[News] Bedouin Land Fight - Claim for Native Title Threatens Jewish State

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 1 12:21:10 EDT 2010


September 1, 2010

Claim for Native Title Threatens Jewish State

Bedouin Land Fight


in Hura, the Negev

Nuri al Uqbi’s small cinderblock home in a 
ramshackle neighbourhood of Hura, a Bedouin town 
in Israel’s Negev desert, hardly looks like the 
epicentre of a legal struggle that some observers 
say threatens Israel’s Jewish character.

Inside, the 68-year-old Bedouin activist has 
stacks of bulging folders of tattered and 
browning documents, many older than the state of 
Israel itself, that he hopes will overturn 
decades of harsh government policy towards the Negev’s 180,000 Bedouin.

For the past few months, Mr al Uqbi has been in 
court pursuing a case that has pitted his own 
expert witnesses against those of the state.

Mr al Uqbi claims the right to return to a patch 
of 82 hectares in the Negev, close to the 
regional capital, Beersheva, that he says has 
belonged to his family for generations. But as 
both the government and the judge in the case, 
Sarah Dovrat, seem to appreciate, much more is at stake.

Should Mr al Uqbi win his case, tens of thousands 
of Bedouin, who long ago had their properties 
confiscated, could be entitled to repossess their 
agricultural lands or seek enormous sums in compensation.

Theoretically, it might also open the door to 
claims by millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

The Negev, constituting nearly two-thirds of 
Israel’s territory, has been almost entirely 
nationalised by the state, with the land held in 
trust for world Jewry. But the Bedouin have 
outstanding legal claims on nearly 80,000 hectares of ancestral property.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, observed that 
the historical documents presented by Mr al Uqbi 
“raise a fundamental question: Who does this country belong to?”

The lawyers and witnesses in the case, Mr Segev 
added, were not just “arguing over a plot of 
land. They are arguing over the justness of Zionism”.

Such high stakes may explain why over the past 
few weeks, as Ms Dovrat has been considering her 
verdict, the authorities have sped up plans to 
plant over Mr al Uqbi’s land a “peace forest”, 
paid for by an international Zionist charity 
called the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

Until now the main obstacle in their way has been 
a small village, Al Araqib, re-established a 
decade ago by several Bedouin families who, 
rather than pursue Mr al Uqbi’s legal route, have simply reoccupied the land.

Last week, about 300 Bedouin were again evicted 
when the police destroyed the village’s 40 homes 
for the fourth time in less than a month.

Mr al Uqbi, a father of eight, said that five 
years ago – after years of challenging the land 
confiscation with protests and appeals to the 
authorities – he launched the lengthy legal 
process that has finally reached the Beersheva court.

“I realised that the authorities were simply 
waiting for me to die. When all the old people 
are gone, who will be left to come and testify?”

Mr al Uqbi said his father, Sheikh Suleiman al 
Uqbi, and the other villagers were “tricked” by 
the authorities in 1951. They were told that they 
would have to relocate “temporarily” while 
military exercises were carried out in the area.

Mr al-Uqbi, who was nine at the time, remembers 
the tribe being forcibly moved to a new site, 
next to Hura, where they have lived ever since, 
although their neighbourhood has never been recognised by the state.

All these years later, Mr al Uqbi’s home, like 
his neighbours’, is still illegal, and they are 
all denied water, electricity and other services.

The only option they had been offered to make 
their lives legal again, Mr al Uqbi said, was to 
move to one of seven government “townships” set 
up in the 1970s. All are sunk at the very bottom 
of Israel’s social and economic tables.

The families have refused, protesting that they 
would also have to renounce both their claim to 
their ancestral lands and a pastoral and 
agricultural way of life known by the Bedouin for 
centuries. The Uqbi tribe’s fate is far from 
unique. Tens of thousands of other Bedouin were 
also moved by the army and have been faced with a similar, stark choice.

Today, 90,000 Bedouin, or half the Negev’s 
Bedouin population, live in unrecognised 
communities, according to a human rights group.

Mr al Uqbi’s court case has set two noted Israeli 
geography professors in sharp opposition.

The state’s position is represented by Ruth Kark, 
of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who claims 
that the Negev Bedouin were nomads with no ties 
to the land. Instead, she argues, most of the 
Negev was considered “mawat”, or dead, and its 
ownership passed to Israel in 1948 as the new sovereign ruler.

On these grounds, the state has long classified 
the Bedouin as “trespassers” and “invaders”.

But Mr al Uqbi’s expert, Oren Yiftachel, of Ben 
Gurion University in Beersheva, has countered 
that there was a well-established system of 
Bedouin land ownership and crop cultivation in 
the Negev long before Israel’s creation.

He says Bedouin deeds – though never formally 
recorded – were recognised by the Ottomans, the 
British and even early Zionist organisations such 
as the JNF, which bought land from the Bedouin.

A 1921 document from the public records office in 
London unearthed by Mr Yiftachel shows that 
Winston Churchill, the colonies minister, signed 
an agreement with Bedouin in the Beersheva area 
that exempted them from registering their lands 
and set up a special tribal court to settle land disputes.

Mr al Uqbi has kept a large store of documents 
passed on to him, showing that his father 
cultivated crops on the land and paid regular 
tithes on the profits to the Ottoman and British authorities.

He also has a copy of the treaty signed in 1948 
between 16 Bedouin tribes, including the Uqbi, 
and the new Israeli army, pledging loyalty in 
return for a guarantee that they could continue living on their lands.

Mr Yiftachel said the legal battles of the 
Bedouin should be compared to those waged by 
other indigenous peoples in countries such as 
Australia, Canada, South Africa, India and 
Brazil. “Like them, they are fighting for 
recognition of ‘native title’,” he said.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in 
Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are 
and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and 
the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) 
Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair” 
(Zed Books). His website is <http://www.jkcook.net>www.jkcook.net.

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