plots of five dunams are given to residents for free. They do not come to sign, but on the other hand we ask if there are any active enforcement orders. It is impossible to implement both at the same time. If we try, this budget will go down the drain and so, in Bīr Haddāj we will plan half dunam plots.” It should be emphasized that, to our amazement, Maayan dared to deliver a blatant threat of denial of rights to the Bīr Haddāj residents’ committee in a public debate in the Knesset (on November 15, 2016). Worse, he also made good on the threat further down the road.
The conditions set by the Authority regarding the postponement of the destruction of buildings usually include a requirement to move from the village to one of the townships and/or to a recognized village. A resident is sometimes allowed to delay the destruction of his home “in exchange for his consent” to displacement and relocation. Of course, the decision to be displaced does not stem from free will: it is a forced “willingness,” that is, forced “consent,” given under duress. A Bedouin resident who does not demolish his house himself may, due to changes in the law and regulations, incur an administrative fine of up to NIS 320,000. Under new legislation (the “Kaminitz Law”), the right of residents to appeal demolition orders and fines has also been greatly reduced.
“Israel Today” published a plan according to which about 36,000 Bedouin residents will be displaced for the purported purpose of building “national infrastructure,” such as the southern continuation of Highway 6, and the Ramat Beka military industrial zone. Citing the need to relocate those living in the planned areas of construction, the Authority promoted a plan to transfer many of the displaced persons to extensive temporary residential projects that are not connected to basic infrastructure, such as sewage. Among other things, it was proposed that septic tanks be installed in the temporary buildings.
These plans have been held up by Planning Institutions as they are in stark contradiction to reasonable planning criteria. But the guiding principle of the Authority – displacement and removal from the land to any possible site, temporary or permanent, appropriate or inappropriate, without distinction – has not changed.
Not building – destroying
It is important to note that unlike known settlement agencies, since its establishment in 2009 and until this day, the Authority has not established even one single settlement (i.e., none of the five localities it has planned have been approved and definitively “established”, i.e. actually recognized). In addition, the Authority has failed during all its years of existence in its attempts to implement the Urban Planning Scheme of the village of Bīr Haddāj, which was formally approved in 2003. It is entirely immersed in conflicts with the residents, and not in designing an outline for reaching a solution.
On the other hand, its involvement in the destruction of houses, and in the eviction of residents on a daily basis, is very deep. The Authority is also working to destroy entire settlements: it is currently trying to evict the residents of the villages of Rās Jarābā, Al-Bāṭ Al-Ġarbī, Umm-Badūn and Bekaa from their homes and lands, and evict some of the residents of Bīr al-Ḥamām. It is of no wonder that the heads of the Bedouin local councils and the Joint List Knesset members recently called for the dissolution of the Authority.
Finally, the Negev Coexistence Forum contacted the Southern Administration with a request under the Freedom of Information Law, to obtain the protocols of the “Enforcement Forum”, and to learn about the exact role of the Authority in the Forum. Unfortunately, but not to our surprise, the Southern Administration refused. We will continue to spread the truth about the Bedouin Authority. We will not allow its leaders to base their image on legends and fabrications, nor to deny their responsibility.
Khalil Al-Amour is a member of the village council of as-Sirrah and member of the secretariat of the Negev Coexistence Forum. Haia Noach is the director of the Negev Coexistence Forum.