(Jerusalem) - The Israeli government should immediately impose a moratorium on demolishing the homes of Bedouin citizens, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also fully compensate those whose homes and property it has destroyed and allow them to return to their village pending a final agreement with the displaced that respects their rights under international law.
In a pre-dawn raid on July 27, 2010, Israeli security forces destroyed all 45 homes, animal pens, and other structures in the village of al-Araqib, leaving more than 300 people homeless, about half of them children under 16. Nearly 90,000 Palestinian Arab Bedouins, the indigenous inhabitants of the Negev (Naqab) region of southern Israel, live in dozens of "unrecognized" towns. Because the Israeli authorities refuse to recognize their towns and villages, the Bedouins risk the destruction of their homes at any time.
"Tearing down an entire village and leaving its inhabitants homeless without exhausting all other options for settling longstanding land claims is outrageous," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The attack on these Israeli citizens' property shows that Israel's discriminatory policies toward Palestinian Arab Bedouin have not changed."
The July 27 raid began around 4:30 a.m. when 1,300 armed police officers in riot helmets and shields blocked the entrance to the village and entered it. The force included mounted cavalry, helicopters, inspectors from the Israel Land Administration (ILA) - the government agency responsible for managing the 93 percent of Israeli land owned by the state, and demolition crews operating bulldozers, according to witnesses and video images viewed by Human Rights Watch.
The crews forcibly removed the villagers, mostly children and elderly people, from their homes before the demolition operation began. Awad Abu Freih, spokesman for the al-Araqib civil committee, told Human Rights Watch that residents were unarmed and stayed in their homes after police arrived in a form of passive resistance. Bulldozers also destroyed carob and olive trees, chicken coops, and other structures, residents said.
The Israeli police foreign press spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld, told Human Rights Watch that the police acted on a court order issued 11 years ago but not previously executed. The operation "was done quietly and sensitively and in coordination with the village representatives," Rosenfeld said. Abu Freih denied that there had been any coordination. Rosenfeld added that Land Administration officials evacuated al-Araqib residents to an area close to the nearby city of Rahat, where, he claimed, they had additional residences.
Ortal Tzabar, a Land Administration spokeswoman, confirmed in a statement to Human Rights Watch that the authorities also uprooted 850 olive trees that she said were "to be replanted elsewhere."
Abu Freih and Ye'ela Raanan, spokeswoman for the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages, a local organization, said that only a few dozen people from al-Araqib have other homes. Some residents may have spent the night with friends or relatives in Rahat after the demolitions, Raanan said, but "there are at least 250 people now who don't have another option." Raanan said she was at al-Araqib during the operation and that residents began on July 28 to build makeshift tents on the site with wooden frames and cheap fabric.
Residents and Israeli rights activists told Human Rights Watch that police began assembling at the village late Monday evening. At 12:15 a.m., the Kiryat Gat Peace Court (court of first instance) rejected an appeal filed by village residents contending that the state had no legal grounds to demolish their homes.
The Negev Coexistence Forum, a Bedouin rights group, said in a statement that al-Araqib existed before the creation of Israel in 1948 and that residents returned there after being evicted by the state in 1951. Many of the unrecognized villages are around Beer Sheva, the Negev's largest city. The current draft of a metropolitan plan for Beer Sheva designates the land where al-Araqib is located as a "recreational area" and as an area for "forest and forestation."
A lawyer who represents several al-Araqib residents and who asked not to be named, said that the Israeli government issued "evacuation orders" in 2002 to nine people in the village based on Article 21 of the Property Law, which allows for the owner of a piece of property - in this case, the state of Israel claims to own the property - to evict anyone residing on it illegally. But, he said, in the eight years since then authorities had not made any attempt to carry out these orders.
While the village population has grown since then, no other residents received evacuation or demolition orders until June of this year, the lawyer said, when several others received letters from the government threatening them with house demolition. These letters were based on Article 64 of the Repossession Law (Hotza'a Lapoal), which says the authorities may also evict other residents, interpreted by the state and the courts to include those in a vaguely-defined "legal relation" with anyone against whom other orders have been issued.
