Not bad decisions, but no decisions at all
How Israel's leaders created today's lawless Negev; a conversation with Naomi Linder Kahn of Regavim
In several columns since Israel’s election, we’ve pointed to the chaos and lawlessness that has overtaken the Negev and the ways in which that contributed to some of the election results.
In this week’s episode, we speak with Naomi Linder Kahn, Director of the International Division at an NGO called Regavim, which “acts to prevent illegal seizure of state land, and to protect the rule of law and clean government in matters pertaining to land-use policy in the State of Israel.”
The link above will take you to our conversation, being made available today, along with a transcript for those who prefer to read, to paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
There have been a number of occasions in the many conversations that we've had with Israelis of all different sorts over the last couple of years as part of Israel from the Inside for people to talk about problems in the Negev. We have spoken with residents of the Negev who have pointed directly or indirectly at the problem of crime and the issue of what's called the “hapzura ha’bedouit” or the Bedouin spreading out, as I guess would be a decent translation. We spoke with the head of HaShomer HaHadash, an organization that helps farmers protect their lands. We've had a number of occasions to speak about the issue of the Bedouin in the Negev and the loss of Israeli control over significant portions of territory, but never really directly in terms of making that specifically the focus of our conversation. And there is one organization in the Negev called Regavim, which is really the organization known for trying to create policy, and do analysis of what's happening on the ground, to try to bring this to the attention of Israelis and so forth. And given the new incoming Israeli government and that Ben-Gvir ran to a certain extent on a platform of trying to rope in some of the lawlessness in the Negev, this issue may come back to the fore relatively soon. And we felt it was therefore really time to begin to have a serious series of conversations to allow our listeners to understand what's really going on in the Negev and why. And in order to do that, we have the pleasure of speaking with and learning from today, Naomi Linder Kahn, who is the director of the International Department of Regavim, the organization that I mentioned before. Like me, Naomi hails from Brooklyn. I left Brooklyn when I was two. I think she left Brooklyn a little bit later, but she and her husband moved to Israel 38 years ago, shortly after they got married. And she's been working for this organization, Regavim, for about six years and she is going to help us understand a lot more about the Negev than we understand right now. So, Naomi, first of all, thank you very much for making the time to have this conversation.
Thank you for inviting me. It's an important conversation.
It is an important conversation. So, there's a lot of questions. People want to know what's going on. How did it happen? How did it get this way? Why are Israelis rank and file not talking about this? Because what you're going to describe, I'm sure because I've read the materials that Regavim puts out, is a national security issue. Not kind of an annoyance, but a national security issue. And Israelis take national security pretty seriously. So, the question will be, why is nobody talking about this? But let's start at the very beginning. Let's not go back to history yet. Let's talk now. Tell us about the Negev. How many people live in the Negev? How many of them are Bedouins? What is the Bedouin birth rate? How many of them live in recognized villages? And explain what that is and how many of them live in unrecognized villages and explain what that is. Give us a kind of an understanding of what the situation in the Negev is.
An overview, a bird's eye view, perhaps. So, the Negev, first of all, people should be aware that the Negev is not just the backyard of the State of Israel. It constitutes something like 60% of the entire state of Israel. It also constitutes the vast majority of Israel's available land reserves for growth, for development. Anyone who's been to the coastal plain area and the greater Tel Aviv area essentially understands that that is maxed out. And if Israel is going to grow, and we intend for it to grow, the place it's going to grow is the Negev. Now, the question is, how does that happen? What is preventing that at the moment? And how do we remove those impediments to growth and development? And how do we resolve the conflict that is coming to a boiling point in the Negev? It's a conflict over land itself, which is why Regavim is so intensely involved here, because that is what we do….
So Regavim means mounds of earth. Actually, we take more or less a pixelated view of the State of Israel down to the smallest units of land. And that is because we believe that the decisions about who uses land, for what purposes, how and why, is essentially the most basic expression of a nation's sovereignty. Because without land, you don't have a state. So, we may have had a people, we may have had a nation, but we didn't have a state until we had land. And wise, forward-thinking use of that land, sovereign use of that land, is what will maintain the sovereignty of the State of Israel for the future. So, we want to make those decisions carefully. And what we've seen in the Negev essentially is not bad decisions, but no decisions. The situation that has been allowed to come into existence I can't even describe it any other way. It's not even an evolution. But the situation as it exists in the Negev right now is chaos. It's bad for everyone.
