This past Sunday, the largest act of organized theft in the Jewish state’s history took place.

And the perpetrator was none other than the government of Israel.

At its first session since last week’s elections, the outgoing cabinet convened to approve a plan ostensibly aimed at settling the long-standing issue of illegal Beduin settlements in the Negev.

As anyone who has driven through the desert east or south of Beersheba can attest, the landscape is overrun with illicit Beduin dwellings, many of which have mushroomed into full-fledged unlawful communities. Some even sit adjacent to the Nevatim Air Base, a strategically vital military site, hugging its outer perimeter on all four sides. Just take a quick tour of the area on Google Earth, and you will see the extent to which unauthorized Beduin housing dots the terrain.

Indeed, for decades, the Negev has been under assault, as Beduin have been plunking themselves down along the length and breadth of the area with no regard for such mundane matters as property rights or building permits. Nonetheless, rather than enforcing the rule of law and preventing encroachment on state-owned lands, the government shamefully capitulated to law-breakers.

IN ITS decision, the cabinet approved a proposal put together by Minister Bennie Begin which would legalize the majority of the Beduin communities that have been set up over the years, in effect rewarding land-grabbers with most of the land they sought to grab.

As a result, over 100,000 precious dunams (10,000 hectares) of our collective patrimony will now be handed over to squatters. Vast expanses of the land of Israel are being stolen in broad daylight, and the government has now elected to become a willing accomplice to this act of land larceny.

Adding insult to injury, Begin’s proposal also grants compensation to those Beduin who will be forced to move out of the illegal homes they built on state-owned land. Yes, you read that correctly.

The treasury will be reimbursing trespassers for having to vacate land they tried to steal from the state.

In an interview on Israel Radio, former MK Pini Badash, who heads the Omer Regional Council in the northern Negev, denounced the government’s decision, saying, “Now people know that you can pressure the government and triumph, even if you broke the law.”

Sadly, he is right on the mark.

And as investigative journalist Kalman Liebeskind of Ma’ariv, who broke the story last Friday, pointed out, the government decision “is not a small technical decision devoid of meaning. It is a decision that changes the face of the Negev. It establishes that the state’s offer in the past to grant the Beduin hundreds of thousands of dunams is not enough for them, and therefore starting tomorrow we will offer them even more.”

“The State of Israel,” Liebeskind says, “is establishing dozens of new communities for the Beduin in dozens of locations in which they had settled illegally.”

IF YOU are scratching your head and wondering why the government would do this, you are not alone. In fact, the entire manner in which the decision was brought to a vote raises serious questions about its propriety.

According to Ma’ariv, government ministers received Begin’s 15-page proposal only on Thursday evening of last week, leaving them with little time to review it in advance of Sunday’s vote, let alone delve into its long-term ramifications and consequences.

And the fact that a caretaker government in its final days in office would move expeditiously to pass such a far-reaching package also raised many eyebrows.

Regavim, an independent research institute which has been among the few to raise the alarm over the future of the Negev, appealed to the Supreme Court in an effort to block the government vote, but the court rejected their petition.

To be sure, the question of Beduin land claims is a complex subject which has gone unresolved for more than four decades. As a result, the government established the Goldberg Commission in 2007, followed later on by the Prawer Committee, with the aim of bringing some order to the chaos.

That is certainly an important and noble goal, and solutions must be found for the Beduin population of the Negev that will allow them to live in dignity.

But the decision approved by the cabinet is simply scandalous, and the devious manner in which it was passed is no less dubious.

TO RESPOND to lawlessness with impunity is bad enough. But to grant it a prize, and a valuable one at that, is simply an invitation to further coercion and extortion.

Not surprisingly, various Beduin spokesmen reacted angrily to the government decision, saying it was still not enough to satisfy their demands.

In any event, according to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, the plan will require additional legislation to be approved by the Knesset and the next government in order to take effect, so there is still a chance to stop this folly before it is too late.

Under no circumstances should tens of thousands of dunams of publicly-owned land be turned over to private individuals simply because they assert it is theirs without proof to substantiate their claims. No self-respecting law-abiding society can function in such a manner, and Israel should not yield to threats in this regard.

Political pressure must be brought to bear on the next government as soon as it is formed to block the implementation of this foolhardy scheme.

For if it is allowed to move forward, we might as well just raise a white flag and declare: Farewell to the Negev.