Israeli authorities carried out the demolitions despite pending legal claims to the land that Al-Araqib residents are pursuing in Beer Sheva District Court. Abu Freih, the al-Araqib civil committee spokesman, told Human Rights Watch that over a dozen such land claims are pending. One resident and human rights activist, Nouri al-Okbi, testified in court that the Israeli government confiscated 820 dunams (82 hectares) of land from his family, without compensation, when they were expelled in 1951.
The state contends that the Bedouin have never had recognized land claims in the area. Al-Okbi's lawyer, Michael Sfard, recently produced evidence in court, however, that appeared to show that the Jewish National Fund had bought land in this area from Bedouin owners during British rule, as did Ottoman authorities before then. This, he said, indicated that the area had customarily been recognized as belonging to the Bedouin.
The demolitions came two days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made comments in a government meeting, as reported by Israeli media, about the "threat" of losing a Jewish majority in the Negev region. "We are under real attack on this issue [of Israel as a Jewish state]," Netanyahu was quoted as saying in a July 25 government meeting regarding amendments to the citizenship law. "The meaning could be that different elements will demand national rights within Israel, for example, in the Negev, if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority. It has happened in the Balkans, and it is a palpable threat."
Israel has demolished thousands of Negev Bedouin homes since the 1970s, and over 200 since 2009. Israeli authorities have demolished many structures in al-Araqib in the past, although never the entire village. The Land Administration also began spraying villagers' crops with herbicides in 2002 as a mechanism to cause evacuation, a practice deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007.
"Israel employs systematically discriminatory policies in the Negev," Stork said. "It is tearing down historic Bedouin villages before the courts have even ruled on pending legal claims, and is handing out Bedouin land to allow Jewish farmers to set up ranches."
Tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens in southern Israel live in "unrecognized" villages like al-Araqib. Because the government considers the villages illegal, it has not 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 sprang up 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 where the Bedouin had formerly owned or used the land. Planning authorities ignored the existence of Bedouin villages when they created Israel's first master plan in the late 1960s.
Israeli officials contend that they are simply enforcing zoning and building codes and insist that Bedouin can relocate to seven existing government-planned townships or a handful of newly recognized villages. The government-planned townships are seven of the eight poorest communities in Israel and are ill-equipped to handle any influx of new residents. Many - if not most - Bedouin have rejected relocating to the townships, which have minimal infrastructure, high crime rates, scarce job opportunities, and insufficient land for traditional livelihoods such as herding and grazing. In addition, the state requires Bedouin who move to the townships to renounce their ancestral land claims - unthinkable for most Bedouin, who have claims to land passed down from parent to child over generations.
Bedouin constitute 25 percent of the population of the northern Negev, but occupy less than 2 percent of its land. Over the past decade, Israeli authorities have allocated large tracts of land in this region, and public funds, for the creation of private ranches and farms. There are 59 such "individual farms" in the Negev - only one allocated to a Bedouin family and the rest to Jewish families - that stretch over 81,000 dunams of land, greater than the total land area granted to the seven planned Bedouin townships housing 85,000 people. The Israeli human rights organization Adalah says the state has connected these farms to national electric and water grids, despite the fact that some lack proper planning permits. In a series of laws, the latest passed on July 12, the state retroactively legalized such farms and authorized the establishment of more.
Human Rights Watch documented the systematic discrimination that Bedouin citizens face in a130-page report, "Off the Map," released in March 2008.
Israel ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1991, requiring it to guarantee the right to housing. The United Nations Committee responsible for interpreting the covenant has said this means governments can carry out forced evictions only in "the most exceptional circumstances," and even 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.
Another right at stake is the right to property, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, opposed by only two states in the world - the US and Canada - states that indigenous peoples have the right to lands they traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used, and that states should give legal recognition to this. It also says that no relocation of indigenous peoples should take place without their free, prior, and informed consent and only after prior agreement on just and fair compensation.
In December 2008, the Goldberg Commission, appointed by the government in late 2007 to find a solution for the land claims of residents of the unrecognized villages, recommended that the state recognize villages that have a "critical mass" of permanent residents and that do not interfere with other state planning. In practice this would be limited to the recognition of only a few of the dozens of unrecognized villages. The commission also called for the establishment of several claims committees to deal with Bedouin ownership claims and provide financial compensation for expropriated land. In May 2009, the government established the Prawer Committee to outline a plan to implement the Goldberg Commission's recommendations.