Real Property Restitution and Bedouin Rights, Israel Destroys Crops in ‘Unrecognized’ Bedouin Villages

On 14 February 2002, the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), which controls most of the land inside Israel, destroyed approximately 12 square kilometers of grain crops planted by Bedouin residents of the Naqab (Negev). During the operation, toxic chemicals were sprayed on the crops, including lands inside Bedouin villages where farmers were working in their fields and over the village of Khirbet al-Watan where several hundred students were attending classes. The ILA claims that the crops were planted ‘illegally’ on ‘state land.’ The incident, as well as Bedouin protest, were reported and debated in the Israeli media for two to three days, and questions concerning Israel’s treatment of its Bedouin citizens were raised. Since then, the issue has returned to oblivion and things have returned to ‘business as usual.’

The destruction of the crops represents the latest example of a consistent pattern of gross violations of the basic human right to property committed by the government of Israel against the indigenous Bedouin community residing in 1948 Palestine/Israel as well as with the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.

For more than five decades the indigenous Bedouin inhabitants of historic Mandate Palestine have been subjected to expulsion, internal transfer and a policy of forced sedentarization. Of the 95 Bedouin tribes living in the Naqab before 1948 only 11 remained following a systematic policy of expulsion during and after the war. The Bedouin comprised approximately 13 percent (98,000) individuals of the Palestinian refugee population in 1948. Today there are an estimated 650,000 Bedouin refugees (including their descendants) who were initially displaced in 1948. Bedouin who remained in the Naqab were transferred to the northern part of the Bir Saba’ (Beersheba) Sub-District and forced to settle in an area one-tenth the size of the former area in which they lived. Land in this area is of poorer quality.

Israeli Foreign Ministry reports indicate that between 1949 and 1953 some 17,000 Bedouin were expelled by military force. In October 1956, General Yitzhak Rabin expelled up to 5,000 Bedouin into Syria. In 1967 Bedouin who had been displaced to the Golan were again displaced further into Syria following Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. In 1979 some 750 Bedouin families were evicted to facilitate the construction of an Israeli military base in the Naqab. Approximately 60,000 Bedouin live in ‘unrecognized villages’ in the Naqab and receive little or no government services. More recently Israeli military forces have evicted Bedouin in the West Bank who reside primarily in ‘Area C’ (60 percent of the West Bank) where Israel retains full military and administrative control and where all but a few of Israel’s illegal colonies (settlements) are located.

In 1948, the indigenous Bedouin population held customary land rights to more than 12 million dunums (12,000 sq. km) of land, located mostly in the Bir Saba’ Sub-District. According to British Mandate statistics, approximately 2 million dunums was considered to be Arab-owned ‘cultivable’ land (60,000 dunums of which were located outside the borders of Israel in the Gaza Strip and Jordan after the 1948 war). Approximately half of one-percent of the Bir Saba’ Sub-District was classified as Jewish-owned land and less than one-quarter of a percent classified as state land. The remaining area of the Sub-District was used by the Bedouin for grazing.

As with other Palestinian refugees, Bedouin refugee land was expropriated and transferred to the state of Israel for exclusive Jewish use, including Jews not holding citizenship or residency in Israel. The indigenous Bedouin community has been particularly vulnerable to land expropriation due to the traditional or customary system of land rights prevalent in the community similar to that of other indigenous peoples. As of 1948 the British administration in Palestine had not yet begun a land survey in the Bir Saba’ Sub-District. Only 64,000 dunums of Arab-owned land in the Sub-District were registered in the official Register of Deeds. (This land is included in registration records of the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine). In other words, most Bedouin do not possess land documents that identify ownership by cadastral survey. Maps of the Sub-District from the period, however, clearly identify tribal lands according to the name of the tribe.

Israel has expropriated most of the land traditionally used by the Bedouin for grazing as well as rain-fed agriculture by declaring it ‘state land.’ Israel considers the land ‘empty’, not privately owned, and not in use. EchoUA.COM: hire php developers Ukraine Bedouin land has also been expropriated under laws used to expropriate the property of other Palestinian refugees including the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law. Today the indigenous Bedouin in the Naqab are struggling to retain the 240,000 dunums of land remaining with them. During the 1970s the Israeli government initiated a land settlement process for the Naqab. Claimants, however, were required to present documents in order to lodge a land claim. In 1976 Israel’s Land Settlement Department offered to settle Bedouin land claims out of court according to the following criteria: Israel would recognized 20 percent of the total claim (with documented proof), offer compensation for 30 percent of the total claim (at 65 percent of its value), and expropriate 50 percent of the total claim.

Recent press reports indicate that Israel is considering restarting the legal process for land claims, suspended in 1976, in order to completely extinguish all Bedouin land claims and thereby ensure the full transfer of all Bedouin land to the state of Israel for exclusive and inalienable Jewish use. For the Bedouin community, the legal process appears to be a no-win situation; no Bedouin has ever won a land claim to any of the more than 3,000 lawsuits filed over the past several decades.

Israel’s policy toward the indigenous Bedouin inhabitants of 1948 Palestine/Israel represents a consistent and gross violation of the basic right to property. A durable solution for Palestinian refugees must also permit Bedouin refugees to return to the lands and receive real property restitution. Israel and Jewish non-governmental organizations have successfully fought, based on principles of international law, for the return of lands and properties expropriated in Europe. The same legal principles apply to Palestinian refugees, including the Bedouin. In the meantime, all international economic and military aid to Israel should be immediately terminated. According to the US Foreign Assistance Act (1961), the US is required to terminate aid to those states demonstrating a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” (See BADIL Press Release, 15 January 2002). In Europe, the European Union has conditioned EU benefits, including membership in several cases, on implementation of real property restitution.

For more information on the Bedouin, contact: Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages in the Negev, 86 Trumpledor St, Beersheva, Israel; Tel: +972 7 628 3315; Fax: +972 7 628 3043; or, The Association for Support and Defence of Bedouin Rights in Israel, PO Box 5212, Beersheva; Tel: +972 7 623 0289, The Association of Forty, Ein Hod M.P, Hof Hacarmel, 30808 Israel; Tel: +972 7 628 5929, +972 4 836 2381.