By Ahmad Amara
Since 1948, the State of Israel has sought to concentrate the 155,800 Bedouin living in the Negev desert in southern Israel into a limited number of urban settlements, while refusing to recognize the Bedouin’s ownership of other lands occupied by them. This article provides an account of the land and housing challenges faced by the Bedouin, as well as their efforts to resist this forced urbanization.
The Bedouin struggle has resulted in a number of significant court decisions on social and economic rights. These decisions have exemplified the role that can be played by the law and by the courts in either weakening or empowering minorities. They have also demonstrated the incapacity of those institutions to address specific social crises in the face of prevailing politics in some instances. Together with civil society organizations, the Bedouin have been advocating their cause through legal and non-legal venues. While both the State and Bedouin have achieved significant successes in their respective campaigns., the land and housing crisis being experienced by the Bedouin remains ongoing and in need of a speedy and just solution.
In the wake of the 1948 conflict in Palestine, the Negev desert fell under the control of the newly established state of Israel. Over 50,000 Bedouin in the Negev fled or were expelled into neighboring countries, with only about 11,000 remaining in Israel. All Bedouin in the Western and Southern Negev were transferred to the Siyag, an enclosed area in the Northern Negev which was partially inhabited by some Bedouin tribes. The newly relocated Bedouin were provided with neither housing nor compensation. Most settled on the lands upon which they had been placed by the State authorities. The Siyag is estimated to be 1,000 square kilometers in size-the equivilant of just 10% of the area initially held by the Bedouin.
After the transfer of the Bedouin to the Siyag, a seconf phase of relocations was initiated. The main policy of the State was directed towards moving the Bedouin into a small number of urban settlements. Thus, from the late 1960s until the early 1990s, seven townships for the Bedouin were established. Today, they are populated by about 83,000 Bedouin. The remaining Bedouin, who number about 83,000, now live in 45 different villages. These so-called ‘Unrecognized Villages’ each have a population of between 200 and 4,000. The seven townships are located within the eight poorest localities in Israel, while the unrecognized villages lack basic social and economic services, including running water, electricity, and educational and health institutions.
The Israeli government has justified its policy as a modernization process: if the Bedouin are settled in specific localities, rather than being scattered across a large area, the state can provide them with basic services. Yet, despite the hardship and the poor living conditions that the Bedouin face in their unrecognized villages, they have rejected the government’s offer to move into ‘modernized’ townships. Indeed, in some cases, Bedouin who moved to the townships have migrated back into the unrecognized villages.
Since 2000, a slight change in the government’s resettlement policy had been perceptible. In that year, the government decided to recognize six Bedouin villages, and to consider three additional villages for future recognition. The ‘recognition’ of a village starts with a process of planning and zoning of the village. This results in the ‘legislation’ of the village, whereupon residents can get house permits and, in the loger term, are provided with infrastructure and other services. This new policy has not succeeded for several reasons, the principal one being that, rather than recognizing the villages on the land that they currently occupy, the government has drawn new and smaller borders for the villages. The Bedouin who live outside those borders refuse to move within them. Moreover, as will be discussed below, many of the lands within the new borders are the subject of ownership claims filed by Bedouin, and it is difficult either to convince claimants to relinquish their claims or to convince other Bedouin to live on claimed lands.
The role of law: Bedouin land
The creation of the Bedouin’s land and housing problem has been largely achieved by means of the employment of different legal mechanisms by the State. This section outlines the main legal tools that have played, and still play, a major role in the case.
At the time of its creation, Israel incorporated all the laws that were then in force in Mandate Palestine, which included a mixture of Ottoman and British Mandate legislation. One of these laws, the Ottoman Land Code of 1858, sorted land into several categories. The most important land category in terms of this issue is Mawat land (a term which literally means ‘dead land’). The Ottoman Code defined as Mawat land that was barren, was not possessed by anyone, and that was located at such a distance from a settlement that a loud voice originating in the settlement could not be heard on the land. Ledislation under the British Mandate later defined distance as a mile and a half from any settlement. Mandate law also Amended Article 103 of the Ottoman Code, making it no longer possible for a person who had taken possession of and cultivated Mawat land to acquire valid title. Previously, it was possible to acquire title over such land even if it had been cultivated without the permission of the authorities. In addition, in 1921, the British Mandate enacted The Land Ordinance (Mawat), which required anyone claiming ownership over Mawat land to register it within two months from the date that the Ordinance came into force. Otherwise, such Mawat land was regarded as being the property of the State.
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