At the heart of the ongoing conflict between the Bedouin citizens in the Negev/Naqab and the State of Israel is the State’s ongoing denial of Bedouin ownership rights over their lands and the policy of dispossession. Most of the State’s plans for the Negev/Naqab, particularly the Prawer-Begin plan, have ignored the needs of the Bedouin population and violated their most basic rights. The purpose of these plans, both in the past and present, is to “resolve” the land and housing issues of the Bedouin community, and to concentrate the Bedouin population in urban and semi-urban localities (the government townships and the recognized villages.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Negev/Naqab was the permanent living space of the Bedouin and was divided among the various tribes, who relied mainly upon farming crops with minimal water requirements and animal herding on approximately two million dunams of land for their livelihood. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Bedouin were expelled from most of their lands and only 10-15% of the original population remained in Israel – 11 Bedouin tribes, that were concentrated in the Siyāj area around Be’er Sheva. Another seven Bedouin tribes were already living in that area. From 1948 to 1967 the Bedouin lived under military rule during which the military governor had absolute control of the movement, employment, land use, and many other aspects of the community’s life. During that time, they were forbidden to leave the Siyāj area without written permission from the military governor.
Land belonging to Bedouin who became refugees, as well as significant portions of land owned by the Bedouin who remained in Israel, were expropriated and nationalized by the Israeli authorities under a number of laws, including the Absentee Property Law (1950) and the Land Acquisition Law (1953). In addition, the State began to establish the townships and initiate the process of urbanization that was imposed on the Bedouin population in the Negev/Naqab. New laws, such as the Planning and Building Law, have re-designated most of the Bedouin lands as agricultural areas, nature reserves or military areas, designations which preclude the establishment or existence of villages. As a result, all existing Bedouin residential structures in those areas were declared illegal and the phenomenon of the “unrecognized villages” was born, i.e. villages that were established, for the most part, prior to 1948 and with no planning status thus illegal under Israeli law.
In 1970, the State of Israel announced a land rights resolution plan with regard to the Bedouin lands in the Siyāj area. This procedure allowed the Bedouin to file claims for land ownership. In total, 3,200 claims were submitted to the Land Registry, covering an area of about 991,000 dunams. Another 600,000 dunams of tribal grazing land were not recognized as part of the plan, and the ownership of 200,000 dunam in the central Negev/Naqab region was “resolved” by way of registering them as State land without prior knowledge of the Bedouin plaintiffs, the Al ʿAazāzmeh tribe.
“Mawat land”, “dead land,” was defined in the Ottoman law of 1858 as vacant and uninhabited land, which is far enough from the nearest settlement that the loudest voice of a person in that settlement cannot be heard, or alternatively, either a mile and a half away or half an hour walk from said settlement. According to Article 103 of the Ottoman law, a person who cultivated such lands, i.e. turned them into agricultural lands, would be entitled to register the land as his own, even if he did so without permission from the Ottoman regime. In 1921, in an attempt to increase their control of public lands in Mandatory Palestine, the British enacted the Lands Ordinance (Mawat) which amended Article 103 of the Ottoman Law so as to require obtaining permission from authorities before the land could be cultivated. The British allowed only two months for anyone claiming rights to such land to register them under their name.
Unlike the Ottomans and the British, the State of Israel and the Israeli judicial system decided to implement the definition of “Mawat” in a way that distorted the meaning of the original law. The Supreme Court chose to interpret the requirements for the definition of land as “Mawat land” in a very broad manner, effectively reducing the amount of land to which its rightful owners were entitled.