What is the situation, in numbers tell us what's going on?
So approximately 20% of Israel's population itself are Bedouin. They are citizens of the State of Israel with full and equal rights.
20% of Israel's population are Bedouin.
In the Negev.
In the Negev.
Yes. 20% of the population of the Negev. So, you have right now something like 200,000 Bedouin living in legal organized towns or townships that were created by the State of Israel in order to enable the Bedouin to continue to live as a distinct protected minority according to traditional lifestyle and let's say, customary styles of living in the negative.
How many of these recognized villages are there right now?
Right now approximately 17.
There are others that are in the process of being recognized. We'll talk about that.
Okay. But I'm saying there's 200,000 of the Bedouin who are in these 17 recognized villages, which means that they're connected to the water grid and the power grid and all of that kind of stuff.
For the most part. Unfortunately, there's a lot of illegal construction inside of those townships where the houses aren't properly connected. But that's a minor problem. The bigger problem is that there are 100,000 more Bedouin living in what some would call unrecognized villages. And what are that's actually a very kind, or shall we say, political use of words, because they're just plain illegal squatters’ camps. There are people, 100,000 people.
So that's a third of the Bedouin that we're talking about?
Correct. One third of the Bedouin population in the Negev is living off the grid illegally. There are 80,000 people in the Negev who have no address whatsoever. There teudat zeut, there Israeli identification papers, their registration in the population registry, for all intents and purposes, gives them, ascribes to them, a tribal affiliation with no address, which means that if in a teudat zeut any particular person, his tribe is listed as Al Azazme, he could live anywhere from Mitzpe Ramon to Arad to pretty much anywhere. And the state has no idea where people are living, how many people are actually in there in these squatters’ camps? And the squatters’ camps continue to grow. They are hotbeds, obviously, living off the grid with no accountability, no address to which the state could send you even a parking ticket or anything else. It's a hotbed of all sorts of unsavory things. Criminal behavior, the widespread practice of polygamy is number one, and it's a massive issue. We'll talk about that as well. There's crime, there's weapons, there's smuggling, there's a tremendous drug trade. There are protection rackets that are spilling out and threatening Israel's economy throughout the country. Not just the economy, but the safety and well-being of pretty much anyone who wants to run a business. It was at one point an open secret only in the Negev, and it is now much, much further beyond the boundaries of the Negev. All of these things really find the most fertile, I would say incubators in these off the grid, illegal squatter scams.
Now, how does all of this squatter camps, 100,000 Bedouin, polygamous, living off the grid, okay, none of that sounds really good, but one could say, okay, that's not really good. We're not in favor of polygamy. We'd like people to be on the grid. It's hard for the government not to know where they live. That's not such a good thing. But it doesn't sound like a catastrophe. Sounds bad, but in what way does this now affect the life of an Israeli family living in Dimona? The life of a family living in Arad, a family living in Beer Sheva, a family living in any one of a number of moshavim around there. How does this actually affect the Israeli Jews living in the Negev?
It affects the Israeli Jews living in the Negev on a day-to-day basis in terms of the violence, the crime, the extortion, and the general perception of personal safety. But it affects every single person living in the state of Israel on a much more, I would say, sinister scale, and that is that there's a massive problem, a massive threat to Israel's army bases in the south. The number one supplier of arms to terrorism is actually the IDF. Through all of the theft of material, ammunition, weapons, parts of tanks, parts of planes, whole jeeps have been found in the backyards of people in these illegal squatters camps.
Yes, I read all about this. I just have to interrupt you. I've been in my share of army bases in the day. They look pretty well protected to me, like, surrounded by fence after fence after fence with electronic equipment and razor wire at the top. And then yeah, all the reports say exactly what you're saying, which is that the Bedouin actually go on these army bases, steal tons of equipment, sell it to terrorists. How is the Israel Defense Forces pregnable by young, I'm assuming, male Bedouin in the Negev? How exactly is it that young people can actually break into army bases and steal jeeps?
