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Israel: displaced Arabs have little grounds for optimism, despite small Bedouin success


Tens of thousands of Arab villagers became displaced within Israel on the destruction of their communities during the 1948 war between the new State of Israel and its Arab neighbours. Among them, the Bedouin suffered several further waves of internal displacement after the war, and continue to live in particular hardship. The displaced -- including their descendents -- now represent about one quarter of the over one million Arab citizens of Israel. Many of them still hope to return to their original homes.

As of mid-2005, the prospect for return was dim, hostage to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which is still not in sight despite renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians following the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004. A major setback for the displaced occurred in June 2003, when the Israeli Supreme Court refused to allow displaced villagers to return to their former homes in northern Israel. The court accepted the state's assertion that return was impossible given the present security and political conditions, and might be used by Palestinian refugees to support their claims to return to Israel. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the Israeli government intensified pressure on Bedouin to leave "unrecognised" villages, through a new resettlement plan, and by spraying their crops with insecticide. International advocacy groups and the United Nations have argued that it is time for the Israeli government to hold genuine consultations with the Bedouin on their future, and to recognise the right to their land. Two small but positive steps for the Bedouin in 2004 and 2005 were the decisions by the Israeli Supreme Court to temporarily halt the spraying of the crops, and to formally recognise one of the villages.

Historical background and causes of displacement

Following the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, armies from neighbouring Arab nations entered the former Mandate of Palestine and fought against Israeli military forces. The war ended in 1949, but no general peace settlement was achieved.

Between 1948 and 1949, approximately 600 -- 760,000 Arabs who had lived in the territory which became Israel were driven out of or fled the country and became refugees (MERIP, 2001, "Palestinian"; Bligh, 1998, p.124). During this period another 46 -- 48,000 Arab villagers were displaced within Israel and today this group (including their descendants) represents about 150 -- 200,000 people (National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel, February 2000; Bligh, 1998, p.124; Nir, 8 January 2001). The vast majority of internally displaced people (IDPs) are Muslim (about 90 per cent) and a minority Christian (about ten per cent). The Druze community was spared from displacement for the most part (Al -- Haj, September 1986). In addition, according to NGOs defending the rights of the internally displaced, up to 70,000 Bedouin people were displaced as a result of the 1948 war and of subsequent forced resettlement by the Israeli authorities (BADIL, 23 April 2001, p. 27)

In December 1948, the United Nations established the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to assist all those who were resident in Palestine in 1946 and who lost their homes and livelihoods. UNRWA assisted the internally displaced within Israel from 1950 to 1952 until Israel took over this responsibility. Follo wing the war, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194, which, while non-binding, affirmed the right of refugees to return to their homes at the earliest practicable date and to be compensated for lost property (UN GA, 11 December 1948).

Meanwhile the government of Israel created an institutional and legal land regime under which most properties of IDPs and refugees were appropriated by the state. One of the cornerstones of this system was the Absentee Property Law of 1950. According to this law the state acquired control of all the property left by the people who had fled their homes between 29 November 1947 and 19 May 1948, even if they had stayed in the country. As a result, most of the internally displaced were declared "present absentees" and the government acquired their properties (Schechla, October 2001).

In 1949 the Israeli government started to rent land to the displaced. While in some cases this happened without any problems, in many others the displaced faced opposition from their Jewish neighbours or pressure from the Arab host communities. Many also feared that renting land in the area of displacement would compromise their claims to their original property (Cohe n, December 2000). At the time, the displaced lived under Israeli military administration like the vast majority of the Arab population in Israel and their freedom of movement was severely limited as a result. The lifting of the military administration in 1966 improved their situation but did not allow them to regain their lost properties.

Today many of the people displaced in 1948 and their children live, like the rest of the Arab population in Israel, in Arab towns with little or no Jewish population. Alternatively they live in mixed Arab-Jewish towns. While Arab citizens of Israel number around 1.2 million and constitute about one fifth of the population of Israel, they own less than 3 per cent of the land. At least 92 per cent of the land in Israel is under some form of government control (COHRE & BADIL, May 2005, p.65).

Eviction of Bedouin from their land

Since the creation of the State of Israel, the Bedouin have been pressured to leave their land in the Negev region, in the south of the country. Israeli governments enacted a series of laws and regulations facilitating confiscation of Bedouin land. Dispossession was made easier by the fact that the Bedouin generally had no land titles.

