Today, at 9 AM, the Supreme Court in Jerusalem will hear the appeal of the heirs of Sheikh Suleiman al-Ukbi regarding the right of ownership of land at al-Araqib and Zazhilika, northwest of Be`er Sheba. The panel including Justices Elyahim Rubinstein, Esther Hayut and Salim Jubran will deliberate on an appeal of the ruling of Judge Sarah Dovrat of the Be`er Sheba District Court, who had ruled against the heirs.
Nuri al-Ukbi , a veteran Bedouin rights campaigner who is one of the appellants, said: In 1951, members of my tribe were expelled from their village and lands in al-Araqib, and deported by force to Hora, about twenty kilometers to the east, close to the then border with Jordan. The authorities in the State of Israel used methods of intimidation and fraud in order to justify the criminal deportation of civilians from their homes and lands.
Documents and written history prove that al-Araqib was a place of residence and cultivated land of the al-Ukbi Tribe for generations, ever since the days of the Ottoman Empire, and they still lived there during the first four years after the establishment of Israel. As a citizen of Israel, Sheikh Suleiman Muhammad al-Ukbi voted in the first elections to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) in 1949, the ballot box being placed at his residence in al-Araqib. The same residence served every Monday and Thursday as the venue for a Tribal Court, acting under authorization of the State of Israel and sitting with its national flag and state emblem displayed. Then, the state suddenly turned on its Bedouin citizens and violated their basic rights, solely because of their ethnicity, and in 1951 expelled them mercilessly from their land. We have appealed to the Be`er Sheva District Court, seeking justice - and were rejected. We hope that the Supreme Court will now redress this long-lasting injustice.”
Attorney Michael Sfard, who represents the appellants, said: For the first time was joined together a team of experts on geography, judicial history and international law to challenge the legal doctrine by which the State of Israel for decades dispossessed the Negev Bedouin and denied their land rights.
The appellants seek to overturn a precedent set in the early 1980s, under which the determination regarding Bedouin rights is made by examining the Negev situation in the Nineteenth Century and relying extensively on travelogues published by European missionaries, who asserted that at that time there were no fixed Bedouin abodes and that the Bedouins maintained no agriculture in the Naqab (Negev). These were momentary and superficial guests from another continent, who judged what was and was not “an agricultural settlement” by European standards. They failed to notice that the people whom they saw were living on the land, maintaining agriculture under the harsh conditions of an arid region and with endless struggle making use of every drop of water available to them.
As part of a research conducted on behalf of the appellants, there were submitted to the Be`er Sheva District Court dozens of documents found at archives in Israel and abroad, indicating that the precedent set in the eighties was based both on a judicial error and on an incorrect analysis of the reality of the Negev in the Nineteenth Century. However, Judge Dovrat in the District Court preferred to cling to the precedent and ignored the innovative facts presented to her. Now the Supreme Court will have to deliberate on the issue.
A central argument brought by the appellants is that the state practices a blatant double standard: On the one hand, it does not recognize Bedouin land ownership in the Naqab; on the other, it does recognize the land deeds in transactions when Zionist organizations bought Bedouin land at Ottoman British Mandatory times. At the time, naturally, Zionist bodies such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Hachsharat Ha’Yishuv did recognize the rights of the Bedouin sellers over the land, and paid an appropriate price for their land.
Importance of the deliberations goes beyond the specific question of ownership in the lands of al-Araqib Village, which in recent years has become a symbol. Success of the appellants can also affect hundreds of other land disputes between the state and the Bedouin, and might even impact the status of the government’s “Prawer Plan,” which assumes that the Bedouin of the Negev have no land ownership rights.
Nuri al-Ukbi : +972 (0)54 546–5556
Attorney Michael Sfard : +972 (0)54 471–3930