March 31, 2008

We sat on the dusty ground outside a makeshift tent in the Bedouin village of Um Mitnan in April 2006, talking to some women whose homes had recently been destroyed by the government. One stared at the rubble and asked, “Why would they demolish such basic structures? You can hardly call them homes. We didn’t even have electricity. It’s not that we built palaces, it’s just cement blocks on the sides and a tin roof.”

March 31, 2008

By Lucy Mair

Jerusalem – We sat on the dusty ground outside a makeshift tent in the Bedouin village of Um Mitnan in April 2006, talking to some women whose homes had recently been destroyed by the government. One stared at the rubble and asked, “Why would they demolish such basic structures? You can hardly call them homes. We didn’t even have electricity. It’s not that we built palaces, it’s just cement blocks on the sides and a tin roof.”

Even for seasoned human rights workers and international journalists, the poverty and desolation of Israel’s unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev comes as a shock. Perhaps it is the constant threat of a bulldozer crashing into one’s home; or the extreme contrast with some of Israel’s wealthiest communities nearby; or perhaps the fact that the Bedouin are not refugees in a war-torn country, but rather full fledged citizens of one of the most prosperous countries in the Middle East. Bedouin serve in the Israeli army, practice law and medicine and work as professors in Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Yet when Bedouin return to a home in one of these unrecognized villages at the end of the day it is often to a ramshackle hut, with no electricity or running water, a home that state-owned bulldozers may demolish at any time.

Many Israelis believe the country’s Bedouin citizens deserve their lot – that they have trespassed onto land that wasn’t theirs and willfully built without proper permits. Yet during months of research for Human Rights Watch I found the opposite to be true. Bedouin presence on this land in the Negev dates back generations. Some Bedouin have documents to show that their fathers and grandfathers bought land from other Bedouin or paid land taxes to the Ottoman and British authorities before the state of Israel was founded. Others showed Human Rights Watch the ruins of family homes and school buildings from decades ago, or graveyards where their ancestors were buried in the 1800s. And others showed us military orders asking Bedouin to “temporarily” leave their villages in the early 1950s.

But these displaced Bedouin were never allowed to return to their ancestral villages. Israel passed a series of laws in the 1950s and 60s confiscating the land from which the Bedouin were displaced and registering it in the name of the state. In the 1960s, when Israel drew up its first master plan, planners purposefully ignored the Bedouin villages, rendering them illegal with a stroke of the pen, thus denying them access to building permits and basic services. These state actions are the root cause of the terrible conditions that tens of thousands of Israel’s Bedouin citizens endure to this day.

The land dispute between the state and the Bedouin is now before the Goldberg Commission. The Commission, appointed by the Ministry of Housing in October 2007 and headed by former state comptroller and retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg will present its findings and recommendations this June. The commission cannot afford to ignore Israel’s basic human rights obligations. These include tackling pervasive discrimination in land allocation and planning policies in Israel and combating the unlawful way in which home demolitions are carried out in the Bedouin community.

It does Israel no credit to deny secure tenure and adequate housing to a whole segment of its population and it undermines Israel’s stated goal of developing the Negev. Redressing years of injustice is not easy, but some of Israel’s allies, such as Canada and Australia, have embarked on legal and political processes to provide some modicum of land and housing rights to their indigenous populations.

As a first step, Israel should place an immediate moratorium on all demolitions and complement the work of the government-appointed Goldberg Commission by setting up an entirely independent body to investigate Bedouin complaints. This is the least the state can do to try and win back the hope and the trust of its Bedouin community.

Lucy Mair is the author of the Human Rights Watch report “Off the Map: Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israel’s Unrecognized Bedouin Villages.”