Several tens of times the state evacuated Bedouins from Al-Araqeeb lands located between Rahat and Beer-Sheva, and was accused of ethnic cleansing and racism, now the state presents evidences proving that there has never been a Bedouin settlement there, and that the Bedouins invaded the area only in recent years doing so for economic reasons. Some of the families have huge villas in Rahat and drive luxurious cars, and one of them even established a warehouse in Al-Araqeeb. Even the Supreme Court ruling stating that the invaders acted insincerely, did not stop the clashes.

Al-Araqeeb residents: “The lands are ours. This is not a legal matter but rather political and racist”.

Last Tuesday the police forces and the Green Patrol returned to Al-Araqeeb settlement located between Rahat and Beer-Sheva, and evacuated the Bedouin residents. It was a quiet evacuation, the twentieth in number after July 2010, much unlike the big eviction in the summer of 2010.

1300 police officers and tens of trucks and bulldozers took part in the evacuation of Al-Araqeeb. However, those who designed the event were the TV cameras that dictated the media narrative of the story: uprooted trees, shattered toys, collapsing walls of the improvised homes and yelling women. Israel was condemned for this story. The foreign media, and sometimes even local, keeps describing the attitude of the state towards Al-Araqeeb Bedouins as ethnic cleansing, discrimination and racism, brutal demolition of homes and appropriation of lands. Many of the evacuated residents who returned and invaded the lands again, are described as homeless and deprived of everything.

Now the Israel Land Authority (ILA) presents entirely new evidences. They discovered that the leaders of the invaders and their speakers, heads of family clans Abu Mediam, Abu Fariah and Abu Jabber, have huge villas in Rahat with the average size of 400 square meters. Some members of the young generation have plots in the Rahat expansion project that was the ILA project financed by the state on special conditions. Several housing units may be constructed on each plot in compliance with the law. One of the leaders of the invaders, Abdalla Abu-Mediam, is a merchant who owns one of the Bedouin largest commercial chains in the Negev. Abu-Mediam comes to the illegal structures he established in Al-Araqeeb – when the media is not around – in a luxurious Mercedes.

During one of evacuations of the illegal structures in the area, the ILA inspectors were surprised to discover that one of the illegal structures constructed allegedly for residence was actually a warehouse of the commercial chain owned by Abu-Mediam. This is the way they use the invasion of the lands for their pure economic needs, breaching tens of court orders and rulings: the invaders, or at least a part of them, who live comfortably in luxurious villas in Rahat, store their merchandize in the illegal warehouses and save municipal taxes on storage, whereas the international organizations and foreign media report the “demolition of homes”.

The story of Al-Araqeeb is a story of the determined battle the state wages to impose law and order in the wild south trying to save the state lands in the Negev from invasion by the Bedouins over and over again. There are 220 illegal settlements spread in the South, and about 70 thousand illegal structures. Every year 4,000 new illegal structures are built, but the authorities are not able to cope with the tempo. They destroy only 1,000 of them a year, mainly the new constructions.

The story of Al-Araqeeb is a story of 90 thousand out of 200 thousand Bedouins living in Negev, who are determined to settle in tin huts and to ignore the court verdict and the evacuation orders.

“Wasteland”

When the State of Israel was established, there were about 70 thousand Bedouins in the Negev. Many of them fled during the battles. 11 thousand stayed in the new country. The Israeli government kept them in a restricted area in northwest part of Negev. Later the state took over the property of Palestinian Arabs who flew during the war, and registered it as the state property, including the lands that the Bedouins today claim to be theirs. Simultaneously the state started a complicated process of relocating the Bedouins to the government-created townships that were built on the lands that were expropriated “for the public purposes”.

In the 70-s the state allowed the Bedouins to file more than 3,400 claims seeking to regulate the issue of land ownership for 991 thousand acres, which they claimed to be their property. Some of the claims ended in compromise agreements, but the majority is still pending. Today the issue of ownership of 600 thousand acres is still unresolved. A third of them, about 200 thousand acres, were taken over by the state, so when it comes to the decision who is the owner of the land rights, the ruling will concern the compensation only and not the actual hold of these lands. 

The state avoids making judicial rulings even though its chances are high. The majority of lands that were declared the state property are the “wasteland” (“mawat”) – uncultivated lands that allegedly have no owners and are located 1.5 miles away from the closest permanent settlement. The Turks and the British gave Bedouins the opportunity to change the status of the wasteland and to register their ownership on condition that they will cultivate it. However, the majority of the Bedouin did not bother to do so.

Why does the state avoid obtaining the judicial ruling and prefers talking? The major concern is the escalation of tension with the Bedouins. Various committees (the last one being Goldenberg committee) tried to cope with the problem, but the attempts to convince the Bedouins to settle in one of the nine government-created townships built for them, and to renounce their ownership claims, were only partial success.   

The state believes that the temptation is appealing: even if the Bedouin ownership over the lands is not recognized, they are offered compensation “beyond the letter of law”, on the condition that they abandon the lands and relocate to one of the government-planned localities. For those who claimed ownership on over 400 Acres of land but agreed to relocate the state registered the title for one-fifth of lands, and paid compensation in return for the remaining part. Those who claimed ownership for smaller areas received only the compensation, and sometimes including a title for a limited area. Today the committee in charge of implementation of Greenberg report offers to increase the compensation to those claiming over 400 acres of land to 50%, provided  they cultivate and keep the land since the claims were filed in the 70-s. In few cases when the disputes were brought to court the state won. The Bedouin who claim title to the lands have no documents to prove it.  