It's really easy when you're a civilian and you go onto an army base, you're a civilian, a citizen of the state of Israel. The army has no jurisdiction to enforce the law against you.
How did you get on the army base?
Cut the wire of the fence and drove right on. We're talking about massive army bases in the Negev that are used for training, landing strips, hangers for equipment, all kinds of emergency storage, stock things. The amount of theft is mind boggling to the point where whole army large division wide exercises had to be canceled because all the targets were stolen. We're talking about soldiers who are actually physically removed from armored carriers and the Bedouin just jump on and drive them off. At a certain point, the Tzilim base in the Negev had to dig a trench, an anti-tank trench around the base to protect the personal effects of reservists who were serving there. All their cars were stolen. The keys to their houses, all of their personal effects. All these things. The Bedouin simply just walked into the barracks while everyone was out in the field doing training exercises and emptied them out. And this was going on for years to the point where a movement began of reservists who just couldn't take serving down in the Negev anymore because the theft was so incredible. It was off the charts. They couldn't afford any more to serve in reserves because their cars and all of their personal effects and their wallets and credit cards, everything disappeared every time they served, did a reserve duty exercise down in the Negev.
But that's small compared to massive emptying out of whole ammunition warehouses on the army bases. And that's one small part of it. During one of our recent operations down in Gaza, we had Bedouin who were simply sitting on their cell phones in their squatter's huts that overlook the Nevatim Army base and giving directions to the launchers of the missiles in Gaza, how to improve their aim. And they actually scored direct hits on all sorts of things on the base because they were getting direct live instructions from squatters who had positioned themselves in these squatters’ huts. And they're living overlooking our most sensitive military installations in the Negev.
But it's just important to point out these are Israeli citizens.
There are as much Israeli citizens as you or I are.
And they are sitting inside the state of Israel in an uncontested area. The Negev is not a contested area. And they're on the phone with Hamas in Gaza saying, a little further to the east, a little further to the west, 200 yards more to the north, et cetera, et cetera. Okay. There's just something rather treasonous about that whole thing.
Yes. A couple of people were actually arrested after Guardian of the Walls for aiding and abetting the missile launchers in Gaza. This is one aspect of it.
So that’s the army. Let's just talk about people who live in Dimona, Arad wherever. I own a shoe store, I own whatever. I'm raising a few kids, married, trying to do the middle-class thing. What does this Bedouin situation in the Negev mean for me?
So, it means the same thing for you as it does, unfortunately, for many of the people who live in Lakiya and Hura and the other Bedouin in towns who are trying to do the Israeli citizen middle class thing there as well. And that is someone will knock on your door when you open your business and they'll say, “Nice place you put together here. It would be a real shame if it burned down. We can ensure that it doesn't, we are a private security company, and all you have to do is pay us X, whatever it is, per month, and your business will be protected from fire.” And everyone knows what that means. And if you don't pay it, your business is burned down, and it happens all the time. In addition to that, people in all of these towns in the Negev cannot walk on the streets at night. Personal security, the roads are treacherous. In addition to live gunfire, races, all sorts of driving against traffic, convoys of smugglers who fly through the towns out towards the border areas, you have camel races. You have all sorts of things.
We have Israelis just being run off the road by trucks.
Constantly. You have IDF officers being run off the road by Bedouin teens who know very well that nothing will happen.
So, I want to ask you a question. Why don't they just shoot them? I mean, I'm really very serious. It's a physical assault. Your life is in danger. You are an IDF officer. You're clearly armed.
These are kids who are clearly not only breaking the law, but they're breaking law trying to cause you harm.
Why don't they just shoot them?
Okay, so there are several reasons. First of all, because your rules of engagement are so strict in the state of Israel right now that you defending yourself, have no guarantee that you won't find yourself in prison. That's number one. And everybody who serves in the Negev knows full well that is a very, very real possibility. They will not be the first to shoot. Second of all, when you say the IDF officers are armed and are clearly being threatened, unfortunately, most of the time they're being threatened by people who are equally armed with the same exact weapon.
So, these teenagers are walking around doing whatever they're doing they are armed?
They're armed, many, many of them, presumably.
With weapons that they've stolen from IDF army bases?
