Draft Law Threatens Stepped-Up Demolition of Longstanding Villages
August 30, 2013
Israel has been shoving Bedouin out of their communities and into ever-shrinking space while encouraging and even helping Jewish Israelis to move in. Prime Minister Netanyahu should end the appalling discrimination against Israel’s Bedouin citizens, not support legislation that enshrines it.
Joe Stork, acting Middle East director

(Jerusalem) – The Israeli government should announce an immediate moratorium on demolitions of “illegal” homes of Bedouin citizens. The government demolishes Bedouin homes based on discriminatory laws and rules, and without respect for the Bedouins’ dignity or the country’s human rights obligations.

The government should also withdraw proposed legislation that would discriminate against Bedouin with harsh rules on land and property rights and authorize large-scale displacement of Bedouin from generations-old communities, while severely restricting their ability to appeal. Government officials have estimated that implementing the law would displace 30,000 Bedouin, while Israeli rights groups say the figure could be 40,000 or more.

Israel has been shoving Bedouin out of their communities and into ever-shrinking space while encouraging and even helping Jewish Israelis to move in,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Netanyahu should end the appalling discrimination against Israel’s Bedouin citizens, not support legislation that enshrines it.”

According to government figures, 200,000 Bedouin live in the country’s southern Negev region, the majority in 7 government-planned townships, and several thousand more in 11 Bedouin communities that the government is in the process of “recognizing.” However, Israeli state planning documents and maps exclude 35 “unrecognized” Bedouin communities, where the government estimates that 70,000 to 90,000 people live.

Israel demolishes Bedouin homes in the Negev on the basis that they were built without permits, often in unauthorized communities. Israel has for decades refused either to legally recognize these communities or to allow their residents to gain title to ancestral land. The Israeli government has rejected or delayed discussion of proposed plans submitted by groups seeking authorization for Bedouin communities, making it impossible for residents to obtain building permits. In contrast, the government takes an active role in planning and expanding Jewish communities in the region, and has retroactively authorized construction there by Jewish citizens.

Bedouin have ancestral claims to lands on which their families have lived for generations. However, Israeli authorities do not recognize Bedouin land claims without official ownership documents, which few have. Israel claims state ownership of Negev lands that are not registered to individual owners. While Israel has frequently granted Jewish communities and individual Jewish farmers long-term leases to use “state lands,” including lands expropriated from Israeli Bedouin, it has largely refused to grant Bedouin similar use.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the Israeli authorities’ discriminatory practices toward Bedouin and the discriminatory demolition of their homes. Since March 2013 Human Rights Watch has documented demolition of 18 Bedouin homes and 11 other structures, including 8 tents where victims of previous demolitions were living.

Many of the demolitions have been in Atir, a community of about 500 people near Beer Sheva. Bedouin have lived in Atir since Israeli authorities relocated them there in 1956, but the authorities have refused to recognize the village or connect it to electricity or water networks, and plan to plant a forest there. Security forces demolished the homes of about 70 people there on May 16, and returned on May 29 and June 27 to demolish tents in which the displaced were living.

In one case, security forces demolished the home of a family with two children with disabilities without allowing their parents time to retrieve the children’s medication, hearing aids, and an oxygen canister. R., 26, said that an Israeli security official refused his and his wife’s requests for more time before their home was bulldozed and the rubble trucked away to a dump:

I tried to reason with the guy. My wife held out the form that said our kids are handicapped and asked to get some things from inside the house, but he threw it on the ground and said, “I don’t care.”

Israeli authorities contend that they are simply enforcing zoning and building codes and encourage Bedouin to purchase land and housing in seven existing government-planned Bedouin communities. Israel has allocated funding for an economic development program to benefit the Negev Bedouin, and designated Bedouin communities as among the “national priority areas” eligible for other subsidies.

Many Bedouin have rejected relocating to the townships because the government requires them to renounce land claims that they have passed down over generations. The townships, seven of the eight poorest communities in Israel, also have insufficient land for traditional livelihoods such as grazing livestock.

