Expanded Supreme Court gives historic victory to Beduins in land dispute cases with state

The essence of the ruling is that Beduins will for the first time be allowed to attack land confiscations authorized in the past by the Knesset on the grounds that they were improper.

April 13, 2015 21:50
2 minute read.

Bedouin men sit in a village known by Bedouin Arabs as al-Arakib, in the southern Negev region . (photo credit: REUTERS)

A group of Beduin announced on Monday that a special seven- justice panel of the Supreme Court has made a landmark ruling overturning decades of precedent which could change the face of litigation over an untold number of land disputes between the Beduin community in the South and the state.

The entire procedure, with the decision actually being handed down Sunday to the Beduin of al-Arakib but announced only Monday, was extremely unusual, as it was a rarely allowed appeal by the state of an earlier Supreme Court ruling, also against the state, by a three-justice panel composed of justices Daphna Barak-Erez, Yoram Danziger and Yitzhak Amit from December 2012.

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The essence of the ruling was that Beduin, both in multiple land dispute cases before the Beersheba District Court and in all future cases, will for the first time be allowed to attack land confiscations authorized by the Knesset in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and endorsed by the courts in the 1980s on the grounds that the original confiscations themselves were improper.

The Beduin’s lawyer Michael Sfard accused the state of using the law to abusively “grab lands that belong to the indigenous Beduin of the Negev.”

He continued that the state “twists 19th century Ottoman land law, relies heavily on the built-in cultural gap between European and Middle Eastern notions of property and living spaces, and most astonishingly tries to prevents the Beduin tribes from even raising in court legal arguments against the draconian, massive confiscation of their lands in the 1950’s by the state. We will now continue the long way to justice.”

The state said it is not issuing a response.

Essentially, the Beduin had argued that the state’s confiscation of land on the grounds that it was abandoned ignored the fact that the Beduin were living on the land, even as they did not develop it and build cities the way the state would conceive of land that is being used.

They said that earlier determinations were made on the basis of nonscientific, anecdotal evidence from European explorers passing through the area, and that more recent and more objective collective data showed the Beduin continuously living in the areas designated by the state as abandoned.

The Beduin further argued that not only had the state improperly confiscated the land decades ago, but it had also failed to use the land over the course of several decades, meaning that the state had now abandoned the land, and it should return to Beduin ownership, from which it should never have left.

The Beersheba District Court itself will still need to decide whether the attack on the original confiscation is appropriate in each specific case, but until now courts were prevented from even considering any arguments attacking the original confiscation.

The expanded panel added Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, Deputy Supreme Court President Elyakim Rubinstein, former supreme court president Asher D. Grunis and Justice Salim Joubran.

The ruling came down now, as Grunis had sat on the panel on the case, and the court wanted to issue its ruling before 90 days had passed from his retirement later this week, after which he can no longer be part of even cases he had formerly participated in.

Despite a unanimous decision on the main issue, the justices disagreed on a number of issues, which, while secondary at this stage, could become decisive further down the line.

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