Correct. You'll also find that they're gangs, they're large, tribal, let's call it families. You start with one, you end up with a war with all of them. It's a Wild West situation that the state of Israel has allowed to fester and grow for years. All of this also, I will stress that much of the extremism that we're seeing now, the extreme violence and the extreme anti-Israel sentiment and homegrown terrorism among Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel, which is a real issue in recent years, all this is relatively new.
How new is relatively new?
There were very small indications of some of these things ten years ago, but it's really, I would say, in the last five years
What are we now seeing?
Increased levels of violence, increased incidence of violence. Far more weapons, more advanced weapons, far more terrorism. All of this. We at Regavim have connected, I wouldn't say 100% one to one connection, but there's a very, very close connection between this and the practice of polygamy in the Negev.
Okay, so that's fascinating. I want to come back in a minute to how polygamy is connected to that crime, but let's just put that aside. Polygamy is illegal in Israel.
I'm only allowed to marry one wife, and your husband is only allowed to marry one wife, and you'd probably be annoyed if he were to marry another woman. I think my wife would be very annoyed if I marry another woman. What are the numbers, polygamy wise, in the Bedouin world? Where do these women come from? What's the reason for polygamy? And why is nobody enforcing the law or very few people enforcing the law?
All good questions. Okay. Polygamy again, correct, polygamy is illegal in the state of Israel, has been more or less since the state was established. In 1950 the law actually went onto the books, but for over 70 years, the state of Israel did not enforce the law forbidding polygamy in the veteran sector.
What about with Yemenites came when? Yemenites came in the early days with more than one wife, which they did, right?
Yes, they did. They came with more than one wife. And the Yemenite community was rapidly informed that this would not be tolerated in the state of Israel. And the practice of polygamy in the Yemenite community died out with that generation.
So, they were allowed to keep their wives, but no subsequent marriages about were allowed?
Correct. And the Bedouin community, on the other hand, the practice of polygamy is actually increasing. What you have in the Negev is the fastest growing population on planet Earth. It doubles in size every 15 years. We became involved in trying to get a handle on this entire phenomenon because we saw that the land reserves in the Negev were disappearing at a rate that was not comprehensible according to any parameter. We couldn't figure out where the land was going and where these people were coming from and how this spread was actually occurring. So, we began to look into it. What you have right now in the Negev, again, is a population that in 1966, the Bedouin population of the Negev was altogether around 50,000 people. It's now 300,000 people. And again, if it doubles in size every 15 years, you can do the math. Something has to be done at the very minimum to provide the services and the living arrangements and the education and the welfare services for all of these people. Not to mention that no modern state can support that sort of population growth.
Now the population is growing because of the polygamy. How many women typically are young men marrying?
We've seen instances of four, six, seven women. Generally, they'll have four wives at a time, and when you reach four, you get rid of one and bring in another. Unfortunately, most of the newer wives are always younger. Many, many times they're underage completely. And here's the real problem. The women, where do they come from? Bedouin society is the same as pretty much every other human population, which is almost 50- 50, or 51- 49, something like that. So where do all these women come from? So, we looked into it, and it's even more shocking than the actual practice itself. These women are essentially being bought and sold. It's a form of human trafficking from areas in which they are inculcated with anti-Zionist, antisemitic education.
Where are they coming from?
They're coming from Gaza. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas in Gaza, has two sisters who are married to Israeli Bedouin, and their children are citizens of the state of Israel. And they live in the Negev.
So, if I'm in the Negev and I want to buy a woman, it sounds a horrible thing to say, but I want to buy a woman, how do I get her in?
It's really easy. Unfortunately, this is another problem. Israeli Bedouin, once again, are citizens of the state of Israel and therefore have freedom to move around at will. However, they're also Arab. So, they get in their car in the Negev, and they take a 20 minute ride through the Meitar checkpoint and they go to the South Hebron area, to the Bethlehem area, to Hebron itself, to all of the areas that are area A and B in Judea and Samaria. And they make a deal with this girl’s family. A dowry, they call it we call it purchasing a wife. And they bring her back in their car.
Now, if she was in Gaza, how did she get in?
