Israeli court approves Bedouin land confiscation

Separate Israeli Supreme Court decisions issued on May 5 open the way for state authorities to forcibly evict residents of two Arab villages from their homes. The inhabitants of both villages, one in Israel and the other in the occupied West Bank, have previously been displaced following actions by Israeli authorities. "It is a sad day when Israeli Supreme Court decisions provide legal cover for forced evictions, as in the case of these two villages," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch. "The Israeli government should let these communities stay where they are, not force them to move yet again."

Some 1,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in Umm al-Hiran, a village in the southern Negev desert, face removal. Israel relocated the villagers there under a 1956 agreement permitting them to live there in exchange for them dropping claims to land from which they assert Israeli forces expelled them in 1948. Israeli authorities have refused to recognize the village, to supply basic services like water or electricity, or allow residents to obtain building permits. In 2009, authorities approved plans to use the land to build a Jewish community.

The high court ruled that the land belongs to the state, which is therefore entitled to deny permission for Umm al-Hiran inhabitants to live there, although the court rejected the government's claim that the residents are squatters. It also ruled that Umm al-Hiran being replaced by a new development "with institutions intended to serve the religious Jewish community" would not be discriminatory since, in principle, the Bedouin ex-residents could purchase homes there.

The new town, also to be called Hiran, is expected to include 2,500 homes designated for Jewish religious groups closely identified with the settler movement. Bedouin leaders and human rights groups criticized the judges for upholding what they termed "racist" policies that gave weight solely to the housing needs of Israel's Jewish population. 

Fadi Masamra, director of the Regional Council of the Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), a body representing dozens of embattled Negev communities like Umm al-Hiran, said the destruction of Umm al-Hiran would be viewed as a major assault on Bedouin rights. "This is as clear a case of ethnic cleansing as one could imagine—and the courts have given their assent," he told Middle East Eye. "The government is determined to clear us from as much of our land as possible and force us into ghettoes."

Archaeology as displacement
In its other judgment, the Supreme Court refused to freeze demolition orders for Susya, a Palestinian village of 340 residents in the Hebron Hills of the West Bank. The villagers built homes on their own agricultural land in 1986 after Israel declared the village's original nearby location an archeological site, and evicted them from caves they then inhabited.

In 2013, the Israeli military's Civil Administration rejected a zoning plan that would have given villagers legal permission to build and extend their homes. Its rejection was based in part on the Israeli government’s contention that the distance of the village from the nearest urban center would keep villagers trapped in a "cycle of poverty"—despite the fact that the center in question is less than three kilometers away.

The Susya villagers are challenging the Civil Administration's rejection of the plan before the Supreme Court, but the May 5 ruling—delivered in just three sentences—allows the authorities to demolish the villagers' homes without waiting for the outcome. The court cited Israeli authorities' stated willingness to "examine the possibility of promoting an alternative regional plan" for the villagers.

Nasar Mahmoud Nawaja, a 33-year-old resident of Susya, told Human Rights Watch after the ruling that he and other villagers are now "living in fear, we can’t sleep. [At any moment] they can come to expel us from our land, this is a nightmare."

A Jewish settlement also called Susya, which includes "outposts" built without Israeli government authorization, is now located near the archeological site. It includes at least 23 homes, according to Regavim, an Israeli pro-settlement organization lobbying for expropriation of Palestinian-owned lands on the West Bank.

Qamar Mashriki Assad, a lawyer from Rabbis for Human Rights, which supports the Palestinian residents of Susya, told Human Rights Watch that Regavim petitioned the Supreme Court in 2011 to demolish the Palestinian village. The petition came after Rabbis for Human Rights filed a case the previous year urging the Supreme Court to restrain alleged settler violence that prevented Susya Palestinians from accessing their farmland. The court declared 12% of the residents' land "closed to Israelis," but the villagers say they continue to face settler violence on their remaining lands.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how, in both the Negev and the West Bank, Israel authorities apply zoning laws in a discriminatory manner that frequently restricts the ability of Arabs to build lawfully. Around 80,000 Bedouin live under constant threat of demolition in 35 villages that Israel does not recognize in the Negev, under conditions similar to Umm al-Hiran.

In the West Bank, Israel has zoned only 1% of the area under its administrative control, called Area C, for Palestinian development. Israeli authorities approved fewer than 6% of the Palestinian building permit requests it received from 2000 to 2012. In contrast, Israeli authorities approved master plans for Jewish settlements covering 26% of the area. Human Rights Watch has found that Israeli zoning and demolition policies in the West Bank in some cases effectively amounts to forcible transfer. 

Bedouin village to pay for its own destruction
Israel officials have meanwhile brought legal action seeking $500,000 from dozens of Bedouin families from another Negev village, al-Araqib. The sum is to cover the cost of repeatedly demolishing their homes. The villagers have resisted government efforts to evict them by rebuilding their homes more than 80 times over the past five years. Israeli bulldozers last demolished homes in al-Araqib on April 20.

The Israeli Supreme court on May 19 turned down an appeal by al-Araqib residents against a decision by the central court of Beersheba three years ago. The court in 2012 refused a request to register 1,000 dunams (250 acres) of land in al-Araqib and nearby Shariaa in the names of residents as heirs of the original owner, Sheikh Suleiman Muhammad al-Ukbi. The Supreme Court decided that the land should be registered to the Israeli development authority rather than the descendants of Sheikh al-Ukbi. The court argued that during the era of the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, "rights were not granted to lands located far from populated areas."

For their part, members of al-Ukbi tribe claim ownership of 19,000 dunams (4750 acres) in al-Araqib where they "have dwelled and cultivated the land for decades." They added that in 1951, the Israeli military authorities deported the tribe to the village of Hurah 20 kilometers east of al-Araqib citing security reasons. Read a statement from the petitioners: "At that time, the Israeli authorities promised the chief of the tribe that the tribe would be allowed to go back to their lands after six months, however the promise was never met and instead the Israeli authorities enacted a law in 1953 and started to register the tribe's land to the Israeli development authority."

The Supreme Court found that al-Ukbi tribe failed to prove ownership of the land, and so they are not entitled to receive reimbursement. In 2009, Israel approved plans for a Jewish village on the site, which means the Bedouins will be forced to relocate. According to HRW, there are approximately 80,000 Bedouins living in unrecognized Negev villages that are under constant threat of demolition. (HRW, Ma'an, May 19; i24 TV, May 18; IMEMC, April 21)