As far as the state was concerned, not only do the indigenous people of the Negev have no right to land, they didn’t even have the right to argue in court that they do. The Supreme Court rejects that position.
By Michal Rotem
For years, the battleground of the Negev Bedouin in Israel has existed on multiple fronts. The legal front, which is mostly hidden from the public, is one of the more important but most difficult fronts. Due to a complex web of laws designed to declare Bedouin land as state land, there have been far more losses than victories on the legal front.
That is one reason why the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision on Sunday is so encouraging. The court rejected the state’s argument, instead permitting a hearing in which the residents of al-Araqib can challenge the expropriation of their land in the 1950s. Israel has demolished the unrecognized village over 70 times in recent years.
It is only a small victory because it does not rule on ownership of the land; the Supreme Court only allowed the residents of al-Araqib to argue against the expropriation in district court. That said, just allowing them to make a legal argument is an important precedent following long years of losses in court.
The land belonging to the unrecognized village of al-Araqib, like countless plots of land in the Negev, was expropriated under the Land Appropriation Law of 1953. The law allowed the state to easily expropriate land for purposes of “development, settlement and security,” with a few ludicrous stipulations: that the land was not in its owner’s possession on April 1, 1952, and that the state use the land for purposes of development, settlement or security, or at least that it needs the land for those purposes. In reality, the state dispossessed the village residents of their land, and has not once used their land, for any purpose.
As part of the legal process that has become more and more common in the Negev in recent years, when al-Araqib’s residents filed a land ownership claim in the 1970s, the southern district prosecutor filed a counter-claim on the same plot of land, claiming it was state land. While the courts verified ownership, the village’s residents, represented by Attorney Michael Sfard, attempted to challenge the expropriation itself.
The State of Israel, which invests massive resources in its effort to invalidate the very idea of Bedouin land ownership, did not even agree to hear the argument. As far as the state was concerned, not only do the indigenous people of the Negev have no right to land, they don’t even have the right to argue in court that they do.
On Sunday, rejecting the state’s position, the Supreme Court ruled that the Be’ersheva District Court has the jurisdiction to discuss the validity of the 1950s land expropriations. In their ruling, the Supreme Court justices cautioned that granting jurisdiction has limited significance, since it is very difficult to challenge land expropriation under the aforementioned 1953 law. The unrecognized village still has a long way before it can register its land in its own name.
Back in the 1970s Israel allowed Bedouin residents of the Negev to file land ownership claims, and at least on paper, offered them a fair process for adjudicating such claims. In the early 2000s, the state froze that process and began filing counter claims on plots of land claimed by Bedouin citizens of Israel, seeking to register them as state land. And there should be no doubt that the cards are stacked against the Bedouin — the State of Israel has a 100 percent success rate in all of the counter claims it has filed.
So even though it is a small victory, and even though the Supreme Court justices cautioned that the next part of the legal process will not be simple, it is still a huge step in the Negev Bedouin communities’ struggle to prove ownership over their land.
The State of Israel, which argued that its own citizens did not have the right to challenge racist and discriminatory legislation like the Land Appropriation Law, which authorized unprecedented land expropriations, was turned away by the Supreme Court on Sunday.
It’s hard to find cracks in such a well-oiled system like the one the state built to take over land. So when a crack does open up, we can only hope that a sliver of justice falls through.
Michal Rotem works for the Negev Forum for Coexistence and is based in Be’er Sheva. This story first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call, where she is a blogger.