ACRI: Negev land dispute has led to demolition of 130 Beduin homes

"The state claims that it's their land, but that's not true - it's ours," says Nuri el-Okvi, head of the Association for the Protection of Beduin Rights.

Beduin 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Beduin 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Forces from the police and Israel Lands Administration came with bulldozers on Tuesday morning and destroyed several homes belonging to the Beduin Tlalka tribe, which is settled on Highway 40 between the Lehavim and Gorel junctions. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, since the beginning of 2007, the state has demolished some 130 houses in unrecognized Beduin communities. "The state claims that it's their land, but that's not true - it's ours," Nuri el-Okvi, head of the Association for the Protection of Beduin Rights, told The Jerusalem Post several hours after the home demolitions. However, according to a publication on the Lands Administration Web site, 40 percent of the Negev's 155,000 Beduin live "in illegal homes spread over hundreds of thousands of dunams." These scattered settlements outside the seven permanent townships that the administration says house 60% of the Beduin population are referred to as the Beduin "dispersal," and are unrecognized by the state. The publication says that "Israel has its citizens' welfare at heart, particularly the welfare of the Beduin. Instead of prosecution [for illegal settlement], Israel proposes to settle the conflict by offering extremely generous [cash] settlements in return for the withdrawal of the Beduin's ownership claims." Okvi admitted that such settlements had been offered, but said the Beduin were not interested. "If someone wants money, he will receive it," he said. "But we don't want money - we want Israel to recognize our ownership of this land." He said he had been dealing with the land claim issue since the 1970s and had been living in fear of the destruction of his home for the past four years. For him, the issue has been accompanied by a feeling of injustice. "We are friends of Israel, and we are also citizens of the state," he said of himself and his fellow Beduin. "[It feels] very bad - it's racism, simply because we aren't Jews." Okvi added that the issue of the land on which the destroyed homes had been located was currently in court, but no decision had been reached yet. In his opinion, the state preempted the court's decision. "The state acts with force, without fear," he said. So far, the state has filed some 170 counter-claims to Beduin claims of land ownership, covering more than 110,000 dunams. Each ruling that has been handed down by the court has been in favor of the state, ordering the land to be registered as state-owned. The Lands Administration says that "Negev Beduin claim the ownership of land areas totalling some 600,000 dunams... [an area] 12 times the size of Tel Aviv." As of 2006, agreements had been reached regarding 150,000 dunams of that land. The state is making an effort to provide solutions to the needs of the Negev Beduin. Rahat, the largest Beduin city, is being doubled in size at an estimated cost of half a billion shekels. There are also plans to develop infrastructure and add land to the other six large Beduin settlements - Kuseifa, Segev Shalom, Aroer, Lakiya, Tel Sheva and Hura. According to the Lands Administration, "Israel is pumping vast sums of money into upgrading the present infrastructure of Beduin towns, setting up public services, building access roads and upgrading land for housing... The Israeli government continues its generous policy toward the Beduin population by meeting their ever-increasing needs in every possible way." However, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has pointed out that all of these settlements are "continuously ranked as the poorest, least-developed and most crime-ridden towns in Israel." The government also has plans to develop some 13 new settlements which, the Lands Administration has said, will be "urban, suburban or agricultural, depending on the residents' needs." To Okvi, however, none of these solutions appear acceptable, and government promises of comfortable settlements with work and infrastructure are as yet unrealized. "They want to put us in central places, places without agriculture, industry, work," he said. "They want to centralize us, to take our land." Okvi wants to be able to continue to work in agriculture - something he feels would not be possible from one of the large Beduin settlements. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel agrees that "this policy [of relocation to centralized communities] completely disregards the Beduin's needs, culture and traditional way of life." Meanwhile, said Okvi, the government is denying basic services to Beduin in the dispersal in an effort to convince them to move to larger settlements. "We don't get water to drink. The state puts pressure on us by not providing water, schools or other services in an attempt to get us to leave our lands," he said. In the opinion of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, this constitutes "severe violations of basic human rights: the right to live in dignity, the right to shelter, the right to health and the right to education." The organization has pointed out that "Beduin residents of unrecognized villages live in third-world conditions in a first-world state, alongside modern settlements inhabited primarily by Jewish Israelis." The Beduin and the government have reached a deadlock. Many Beduin are unwilling to leave their lands for larger communities, and the government is unwilling to let the Beduin in the dispersal remain on their land. "We are standing up for this... the state is taking advantage of its power, and cheating us," said Okvi. "We will not arrive at an agreement without help, [but] we will not stop our fight... we want our lands to be recognized as belonging to us." In the meantime, those whose homes were destroyed Tuesday morning will be forced, according to Okvi, to sleep under the stars. Representatives of the Lands Administration could not be reached for comment on Tuesday's events.