Some of Bedouin took advantage of the arrangement offered by the state and committed themselves in writing not to return to the lands that they had invaded and later vacated. Many of them refused, but even for them Al-Araqeeb is an exceptional case. Israel Scoop, the head of the ILA Supervision Department says that “it was desert, wilderness. We have air surveys proving that there have never been any settlements here whatsoever. The story of invaders, the residents of Rahat, Kfar Kassem and Lod, begins in early 2000-s, when they invaded the lands that were duly declared the state property. The cemetery they refer to was indeed used for burials, but there was never a settlement next to it”.

Insincerity

The people of Al-Araqeeb, descendants of Al-Turi tribe, provide entirely different factual background. Dr. Awad Abu-Fariah (49), head of Al-Araqeeb committee, claims that he was born here, and that Bedouin were living here during the Ottoman and British rule, until removed. The ownership claims of Abu-Fariah and his associates rely on internal sales certificates from the British mandate period, executed between the Bedouins themselves and not duly registered, therefore the courts do not recognize them.

Descendants of Al-Turi tribe did not renounce their ownership claims, but failed to prove them so far. They also reject the offer of the state to lease the lands for agricultural cultivation for a ridiculous price of NIS 2 per acre, fearing that their consent would be interpreted as the recognition of the state ownership on the lands. Meanwhile they became the serial abusers of the public order. Looks like in the entire legal history of the State of Israel there was no other entity that asked for legal assistance of the courts so many times on the one hand, and openly ignored them on the other.

In the area of invasion, the state-owned lands classified as “mawat” between Rahat and Beer Sheva, thousands of acres. Since the lands were expropriated and currently belong to the Development Authority, the case of land ownership that is currently heard at the District Court is relevant for the purpose of establishing the entitlement to compensation only, and not more than that. But the descendants of Al-Turi tribe from Abu Mediam and Abu Jabber family clans, partly the residents of Rahat and Kfar Kassem, have invaded the place tens of times since 1998. First the invasion was made through agricultural cultivation of lands, after the leasers on behalf of the ILA had been removed. With the years the invaders started building structures; first they built makeshift buildings, and later cement-block houses. Time after time the courts ruled that the invasion and the construction were illegal, and obliged the families to evacuate. The Supreme Court stated that the invaders behavior was insincere. However, this did not affect their deeds.  

Nationalistic character

Until recently, their struggle was perceived as economic and property-related only. In the last years it developed also a nationalistic aspect. The last big eviction was attended by the left-wing activists, some of them anarchists. Last summer the bottles with gasoline were thrown to the vehicles on road 40. One of Al-Araqeeb residents was arrested and confessed the deed. This was followed by other grave events connected to Al-Araqeeb: attacking JNF workers, setting vehicles and mechanical equipment on fire, throwing stones and uprooting trees.

Meanwhile the courts also established their position. In 2004 the Supreme Court Justice Hila Prokscha stated that the Bedouin acted insincerely. “They invaded the disputable lands and were expelled by the Police. They returned and invaded the lands three more times thus viciously violating the requirements of law. In the circumstances of the case the presumption was made and not refuted that the lands belong to the public. The applicants (the Bedouin – N. S.) failed to prove their rights to maintain the lands”.

In another case the President of Beer Sheva District Court Yosef Alon established that …”the invasion and the illegal construction took place after long litigations and a series of rulings and judgments, whereas the invasion and the construction in question contradicted them”. Lately, following the recurrent invasions and the need to use force and various evacuation means, the state filed a lawsuit to the Beer-Sheva District Court against 34 Bedouins, suing them for a total of NIS 1.8 million, which is the total amount of damages accrued during multiple actions the state was forced to undertake.

Abdalla Abu Mediam who we interviewed last week, talks about the invasion, but in fact is not prepared to renounce a thing: “The state has been controlling the area for many years, but I have proof”, he claims, “a stamped contract that this land was purchased by my grandfather in 1929”.

- So far you failed to prove in court your title or ownership to the land.

“Because everything is political”, says Abu Mediam, “rather than legal. This is politics. This is not a problem of the law”.  

-   You are a very wealthy man. However, the media presents the evacuated residents as homeless and needy.

“I have means, but my married children have no place to live. I have a capital, but I have no land. I live together with the families of my children in a house of 350-400 square meters, all together. We experience the housing distress”.

-  The young people in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa have also no place to live, but they did not invade, time after time, the lands that are not theirs. How are they different from you?    “The young people in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv have no contracts proving their ownership of thousands of acres, as we have”.

 -  You failed to prove anything in court.

“With all due respect to judges, they are unable to decide. As far as it concerns the land, they have nothing to say. This is not about the judges, this is a political directive”.

 Abed Abu Fariah, the spokesperson on behalf of the Al-Araqeeb families committee, also says he disbelieves that “the courts will make justice”.

 -  Why then do you apply to the courts time after time?

“We have no other choice”, says Abu Fariah, “but this is so obvious – we are expelled because we are not Jewish. This is political, and not the legal issue”.

Abu Fariah, Doctor of Chemistry, says that the description of substantial property he and his associates have in Rahat and other places, is racist: “Nobody asks the owners of the "Bodedim" isolated farms if they have house in Tel-Aviv.            

 - This is true, but unlike you they do not position themselves as miserable.

“This is the story of prosecution. We want to work in agriculture in Al-Araqeeb. There are no agricultural lands in Rahat”. 

 - If you are only interested in agriculture, why don’t you accept the offer of the state to rent the lands for NIS 2 per acre for agriculture and animal pasturing?

“The ILA thinks that they are smart and we are stupid. The judge is Jewish, the lawyer is Jewish, and the army officer is also Jewish. And we are the stupid people who have been screwed for 63 years. The ILA wants us to fall into their trap and to lease the lands that belong to us, so that ILA would come to the court and prove that we leased the lands from the state. Really…”.