On June 24 the Israeli parliament approved the draft Law on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, prepared by the prime minister’s office, at its first reading. It will become law if approved at two further readings. The proposed law is intended to resolve the residency status of Bedouin in “unrecognized” communities. The law could regularize some communities that meet certain criteria, but creates administrative procedures that could fast-track demolitions in communities that do not. Currently, Israeli courts approve government requests for demolition orders against Bedouin homes individually.

Israel ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1991, requiring it to guarantee the right to housing. The committee responsible for interpreting the covenant has said this right means governments can carry out forced evictions only in “the most exceptional circumstances,” and then only in accordance with human rights principles requiring the government to consult with the affected individuals or communities, identify a clear public interest requiring the eviction, ensure that those affected have a meaningful opportunity to challenge the eviction, and provide appropriate compensation and adequate alternative land and housing arrangements.

International human rights law prohibits countries from discriminating against minority groups, including with regard to land and housing rights.Governments must demonstrate that any differential treatment negatively affecting a group is proportionate to a legitimate aim.

The government should fully compensate Bedouin whose homes and property it has destroyed in violation of the right to housing and non-discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. The government should allow them to return to their villages pending a final agreement with the displaced Bedouin that respects their rights under international law.

“The prime minister’s office has led the drive to push through this law that will forcibly displace thousands of Bedouin families,” Stork said. “Israel’s allies should tell the prime minister in no uncertain terms to shelve this discriminatory law.”

For more information on the draft law, international law, and recent demolitions, see below.

The Draft Law
The draft law is based on plans that the government developed over several years, beginning with the Goldberg Commission, headed by a former supreme court justice, which published a final report in 2008. In 2009 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tasked Ehud Prawer, a National Security Council official, with developing a plan to implement the report. In 2011 Netanyahu appointed a minister-without-portfolio, Ze'ev Begin, to finalize the Prawer plan. Begin submitted his plan in January 2013.

The law would establish an administrative mechanism to resolve the land claims of Bedouin citizens and to order the demolition of “unlawful” structures. It would sharply restrict Bedouin access both to the courts to contest demolition orders on an individual basis, and to planning bodies to petition against plans that exclude Bedouin communities. Courts have rejected all Bedouin land claims made on the basis of historical land usage, while planning bodies have refused to recognize most Bedouin communities, with the partial exception of 11 “recognized” villages.

The proposed legislation offers the possibility that some additional Bedouin communities could be recognized, although it does not specify any. However, by eliminating Bedouins’ recourse to courts and other procedures, the proposed legislation would accelerate ongoing demolition and displacement.The draft law provides for increasing the number of security forces to carry out evictions. Officials have said that if the law passes, the evictions that it authorizes would be fully implemented by 2016.

The government says that the displacedwould be offered housing in planned townships, to which they have resisted moving, citing the poverty of these townships and the lack of space to pursue their traditional economic activities. Bedouin have also refused to participate in governmental relocation plans that would, in effect, require them to claim ownership of another community’s land.

The law would allow some of the Bedouin whom Israeli forces did not displace in the 1940s and 1950s and who are still living on their ancestral lands to claim land ownership rights. However, it arbitrarily restricts eligibility to Bedouin (or their heirs) who applied to register their land between 1971 and 1979 – the only period when Israel allowed Bedouin to file land claims, although the officials did not rule on any of these claims.

Further, virtualy the only eligible claims under the draft law would be for lands that Bedouin lived on or cultivated at the time they applied to register, but the criteria could be met only by evidence provided by the government on the basis of state land surveys and other official records. Bedouin would also be ineligible to claim lands that a court has already determined belonged to the government, which has been the result in all of the roughly 200 court cases filed by Bedouin claiming traditional ownership without official deeds.

Bedouin who have been displaced from their ancestral lands would be eligible to file for compensation, but under the plan’s restrictive criteria, very few would be eligible to claim land. They would be eligible for compensation only if they agreed to be relocated and to waive any claims to their ancestral lands.

Bedouin whose claims survive these tests would be eligible to receive title to land, at a rate determined by the government, equivalent to a maximum of 62.5 percent of the area claimed, subject to further restrictions. However, they would not necessarily receive any of their own land, but only “comparable” land, and only when state authorities deem it “possible” to allocate such land.