In 1975, the state appointed a special body, known as the Albeck Committee, to deal with Bedouin claims of land ownership. “The Albeck Report was the basis for all the government proposals concerning the resolution of land ownership.” The Committee recommended that the State not examine the merits of the claims, but rather conduct “negotiations” so as to reach an accord with the Bedouin plaintiffs, including the offering of compensation. The Committee also supported the government’s position that the Bedouin lands are in fact Mawat lands which can therefore be reclassified as State land, claiming that this policy conforms to both Ottoman and British law. Thus, the State chose to follow a bureaucratic-administrative track, rather than handling thousands of claims by way of legal process. The percentage of compensation has changed over the years, but it was, and still remains, low and insufficient for the needs of the Bedouin claimants, even though it is clear to the State that the Bedouin claimants see the compensation as unjust.
The Committee also recommended that the government act “beyond the letter of the law,” by granting compensation in a negotiated process, on the condition that the plaintiffs waive all their claims against the State and voluntarily move to one of the Bedouin localities planned by the State. In accordance with these recommendations, the government began negotiations but at the same time froze all ownership claims.
According to the Goldberg Report, only 380 claims (12% of all claims) were settled as of 2008, covering an area of 205,670 dunams (about 18% of the total claimed land). Thousands of claims remained unresolved, and many of the claims were “resolved” under duress of the auspices of a law known as the “Peace Law.” The Israeli government was determined not to deal with 3,200 land claims and preferred to relate to the disputed land as State land.
In 2004, following Government Resolution 216 and the adoption of a new development plan for the Negev/Naqab region, the Southern District Attorney’s Office and the Israel Land Administration (now the Israel Land Authority) began to pursue a counterclaim strategy and to handle the hearing of 3,200 claims that had been frozen for over 30 years and were never heard in the courts. This policy marks the decision of the State of Israel to move from a “negotiating” approach with the Bedouin to an oppositional approach based on forced settlements. The filing of counterclaims not only legitimizes the actions and policies of the State, but also puts tremendous pressure on the Bedouin citizens to accept the solutions proposed by the government, without any ability to influence the proposals. Although the Bedouin residents of the area lived and cultivated land in the Negev/Naqab for hundreds of years, and enjoyed the actual recognition and autonomy granted to them by the Ottoman and British authorities, the Israeli courts did not recognize their rights to ownership of the land. That, in addition to unique circumstances surrounding the proof offered to the courts concerning the Bedouin’ historical rights to the land (see below), the courts have ruled in all the cases brought before them in favor of the State.
The state and the courts do not recognize the authenticity and/or relevancy of traditional documents held by some of the Bedouin plaintiffs, among them: land sale and purchase contracts, mortgage contracts, and documentation of taxes on land or crops paid to the Ottoman and/or British authorities. Furthermore, the courts undervalued the oral testimonies of Bedouin elders, choosing instead to rely on the reports of European missionaries of the eighteenth century regarding the nature, ownership, and working of land. This approach relies almost entirely on Western sources and ignores the traditional way of life and culture of the Bedouin concerning land management and acquisition.
In conclusion, the Israeli governmental policy of filing counterclaims has serious implications for the Bedouin plaintiffs, many of whom have either dropped out of court hearings or chose not to come from the start with the understanding that in any case they cannot win a trial or appeal the State’s position. The high costs, the lack of formal/recognized documentation, and the lack of trust in the judicial system contributed to their avoidance of legal procedures and increased the rate of “resolution” of the land disputes by encouraging the Bedouin to view the legal system as non-responsive to their claims. Israel’s policy deviates drastically from that of the Ottoman and British administrations that preceded it, abusing a law enacted more than a century ago; freezing all legal processes for 35 years before the filing of counterclaims (after many of the Bedouin claimants have died); avoiding the establishment of a legal framework that will examine Bedouin rights and allow the use of unofficial documents and oral testimonies. All of the aforementioned represent only part of the flaws in the process of resolving the Bedouin land claims in the Negev/Naqab. This policy paints the Bedouin as “criminals,” “outlaws” and devoid of any rights to land in the Negev/Naqab. The State’s success rate in claims against the court stands at 100 percent, so it is no wonder that the Bedouin do not look to the court system for succor.
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