Before the founding of the state of Israel, some 90,000 Bedouins lived in the Negev (between 67,500 according to Zionist sources, to 110,000, according to Arab sources). After 1948 only a small fraction were still living in the Negev: only those who swore allegiance to the state of Israel were allowed to stay, numbering around 11,000 according to the 1960 census. In return for their loyalty, Israel promised the Bedouins that they would be allowed to keep their traditional way of life and their lands.

The promise was broken already in the 1950s. Bedouins of different tribes were forcibly relocated into a restricted zone known as the syag in Hebrew (enclosure) — a geographical triangle in the northeastern Negev between Dimona, Beer-Sheba and Arad, in an area measuring 1,5 Million dunum (the whole Negev area is 13 million dunum). Since then, the state has expropriated more than 92% of the lands.

The main instrument of expropriation was the military administration which controlled Bedouins’ everyday life and restricted their freedom of movement and actual access to pasture areas. It was complemented by the Land Acquisition law (1953), according to which every land not actively possessed and used in April 1952 and needed for settlement and security reasons, can be “acquired” and subsequently registered as state property. Since under the military administration Bedouins could not actually access many of their lands, this law enabled massive expropriation.

A Typical example: the land of the Al-Ukbi Tribe

Nouri al-Ukbi

Nouri al-Ukbi

The Al-Ukbi people had been living on their lands in El-Arakib for many generations. In 1951 the Israeli army informed the Al-Ukbi sheikh that the tribe had to move to the area of Hura, twenty kilometers to the east, “for security reasons.” The people of the tribe were promised that they would be able to return to their lands after six months, but the promise was never fulfilled. After removing the tribe, the state used the Land Acquisition Law in order to expropriate its lands at Al-Arakib (19,000 dunum). Al-Arakib land was registered under the Development Authority (entrusted with administering the property of Palestinian refugees).

To this day, many of the Tribes’ members live south of Hura, in a place named after them al-Ukbi, in harsh conditions. Although the authorities were the ones who transferred them to the area, the place where they live is considered an “unrecognized village”: it has no electricity, sanitation services, sewage systems, or paved access roads, and the homes are “illegal”, under constant threat of demolition.

In the whole Negev, only 8% of the land is left in Bedouins’ hands. The constant struggle over land rights revolves over the little that remains. In 1969, the Land Settlement Law finally enabled them to file claims for ownership over some of the land, resulting in 3,200 land claims submitted by Bedouins totaling more than 1,5 million dunum, part of which are pasture areas. The Israeli authorities accepted claims for over 900,000 dunums (200,000 of which had already been registered by that time as state property!). Claims for additional 100,000 dunums were settled, and claims for the remaining 600,000 dunums remained unresolved.

Another piece of legislation, from 1980, offered Bedouins the possibility to retain 20% of their remaining land and accept low financial compensation for the remaining 80%. The settlement failed; the legal status of the lands remains fragile and unclear ever since: The state does not recognize the Bedouin’s rights – but neither can it claim to be a proper owner of the land. The Bedouins are therefore unable to build houses, open business or develop the infrastructure, but neither can the state legally undertake any changes.

In the meanwhile, the years go by. The Bedouins who can give testimony to corroborate land claims are slowly passing away, and the houses and villages remain unrecognized by the state.

Occupying the land: Forestation as means for expulsion

Al-Ukbi is only one among several villages whose land is being held by the Israeli authorities, such as Karkur, Twail Abu-Jarwal and Al-Arakib – all lying between Lehavim-Rahat and Beer-Sheva. All of these lands were expropriated after the enforced evacuation of the 1950s. Many of their inhabitants live only a short distance from their historical lands, denied the right to go back in order to cultivate them or to submit formal claims to ownership. Some still have documents from the Ottoman period proving that they were taxed for holding the land. These documents are not proof enough for the Israeli authorities. Aerial photographs from the British mandate period which show that the lands were cultivated are also not enough.

Acacia tree

The lands of Karkur, Twail Abu-Jarwal and Al-Arakib still stand mostly empty and unused. When the inhabitants of Al-Arakib sowed their land last year, Israeli authorities destroyed the crops. The houses of Twail Abu-Jarwal were demolished more than 30 times. Over the years, the Jewish National Fund has planted trees on these lands in order to prevent the return of the inhabitants. In recent years, the JNF has expanded its forestation campaign. Nouri Al-Uqbi's residence is surrounded by thorny Acacia trees which were planted by JNF.

The original owners of the lands live today in villages, of which only a part are recognized by the Israeli authorities, in proximity to their original lands: the Al-Ukbi tribe lives in the unrecognized village of Al-Krin, whose houses are constantly under threat of demolition. Some of the Al-Tlalka family members live next to the haphazardly established village of Lakiya (Lagiyye), on other people’s lands, while waiting to move to an approved place of residence. Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities are demolishing their houses in their original village, Twail-Abu-Jarwal, and the JNF is planting trees on the lands on which the village once stood…

Sheikh A-Turi lives on his land in the village of Al-Arakib, and the state repeatedly demolishes his house and destroys his agricultural crops. The lands’ ownership status is still debated by the courts, but that does not deter the authorities and the JNF from planting a forest over them.

This is how things look like: The state forcibly moved the Bedouins from their lands in the 1950s and promised they would be allowed to return in 6 months. The state has opted for a different solution: it listed the land as state property. The ownership over the rest of the lands has not been settled yet: Ambiguous status has its advantages. This is how Bedouin rights over land are erased.

Development: Middle-Class Housing On Sale


Bulldozer razing the ground after demolishing the tent of Dr. Awad Abu-Freih, Al-Arakib, 29 Otober, 2009

During the last days of the Ramadan, JNF bulldozers arrived to Al-Arakib lands in order to prepare the ground for forestation. The sole purpose of the forestation initiative is to prevent the Bedouins from going back to the area. The occupation of the land continues. The inhabitants of the village arrived each day and asked the bulldozers’ drivers to leave the area. On the last day of the Muslim holiday Id al-Fitr, large police forces came to escort the bulldozers. The outcome: tear gas, arrests and wounded people - all Bedouin. The bulldozers can now resume their work – tilling the land to prepare it for planting more thorny Acacia trees.

In the western end of the village lie the lands of Al-Krinawi family. For decades, the kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev has used those lands for its agriculture; formally, the ownership of Al-Krinawi’s lands is still undecided. The land owners of Al-Krinawi tribe waited patiently, expecting that the state would someday treat them fairly and relinquish its claims for ownership of those lands. Now it seems that they had hoped in vain: The Kibbutz has begun preparing the lands for the construction of a new middle-class neighborhood. On its website, The Dorel real-estate company, in charge of the construction, takes pride in using ecological, green construction methods, and in leading the “Map of expansion of Israel”. Very green.

The Israeli authorities have graciously agreed to buy the lands from any Bedouin land owner who would be willing to sell for 2,800 NIS per dunum. This is about 5% of the price of such land when sold by the kibbutz to private Jewish citizens looking for high-quality housing.

Bulldozers are followed by trees, and the trees – with the help of laws and police units and private investors – would pave the way for constructing nice villas…

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