The law does not specify where the displaced Bedouin would be relocated but implies that they could be moved to Bedouin communities that Israel would then legally recognize, to the 11 Bedouin communities that Israel has already recognized, or to the seven government-planned Bedouin “townships.” The claimants could also be eligible for compensation at a rate determined by the government.

Under the proposed law, government authorities would determine which of the 35 “unrecognized” Bedouin communities that the state regards as having been built unlawfully would be demolished, and which could be recognized, if any. The government would make that determination on the basis of whether a Bedouin community’s location conforms to the master plan for the area, and is of sufficient “size, population density, continuity, and economic capability.”

Such criteria do not otherwise exist in Israeli planning laws and regulations, and Israel has not applied them when it retroactively granted authorization to Jewish residential buildings and privately owned farms in the Negev. Human Rights Watch has reported on dozens of such cases.

The Bedouin say that Israel did not consult them about the proposed law, and thousands have demonstrated against it. The government contends that it consulted with Bedouin during a three month period. But that was after September 2011, when the government approved key aspects of the proposed legislation that it has not altered.

The Bedouin Communities and Israel’s Master Plan
Tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens in the Negev live in “unrecognized” communities. Because the government considers the villages illegal, it has not adequately connected them to basic services and infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewage treatment, and garbage disposal. Although the villages do not appear on official maps, some existed before the state of Israel was established in 1948. Others were established after the Israeli army forcibly displaced Bedouin tribes from their ancestral lands immediately following the 1948 war.

Israel passed laws in the 1950s and 1960s enabling the government to lay claim to large areas of the Negev desert where the Bedouin had formerly lived or used the land. Planning authorities, when they created Israel’s first master plan in the late 1960s, did not include any of the existing Bedouin villages in the Negev.

Various groups of Bedouin residents of the Negev, working with nongovernmental Israeli planners and rights groups, have repeatedly objected to their communities’ exclusion from master plans. In February 2012 Bedouin residents and rights groups submitted to Israeli planning authorities an alternative plan under which the authorities would recognize all the Bedouin communities. Israeli authorities have not responded. The Israeli government’s explanation of the draft law on the Bedouin, published on January 23, 2013, dismissed the Bedouin communities’ alternative plans as “proposals that disregard reality,” without elaborating.

The government has stated that the proposed law would require the displacement of Wadi al-Na’am, the largest “unrecognized” Bedouin community with 14,000 residents, and of “fewer than 3,000 other families” who live in other unrecognized communities. In September 2011, Eyal Gabai, at the time director general of the prime minister’s office, estimated that 30,000 people would be displaced.

Israeli authorities have carried out demolitions of Bedouin homes and other structures without meaningful prior consultations with residents. Israeli officials have invoked the public interest in enforcing building codes as a justification for demolitions. With the exception of 11 Bedouin villages that Israeli authorities are in the process of recognizing, they have refused to consider alternatives to demolitions in the other 35 unrecognized villages, including rezoning existing Bedouin communities as residential areas. In many cases, Israel had displaced Bedouin to these locations in the 1950s, and in other cases, the communities predate the establishment of the state in 1948.

Even in the “recognized” and planned villages, Israeli authorities demolish new buildings on the basis that they are not provided for in the villages’ “outline plans.” Bedouin and planners say that the government should revise those plans to provide for new buildings and natural growth.

Recent Demolitions in Atir
In Atir, where many of the recent demolitions have taken place, Israeli planning authorities regard the roughly 500 residents as squatters. Residents are members of the Abu al-Qi’an clan, which Israel expelled in 1948 from their lands to the northwest. Kibbutz Shoval has since been established there. The state prohibited them from returning and blocked their attempts to settle in several other locations until 1956, when the military leased to the clan 7,000 dunams (700 hectares) in Wadi Atir, the valley in which Atir is located, according to military records obtained by Adalah, a nongovernmental legal center that advocates for Arab minority rights in Israel.