Okay, Hebron, Bethlehem, all of these areas, how they get in from Gaza? The same way. When you put someone in your car, and you go through the checkpoint and that person has a full Islamic garb on and the only thing showing his eyes. And the man who's driving presents a teudat zeut (Israeli ID card) that says, this is my wife, or this is my daughter. Most likely. That's it. And he just drives home and presents the new wife to the old wife or wives. And everyone understands what that means. What that means is that the older wives and their children are relegated to, they're moved out of the house into the same living compound, but their status is lowered. And most often the children of these polygamous families are raised in a situation of severe neglect, resentment, and are also given from their mothers the same anti-Israel, anti-Zionist education they received in the Palestinian Authority as Israeli citizens living in Israel.
As Israeli citizens living in Israel. Which explains why the rate of conscription to the IDF among the Bedouin in the Negev is less than 1%, even.
Even though theoretically, they're all obligated to serve.
Correct. But they don't.
1% don’t. How much education are these kids getting? A young Bedouin boy, seven, twelve years old, fifteen years old. How many of them are in school? Where are they in school?
This is the absurdity of the whole thing. They are in school. The Ministry of Education knows how many children are sitting in every classroom. They know whose father and whose mother each of these children are, but they don't report it. There was not until very, very recently, any communication between the different government ministries. So, for example, the Israel Insurance Institute, Bituach Leumi, created for itself on its own authority and without any consultation, an all-new category of benefits in which they describe a polygamous family as, I wouldn't call it an extended family, but in Hebrew mishpacha mirchevet
Like extended, but not in the way we mean it in English.
We don't mean it in English because they're not your cousin. Right? So, they're giving benefits knowing full well that there's more than one wife, and there can be 60, 70, in some cases 80 children, all with the same father. And their mothers are a legal fiction, essentially. Eventually, some of the fathers apply for family reunification, meaning to get citizenship or at least residency status for the mothers. But until that time, these women are held, they're essentially prisoners. They have no legal standing. They are illegal aliens. It's illegal for them to be in the country. So, they can't really leave the house for fear of being picked up by the police.
And they certainly could not go to a health clinic.
They can't do anything without the husband doing it for them or with them. So, we have often seen, and the medical staff in Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva is the front line. They deal with this on a regular basis. And they also, by the way, have the highest rate of suicide in Israel. The medical staff in Soroka. They deal with horrific, horrific stories that most of us don't hear and don't want to hear about abuse, about neglect, about underage mothers to extremely elderly fathers. They'll come in, a man in his 60s will come in with his wife, who's about to have a baby. He presents a teudat zeut and that teudat zeut has been used three, four or five times the same year to register a woman who's having a baby. It's clearly not the same woman who's having five children in a year. And this causes major medical problems because the medical history is wrong, women have been given the wrong blood type, for example, in transfusions, because they're there on someone else's teudat zeut. You have all sorts of medical issues when these underage women are having children and the hospital is a hospital, it's not the police and it's not anything else. Their policy, for obvious reasons, is don't ask, don't tell. We know very well this is not who it is purported to be. But we prefer, as doctors, to have these women come into the hospital and have their babies in the hospital in a sterile, in a clean environment so we can oversee it and make sure that there's no infant mortality, maternal mortality, all sorts of other issues that will happen if they discourage these women from coming into the hospital to have their babies. But the State of Israel as a whole has made believe, has studiously ignored this entire phenomenon.
It's a fair question. I think the answer really is I think that Israel is afraid to open up another front in the war against it. It doesn't want to be perceived as a cultural imperialist. We don't want to enforce our culture on others, and this is a protected minority, et cetera. And it doesn't work well.
They are a protected minority by whose authority?
The Supreme Court of the State of Israel has in many ways, and the State of Israel from the very beginning when it created the Bedouin townships in the Negev said this is so that Bedouin citizens of Israel with full rights and theoretically full responsibilities can continue to maintain their customary lifestyle. The Supreme Court, actually, in a very famous case that was filed by a Jewish Israeli who wanted to benefit from the same package that is given to every Bedouin in the Negev, which is free land and a quarter of a million shekel to move on to a government allotted plot in one of these townships. He said, I served in the army. I'm an officer in the police. I want to benefit from these same benefits. And the Supreme Court ruled against and said, because the Bedouin are protected minority, the State of Israel has a responsibility to give them benefits that no one else gets. So that's the situation. But on the other hand, giving benefits does not mean that you cannot enforce the law. Right now, what we've seen, for example, is, and this is something that no one talks about you won't see it in our recent publications either. This is completely under the radar. But female genital mutilation in the Negev is off the charts.
