In 1970, the Israeli Government opened a land settlement process over lands claimed by Bedouin in the Negev area, which enabled the Bedouin to file land ownership claims. A total of 3,200 claims were registered over approximately 991,000 dunams (247,000 acres) of land. In 1975, a governmental committee recommended that the state not examine the land claims and instead negotiate a settlement with the Bedouin claimants, offering compensation. The compensation rate changed over the years but remained very low and unsatisfactory to the Bedouin claimants. Thus, until the year 2000, settlements were reached only over 160,000 dunams (40,000 acres) of land. In 2003, the Israeli government, in an attempt to pressure Bedouin claimants to settle their claims, began to file counter claims. These days, the counter claims policy is one of the main instruments that the state use in order to take over Bedouin lands. By now, the state has 100% winnings in counter claims cases.
The Israeli government, acting in accordance with the committee’s recommendations to give compensation for lands, started a process of negotiations and concurrently froze all land claims. The negotiations were conducted by the Israeli Land Authority (ILA). As of 2008, 380 land claims out of 3,220 (12 percent of the total land claims) had been settled, covering an area of 205,670 dunams (about 18 percent of the total claimed lands). Thousands of claims, however, remained unsettled, while a large number of the ‘settled claims’ (80,000 dunams), it should be noted, were forcibly settled in accordance with a law known as the Peace Law, following the peace agreement signed between Israel and Egypt and the relocation of a military airport to a Bedouin area.
In 2004, following a government decision and the adoption of a new development plan for the Negev, the State Attorney’s office of the Southern District and the ILA begun submitting “counter claims” in court against 30-years worth of 3,000 remained unsettled land claims that were left frozen since 1970s. In other words, the State began submitting land claims to the same land that was claimed by Bedouin claimants since the 1970s. According to the ILA, “Israel is committed to safeguarding its land reserves for the benefit of the whole population” and counter claims were “in line with its strategy of protecting state resources.”
When a land claim is counter claimed, the land officer is required under article 43 of the Land Rights Settlement Ordinance of 1969 to transfer the conflicting claims to the relevant District Court, in our case the Be’er Sheva District Court. State land rights are being taken up at the behest of the land settlement officer, regardless of whether the state submitted a claim to a specific parcel of land. Through this process, the state, represented by the ILA and its Bedouin Development Administration, submit counter land claims, which then places the onus on the Bedouin to prove ownership over land claims initiated by the land settlement officer. It seems that the State prefers that the District Court examine state land rights rather than the land settlement officer, since this process legitimizes the state’s opposition to Bedouin land ownership, and the expropriation of such lands.
Official ILA figures from 2007 indicate that the ILA has submitted 401 counter land claims, covering an area of 175,000 dunams, and by then, had won cases over an area of 50,000 dunams. According to the testimony in May 2008 of Ilan Yishoron, former Director General of the Bedouin Development Administration of the ILA, the state had submitted about 450 counter claims (of the about 2,840 remaining land claims) to the land settlement officer, who transferred 223 of them to the Beersheba District Court. The court, by 2008, had ruled in favor of the state in 80 cases, leading many Bedouin to lose faith and boycott this judicial process. According to a recent statement by Ilan Yishoron, in his new position as the Deputy Director of the Authority responsible of Bedouin land and housing matters (which replaced the Bedouin Development Administration), the State has won about 200 counter claims over about 70,000 dunams of land.
Under the counter claim policy, the Israeli government switched from the “negotiation” approach to a confrontational one with the Bedouin. Bringing the claims to the court does not only help legitimize the state’s actions and policies, but aims at exerting serious pressure on the Bedouin to accept the solution offered by the government. As noted by Havatzelet Yahel, the head of land settlement unit in the State Attorney Office in the Negev regarding the counter claim policy, “as history shows, and according to my experience, the parallel method of implementing the legal procedure is essential as it encourages compromise and agreed-upon settlements.” According to the Israeli State Comptroller, the government sought to speed up the process in order to increase the chances of gaining title to Bedouin lands, stating that “the greater the delay in registering the lands in the name of the state, the greater the risk of losing the titles to such lands”.
For further information, see NCF’s report about counter claims: Processes of Dispossession in the Negev-Naqab: The Israeli policy of Counter Claims against the Bedouin-Arabs