Israeli authorities have not connected Atiir to water or electricity networks or issued permits for the buildings there. Since the 1960s, the Israeli government has designated an ever-larger portion of the land in Wadi Atir as forests, to be planted by the Jewish National Fund. In the 1980s the Israel Land Administration, to which the military had given the file, cancelled the Abu al-Qi’an clan’s lease for the land. In February 2013 a district planning body approved plans to plant the “Yatir Forest” on the site of Atir. Two Israeli rights groups, Adalah and Bimkom, appealed the plan, which does not acknowledge that the site is inhabited and provides no alternative housing for residents.

At around 7 a.m. on May 16 a large number of Israeli security forces demolished 18 buildings in Atir, including 16 residential structures, a large animal pen, and a communal tent, as well as 4 solar panels, and about 700 olive, fig, pomegranate, and citrus trees, residents told Human Rights Watch. Residents said that they had been aware of demolition orders for only three of the structures.

R., 26, said security forces demolished the cement-walled home he built in 2007, where he lived with his wife, who suffers from thalassemia, a blood disorder, and their sons, aged 1 and 2, who have congenital illnesses including Bartter syndrome, which affects the kidneys:

They came and surrounded the whole area, a huge number of forces. It happened extremely quickly. My wife was about to bathe the kids and had taken out their hearing aids and put them in a drawer, when someone in a green uniform came into the house and told us we had to leave immediately. I grabbed the bag that I always keep everything in, documents, medical papers, IDs, and money, and went outside. It happened so fast. They entered, took us out, and began bulldozing the house. We had no time to remove anything except that one bag. They bulldozed the house with everything in it, the refrigerator and everything, and then they took it all away to the dump. Inside the house there was an oxygen tank and the two ear pieces, one for each of my kids, and the five different types of medication they both need. 

Israeli authorities returned to Atir on May 29 and demolished nine tents where victims of the May 16 demolitions were taking shelter, as well as two other homes, and confiscated two electricity generators. Residents said they had been aware of demolition orders against only one tent and one other residential structure.

Human Rights Watch observed residents constructing two large tents during a visit to the site on May 31. On June 1 Israeli authorities notified people to evacuate the new tents within 48 hours, but did not demolish them. During a phone conversation on June 8, R. told Human Rights Watch that residents whose homes and tents had been demolished were living together in the large tents, so that Israeli forces would carry out fewer demolitions in the future than if residents rebuilt multiple, smaller family residences. “After they bulldozed our tents the second time, we’ve been living in a tent that’s five by five meters,” R. said. “But it’s hard. It’s always so hot, so we always need to be inside. Today it was 40 degrees.”

R. said that he and his wife had sent their children to live with their mother’s parents in another community, where he sees them once a week. “They are not healthy enough to live in the tent where I am living now,” he said. “But they are back on their medicine again. When the house was destroyed the first time they had to live a week without any medicine, until I could get it again. We had the oxygen tank in case they had a breathing emergency. Now, we don’t.”

Human Rights Watch observed the results of further demolitions that took place in Atir on June 27. Residents said that Israeli forces returned at 9 a.m. and demolished a residential structure. One resident, Im Rasim, told Human Rights Watch that villagers also disassembled four residential tents before security forces arrived, to prevent them from being torn down. “We saw the security forces coming and residents took down the four tents themselves, but the forces confiscated the metal poles for one of the tents anyway,” she said.

A., 25, said that Israeli forces destroyed his home in Atir on May 16, and tore down the tent he was living in on May 29. “I was living in one of the tents with my wife and my kids, a 1-and-a-half-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter,” he said. “We took whatever we could out of our home in the few minutes they gave us, and the rest they took away in trucks, to the dump.” Another resident, N., 18, said that on May 16 Israeli authorities demolished the home where he had lived with his parents and seven siblings. In total, the demolitions displaced about 70 people, residents said.

 Atir residents told Human Rights Watch that officials from the Israeli government’s Bedouin Authority had approached them in March and encouraged them to move to Hura, built in 1979 as one of the seven urban “townships” for Bedouins.  Residents of Atir said that they did not want to move to Hura because it would not be possible to continue their pastoral and agricultural way of life.