It's illegal here, right?
It's illegal worldwide, essentially. The Secretary General of the United Nations launched a zero-tolerance policy for female genital mutilation a couple of years ago, and there's a war against this practice everywhere, everywhere in the world except in Israel. Nearly 40% of Bedouin women in the Negev are subjected to this barbaric practice, and no one is talking about it. The people who are suffering from it have no voice. They have no representation, and it has to stop. We cannot afford for the State of Israel that we want to live in to allow these things to happen on its watch.
Okay, there's a gazillion questions which I have here. We're only going to get to some of them. It's unbelievably complicated. First of all, you said something about the Supreme Court. And in this book that I'm actually holding by Meir Deutsch, who is among the founders of Regavim, he has a book here called Bedouistan, which I understand is actually out in English now too.
Right, so we’ll post information about the book too. I have it here in Hebrew. He has a chapter, I think it's called something like, in the Supreme Court I founded the State of the Bedouins or something like that, which, of course, is obviously a play on what? Herzl. You know, he doesn't say this, but anybody with, you know, a little bit of Zionist recipes in their mind knows exactly that it's a play on Herzl's diary from the summer of 1897 when he wrote in his diary in Basel, I founded the Jewish state. So, it's very ironic, it's a very cynical chapter. I want to hear a little bit more about the courts. The courts, you're suggesting, have been very hands off, very soft, very cuddly, now whatever everyone thinks about the Israeli courts, these are justices who are very smart people indeed. They are very smart. They are very educated. They are at the top of the top of the top. Some of them have politics like this, and some of them have politics like that. But they're all Zionists. They all care about the Jewish state. They really do. And some of them come from the most Zionist families back in Israeli history. I mean, they are the real deal. So how is it that the Supreme Court has been so hands off, so soft, so embracing, so unwilling to enforce laws like female genital mutilation, polygamy, rights of getting on land? Why is the judicial system here so embracing of this?
Well, there are two problems. One is there's a dearth of policy. The state of Israel has never expressed a vision for where it's going in the Negev.
There's no government office.
It's a hot potato that every single government has tossed from one unfortunate minister to the next.
Ben-Gvir, though, says he actually wants it, right?
Correct. So, Ben-Gvir, say what you will about him, we presented to him the same things that we presented to every other Israeli politician who is willing to listen to any Israeli politician elected, elected officials, candidates, previous ministers, police, people in the Bedouin administration, people in the Israel Land Authority. We have been working on this issue for 16 years. Meir Deutsch essentially created Regavim on the basis of what he saw as an IDF officer in the Negev. And we've been addressing these issues. We are the experts for a reason because no one else is interested. So, we've been pushing this onto the agenda for many years. And now Ben-Gvir finally said, okay, this is not just a problem between neighbors down in the Negev. This is a massive issue that is threatening not only the economy, but the morality, the basic underpinnings of a western democratic society in 60% of the country and it's spilling over beyond that. So, you have now the same Bedouin clans who are the heads of these crime families and racketeering schemes down in the Negev are doing the exact same thing now in Rehovot and above in Tel Aviv, you have some of these things. It's going all the way to the north of the country. Again, we haven't discussed the history, but where these Bedouin families are located, the same Bedouin tribes, the same Bedouin families are in the north of the country and the south of the country and they're also in Gaza and they were also in other places throughout the Middle East. And the connections between them are something the state of Israel has tried to ignore.
Right, many people say that these tribal connections are unbelievably powerful.
They're unbelievably powerful, which is what powers essentially the smuggling operations, the arms smuggling, the drug trade and the protection rackets.
So why is the Supreme Court and the whole court system so soft on this?
