Israel sues Bedouin villagers for cost of repeated evictions

Residents of a Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev desert are facing a lawsuit for the cost of Israeli government agencies repeatedly destroying their homes and other structures. Israeli authorities filed a claim for 1.8 million NIS (more than US$500,000) with a court on 26 July for the expense of destroying the structures and evicting the residents of al-‘Araqib village as many as 28 times over the past year. The most recent eviction took place on 25 July.Bedouin residents claim that the village of al-‘Araqib lies on their ancestral lands, but the authorities say they are squatting illegally in an “unrecognized” settlement.  “This lawsuit beggars belief – the Israeli authorities cannot reasonably expect the Bedouin villagers to fund the repeated destruction of their own homes and livelihoods,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director. “Israel must end its policy of demolishing ‘unrecognized’ villages in the Negev and take steps to officially recognize al-‘Araqib and similar villages, at least until there is a resolution to the land claims and a solution which takes into account the needs and rights of the residents.” Repeated demolitionsAccording to local NGOs, a community festival and children’s summer camp organized by al-‘Araqib residents and activists was interrupted on 25 July when Israeli authorities entered the village with at least 20 vehicles and a bulldozer to demolish makeshift structures. Some 250-300 people lived in al-‘Araqib before the demolitions began last year. As an agricultural community, many of them rely on the land for their livelihoods.  The Israeli authorities want to use the land in and around al-‘Araqib village for a forest. The Jewish National Fund – a semi-governmental organization – has landscaped the surrounding area and is continuing its forestation work. Over the past year, Israel has repeatedly deployed scores of security forces to destroy village property. On the first occasion, Israel Lands Administration (ILA) officials and more than 1,000 police officers entered the village on 27 July 2010. They razed at least 46 homes and other structures, including animal pens and water tanks, as well as olive trees. In another incident in February, bulldozers and around 40 riot police forced local families into the cemetery, the only area as yet unaffected. Bulldozers approached the cemetery gate and police repeatedly fired sponge-tipped bullets and tear gas into the area. Three women and two children were hospitalized after the incident.Historical land claimsAl-‘Araqib’s Bedouin residents claim their ancestors have owned the land since Ottoman rule, before Israel was established.In the early 1950s, the Israeli authorities ordered the village’s residents to leave temporarily, saying that the land was needed for military training and promising that they would be allowed to return within six months. The residents complied with this military order but they were not allowed to return. Instead, various government agencies transferred ownership of the lands to the state.Throughout this period of forced absence, the families maintained their connection to the land through grazing, agriculture, and the village cemetery, and sought to have the government recognize their land claims. In the 1990s, the Bedouin families returned to their lands. At the same time, it became clear that Israeli authorities had plans to build a forest on the village. Residents filed fresh land ownership claims in Israeli courts, some of which are still pending. “Israel needs to find long-term solutions to address the irregular situation of al-‘Araqib and the dozens of other villages like it,” said Philip Luther. “Repeatedly demolishing these villages is not working – progress can only be made through formally recognizing the villages or genuine and meaningful consultations with the residents to find alternative adequate housing which guarantees their safety and enables them to continue their traditional Bedouin lifestyle.”