“The government started talking to us in March,” R. said. “They’d come every day. We said, ‘We’ll go to Hura, but if we move you have to let us have what we have here.’ We don’t object to moving, but we can’t just go [without guarantees]. They didn’t get back to us.”

Other Recent Demolitions
In March Israeli authorities demolished the home of A., 51, in the unrecognized Bedouin community of Wadi al-Meshash. A., who drives a forklift in a chemical factory in Ramat Hovav,said he built his home 18 years ago, but authorities issued a demolition order when he renovated and expanded it two years ago to accommodate his growing family. The youngest of his ten children is 6. “They said, ‘You either demolish the house yourself or we’ll demolish it.’ It had a cement floor. They jackhammered it.”

Israeli authorities told A. to move to Segev Shalom, one of the towns that Israel established for Bedouin, or to Bir Haddaj, one of the “recognized” villages. A. objected. “There’s not enough land in Segev Shalom. I know people who moved there and then moved back,” A. said. “And they’re demolishing houses in Bir Haddaj even though they recognized the village.”

In another case, N., a resident of the “unrecognized” Bedouin village of Rahama, said that he had built a home 22 years ago that had been damaged, but that he was afraid to renovate it. “A few months ago,” he said, “there was a high wind that destroyed 40 houses around here. It damaged the roof of my house, too, which was zinco [sheets of corrugated metal], but I can’t fix the old roof, or they’d destroy the whole building.” N. said that in numerous similar cases, Israeli authorities demolished “illegal” buildings after their owners renovated them. N. said it would be impossible for him to obtain building permits for his home or its roof.

In Wadi al-Na’am, the largest “unrecognized” Bedouin community, on April 18 Israeli forces demolished a market that had been owned by Mousa al-Jiljawi, who died in December 2012 at the age of 40. The 32-square-meter store remained the main source of income for his widow and eight children, residents said. Sheikh Attiya il-Jiljawi, 76, Mousa al-Jiljawi’s uncle, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli authorities had issued a demolition order for the store two years ago. Immediately before they demolished it, the authorities told his nephew to remove everything in the store.

Israeli authorities have carried out numerous other demolitions. According to the Negev Coexistence Forum, an Israeli rights group, on August 21, Israeli forces destroyed tents in the Bedouin village of al-Arakib for the 52nd time since 2010 . Al-Arakib residents have resisted repeated demolitions by returning to the site.

In addition to the 29 demolitions that Human Rights Watch documented, the Negev Coexistence Forum documented 44 home demolitions and 9 demolitions of stores, animal shelters, and other structures in Bedouin communities in the Negev as of August 26, 2013. Israeli forces carried out 26 of the demolitions in “recognized” or planned Bedouin communities.

International Legal Standards
Human Rights Watch documented the systematic discrimination that Bedouin citizens face in a 130-page report, “Off the Map,” released in March 2008.

The right to procedural protections against forced or compelled eviction derives from the right to adequate housing as provided by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICECSR), to which Israel is a state party. The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, established to oversee compliance of state parties with the ICESCR, has defined forced evictions as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families, and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.”

The committee has emphasized that for evictions to be lawful, they must be “solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society” and carried out “in strict compliance with the relevant provisions of international human rights law and in accordance with general principles of reasonableness and proportionality.”

The committee has also stressed that “instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law.”

The committee noted that as a way to minimize the need for force, “all feasible alternatives” to eviction must have been “explored.” This process, “particularly in cases involving large groups,” must have been conducted “in consultation with affected persons.” If the decision to evict stands, “legal remedies or procedures should be provided to those who are affected by eviction orders,” and “individuals concerned have a right to adequate compensation for any property, both personal and real, which is affected.”

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 obliges countries to “guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law,” including the right to equal treatmentbefore tribunals and courts and the right to housing. In its general recommendation no. 23 (1997), the committee called on states parties to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples “to own, develop, control, and use their communal lands, territories, and resources” and to take steps to restore the lands if the inhabitants have been deprived of it without their consent. In March 2012 the committee called on Israel to withdraw the “discriminatory proposed Law for the Regulation of the Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, which would legalize the ongoing policy of home demolitions and forced displacement of the indigenous Bedouin communities.”