Protecting cultural minorities within the state of Israel is a major, a major goal of the Supreme Court. It always has been. And they see themselves as championing the rights of a protected minority on the one hand. On the other hand, when you have black holes because the government of Israel has not said anything, has not done anything, has not shown any willingness to really… the amount of things that actually come to the Supreme Court regarding the Negev is minute compared to so many other things. And that's part of the problem, is that so much more of this should be adjudicated, so much more law enforcement should be happening, so much more policy, so much more legislation, and there isn't enough. So, the Supreme Court is essentially putting its finger in the dam all the time, trying to protect the fundamental rights of people whom the government is trying to make believe aren't experiencing this problem.
So, we have the Supreme Court that's on the civil rights or the individual rights, human rights side of this. So, if you look at it as a human rights issue, then it's a protected minority, ethnic minority that needs protection.
But it's misguided protection. The people who are living in all of this mess are suffering the most right now.
I totally get that. Let's talk about law enforcement. Why are the police so hands off? I mean, if you have racketeering, if you have all kinds of female mutilation, which is illegal, you have people doing all kinds of things that are completely illegal and against the law. Why is there not a massive crackdown between police, border patrol, army? Why is the country not decided to take the Negev back?
The country has to decide now to take the Negev back. That's exactly what it has to do. But why has it not? Look at the statistics of how many police officers, how many police stations, there is no border police in the Negev. It is Israel proper. It's not like Judea and Samaria, where there's border police and there's IDF and there's civil administration. This is Israel. So, you have civilian issues and you have the most understaffed police force you can even imagine. It's practically comical how little law enforcement staff there is down in the Negev. That has to change, and it has to change immediately, which is part of the reason why Ben-Gvir, who is talking about internal security, is focusing on the Negev because the two are inseparable. You have to show a real presence. The theory of the broken windows. If people are constantly living in this situation, there is no law. There is no law in the Negev. You have to make the law present. You have to bring the state, and this is what we've been saying for 16 years, bring the state back to the Negev, and that will bring the Negev back to the state. That's what we want to do. We want to reintroduce the people who are living in this chaos, down the Negev into Israeli society, into mainstream, normative, Israeli Western style democracy, so that they can enjoy the benefits of citizenship and so that the rest of us can look ahead to a normal, flourishing state of Israel as a whole, where we can develop the Negev. Right now, Bedouin squatters’ camps are stalling massive national projects that are crucial to our development. Route 6 couldn’t extend all the way to where it needs to go because they're Bedouin squatting on the route. There's no train, the whole question of the airport and all these things aren't really just innocent. Bedouin happened to be there, and Israel is going to have to do something about it. Quite the opposite. As soon as the State of Israel publicizes plans for developing an area that is empty, the Bedouin immediately set up a squatter's camp there in order to get higher compensation and better deal to move away back to where they were before. And none of them should be there. The state should not be bargaining with the Bedouin about assets that are national assets. This is all state land, and the state has to use it wisely. They have to show that it is willing to enforce the law rather than pay extortion, because that's essentially what they're doing.
So, two quick questions as we wrap up this conversation, we're going to have another conversation also about a parallel phenomenon of what you at Regavim called the creation of a Palestinian state inside Judea and Samaria. Everybody kind of assumes, well, the two-state solution is kind of frozen right now. Nobody's doing anything and I think you guys say, well, it's frozen on the diplomatic level, but on the ground, they're actually building the state. And we'll come back to that as a separate conversation sometime. But just for wrapping up this first conversation, I'm just trying to understand better why a country that is so security conscious in so many ways has allowed this thing to fester for decades. Do you have any explanation for it? I mean, we're not stupid. The police are understaffed, but we have the capacity to staff them. There is the army. I find it unbelievable that people can clip fences, go onto army bases, and just drive away with Jeeps. I find it ridiculous that there's people in Israel calling in coordinates to their cousins in Gaza and telling them. This thing sounds like Sci-fi.
It sounds like keystone.
It's almost slapstick, but it isn’t.
How did it happen? It's not a slapstick country.
It's not a slapstick country. Perhaps they've chosen their battles, right? Focusing on so many of the other threats that face the state of Israel and always assumed when the time came they could deal with this.
The “yihye besder” phenomena.
“Yiyhe beseder”. But not only that.
This notion of Israeli saying, that'll be all right, and then it never is.
