(Jerusalem) - The Israeli government should immediately stop demolishing the homes of Bedouin citizens in the Negev desert in southern Israel and should compensate those displaced and allow them to return to their village pending a final agreement that respects their rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said today. Hundreds of police officers arrived unannounced at 6 a.m. on August 17, 2010, in Al Araqib and demolished about 20 makeshift structures, leaving scores of residents homeless as summer temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius, or 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Israel Lands Authority officials accompanied by large numbers of police had demolished the entire village on July 27, as Human Rights Watch previously reported, and returned three more times to destroy temporary structures that some residents had erected on the site. The demolitions have forcibly displaced 300 people - about half of them children - even as some residents are pursuing land claims in Israeli courts.
"Israel is displaying a shocking disregard for the basic rights of citizens who happen to be Bedouin Arabs," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "These demolitions should stop right now."
Israel has demolished thousands of Negev Bedouin homes since the 1970s, and over 200 since the beginning of 2009. Human Rights Watch documented the systematic discrimination that Bedouin citizens face in a 130-page report, "Off the Map," in March 2008.
The demolitions in the village on August 10 and 17 are the first carried out by Israeli authorities on a large scale in the Negev during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Amatzia Tvua, manager in the Inspection Division of the Israel Land Administration (ILA) - the government agency responsible for managing state-owned lands - told Israeli media on August 10 that "if we have to demolish during Ramadan, we will, although we try to be sensitive."
Negev Bedouin are Israeli citizens, but approximately 90,000 of them live in "unrecognized" towns that are at risk of demolition. 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. Bedouin constitute an estimated 25 percent of the population of the northern Negev, but after being repeatedly displaced since 1948, they now occupy less than 2 percent of its land. While refusing to recognize Bedouin land claims to the area, Israel has granted large tracts of land to Jewish Israelis. In a series of laws, the latest passed on July 12, the state retroactively legalized individual farms in the area, almost all of which belong to Jews.
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 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. The government-planned townships, seven of the eight poorest communities in Israel, are ill-equipped to handle any influx of new residents.
In response to pending legal claims to the land that Al Araqib residents are pursuing in Beer Sheva District Court, Israeli authorities contend that the Bedouin have never had recognized land claims in the area.
After demolishing the entire village on July 27, inspectors from the ILA accompanied by police officers went to the site for the second time on August 4 and demolished approximately 20 structures that had been rebuilt. A member of the Knesset, Taleb el-Sana, was present that day and was forcibly removed from a structure by police officers. He lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. Police detained six people for questioning, including village head Sheikh Saiah al-Turi, and released them later that day. Three of them were given restraining orders prohibiting their access to the village for three days.
On August 10, the first day of Ramadan, police officers and ILA inspectors arrived at the village for the third time at 6 a.m. and demolished all the structures rebuilt in the village. Two people were arrested and released later that day.
Israeli media reported that the Israel Police Southern District head commander, Yochanan Danino, visited the area later that day accompanied by the director of the Internal Security Ministry, Hagai Peled. Danino accused the Bedouin of "forcing the police back to the area," and swore to "punish the criminals to the full extent of the law and demand they pay for every shekel incurred by the state for their recurring invasions."
Danino added that the state attorney's office was preparing a lawsuit seeking "millions of shekels" from the Bedouin residents, and said that the state is "trying to get a message through that has yet to register, that we will not allow them to return to the lands."
Shlomo Tzizer, head of the Inspection Division of the ILA, told Israeli media that the July 27 evacuation cost the ILA 300,000 NIS (US$80,000), but that the overall operation that day cost 2 million NIS (US$530,000), including days spent making preparations by 1,300 police officers, bus rentals, police helicopter, horsemen, and other forces.
Israel ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1991, requiring it to guarantee the right to housing. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reflects international law, 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 right. 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.