Perhaps. I know certainly I'm considerably older than everyone that I work with and I am the age of the parents of everyone else at Regavim. And I remember I was raised believing that the Bedouin are loyal citizens of the State of Israel, they serve in the IDF, they are our friends. This situation, and we trace it back actually to polygamy and to Israel's creation of a vacuum in the Negev, that it has been filled by Qatari money and radical preachers that have Islamicized the population there through these women in the polygamous marriages that are products of Palestinian education, we find a totally different Bedouin society than what was the case? It could be debated that it was never the case, but it's certainly far more radical, far more hostile, far less connected to Israeli citizenship and the Israeli ethos than ever before. And that's only going to accelerate because, again, that population is the fastest growing on the planet Earth.
And the fastest growing largely with mothers who were raised in Gaza or elsewhere, who have a deeply anti-Israel attitude.
Indeed, the calculation that we hear now of the percentage of people, Bedouin in the Negev who are either Palestinian or the descendants of these Palestinian women is quite frightening. It ranges from 20% to 40%. It's not going to get better unless we do something about it. And this involves a concerted effort on the part of the Israeli government as a whole. It's not enough to say, okay, we'll create one. You deal with the Bedouin. No. The police, the education, the national insurance, welfare, everything. That includes borders, it includes the population registry. It includes every aspect of a citizen's relationship to the government. That has to take a long pause from everything else and create the facility to rein all of this in and make sense down there. We have a very carefully constructed program of where to start to untangle this mess because everything is tangled up in everything else.
Well, we'll include the link to that on your website. I was going to end by asking you one question. Obviously, there's so much more here, but this is a hugely important introduction for our listeners. You've been on this issue for a long time. You've been in Israel for an even longer time. You're smart, you get Israel. You understand the situation there. Are you optimistic that this can be brought under control or that it will be brought under control?
I am optimistic. I am optimistic. First of all, I believe in the common sense of every human being. The people who are living in the Negev, the Bedouin themselves, for the most part, are victims of this situation. The vast majority of Bedouin in the Negev, like you, like me, like our neighbors, want to live normal lives. They want their children to have a good education, to grow and develop as citizens of a normal country that respects their traditions and their rights. So yes, I believe that at a certain point, when a real commitment to making this happen is shown by the government, people will join in from all sides, no matter what the politics. It isn't a political issue.
It's not left, right, religious, secular or nothing.
It never should be. And that is the point, really, of much of what we do at Regavim, although many in the press and on the left would like to portray us as somehow an extremist right wing organization. This has nothing to do with left wing - right wing. This has to do with creating a democratic Jewish state that has at its core, Zionist values, that respects the rights of the minorities that live here as full citizens of the state of Israel. That's what we're working towards, and the time is now.
Well, a lot of Israelis agreed with that because I think that certainly in certain parts of the country, people outside the country would be scratching their heads. But when Ben-Gvir said we got to bring the Negev under control, that was actually a policy issue. When the last elections had very few policy issues being discussed, people scratch their head and say, look at that, there's somebody here talking about the Negev. We know that’s a crucial issue. I'm not saying he won because of that, but he certainly caught a wave, no question.
I tried to impress observers from outside the country, particularly Americans, who cannot, for the life of them, figure out how we ended up with the coalition that we have, and I said, in America, somebody once said, it's the economy, dummy. Well, here it's security, dummy. And security has a lot of different faces. This is one of them. This is a very, very important one. And I think if people looked at the breakdown of who voted for the right-wing parties, not only Ben-Gvir, but Likud and beyond, they'd be very, very surprised that in real secular strongholds, strongholds of, let's say, liberal voting patterns in the past, there was a very, very interesting voting pattern this time because people understand that we're actually living in an extremely dangerous and I would say “gorali”
Will shape our destiny.
Yes, we're at a crossroads, and they want a return of the very core principles that defend the right of Jews to live in a Jewish state that's really, I think, at the bottom of the election results. Let's hope that that's what we get if that's what we voted for.
All right, let's see what happens. But we certainly know a tremendous amount more than we did a short while ago about this extraordinarily complex story. So, thank you very much for your time and your expertise. And we will have a conversation about a whole other different issue down the road about what's happening across the Green Line border in what's commonly called the West Bank in international politics, but in Israel, very often called Judea and Samaria. There's a whole other issue brewing there, and we'll talk about that sometime, too. So, thank you once again.
Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:
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