In 1949 many Bedouin were ordered to move into a closed area under military administration. Following the cancellation of military rule in 1966, most of them continued living in the former closed area. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Israeli government built seven towns for the Bedouin. According to human rights advocates, the Bedouin were not sufficiently involved in the planning of the towns and not enough consideration was given to their lifestyle and traditions. Also, the compensation received for giving up their land in exchange for a new house in the towns was considered too low. While the seven towns do offer better access to services than in the traditional Bedouin settlements, the quality and level of services is still inferior to those in Jewish towns (Lithwick, 2000). Also, according to the US Department of State, government planners have noted that funds to complete the seven towns had been far from sufficient, and that the average Bedouin family did not have the necessary means to purchase a home there (US DOS, February 2005). Today, about half of the 140,000 Bedouin in the Negev live in the seven towns (Ha'aretz, 24 June 2004). The rest live in "unrecog-nised villages", .e. villages which werei declared illegal by the National Planning and Building Law of 1965. About 45 villages of displaced Bedouins are viewed as illegal by the government and lack official connections to the water and ele c-tricity infrastructure as well as educational, health and welfare services. Children in unrecognised villages are 2.4 times more likely to suffer from malnutrition than youngsters living in other Bedouin villages (Sinai, Ha'aretz, 7 February 2005). Close to 31 per cent of school-age children in those villages are illiterate (Ha'aretz, 24 June 2004). More gene rally, the Bedouin are the poorest community in Israel, and entire regions in the Negev have become hubs for drugs, violence and serious crime (Ha'aretz, 24 June 2004). Bedouin infant mortality rates have also increased 50 per cent over the past six years (Lavie, Ha'aretz, 30 January 2004, part I).

Permanent settlement plan could lead to renewed displacement

Thousands of Bedouin faced threats of eviction as of mid-2005. In April 2003, the Israeli government adopted a five-year plan aiming to build permanent settlements in the Negev region for the

Bedouin living in the villages it considered illegal. The programme also provided for the compensation of displaced Bedouin. The plan was poorly received by the Bedouin, whose leaders complained about the lack of consultation with their community. During a demonstration against the government's plan, protesters described it as "a declaration of war on Bedouin in the 45 villages not recognised by Israel". Some also said that the millions of shekels set aside for the plan would in practice be used to evict those living in unrecognised villages, and cause the displacement of tens of tho u-sands (Cook, in MERIP, 10 May 2003; Ettinger, Ha'aretz, 5 May 2003). The Israeli government began in 2004 to implement the plan, which includes intensification of house demolitions, destruction of crops and filing of eviction suits (ACRI, June 2004). Due to the resistance to the plan from affected Bedouin communities, c lashes between authorities and residents escalated in 2004, resulting in the killing of one Bedouin resident of the village of Atir (Has-son, Ha'aretz, 22 March 2004; Ha'aretz, 24 June 2004). One of the measures used from 2002 to early 2004 to displace the Bedouin was the spraying of crops to discourage land cultivation. This measure was halted in March 2004, following a temporary injunction from the Israeli Supreme Court (Yoaz, Ha'aretz, 16 February 2005).

Ray of hope for unrecognised villages

Advocacy efforts by national and international organisations have focused on the situation of displaced and other Bedouin in unrecognised villages. As the International Crisis Group asserted in a March 2004 report, "a policy debate on settlement patterns is urgently needed; a key condition is for the authorities to hold genuine consultations with Bedouin representatives". Refugees Internationa l also advocated for the government to recog-nise the rights of village residents to their land, to actively solicit community participation in national planning, and establish a municipal authority to represent the residents of the unrecognised villages (RI, 2 October 2003). In May 2003, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights exhorted the Israeli go v-ernment to recognise all existing Bedouin villages. It also encouraged Israel to adopt an adequate compensation scheme for Bedouin who have agreed to resettle in towns (CESCR, 23 May 2003). Advocacy seems to be slowly paying off. In April 2005, following an appeal by several organisations representing unrecog-nised Bedouin villages in the Negev to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Interior Ministry began the process of granting recognition to one of the unrecognised villages, Um Batin, and provid ing municipal services to the village (Rinat, Ha'aretz, 28 April 2005).

Arab hopes for returning home have been disappointed

Many local non- governmental o rganis a-tions promote the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, including those of the internally displaced. IDPs, supported by local organisations, have appealed to Israeli courts against land confiscation, but the process has been slow and the displaced have generally viewed the level of compensation as insufficient. An element complicating this process is that new houses and roads now occupy the land of the displaced.

For many displaced, hopes of returning were put on hold in June 2003 when the Israeli Supreme Court turned down a petition by people displaced from the villages of Kafar Bir'em and Ikrit in northern Israel. During the 1948 war, the inhabitants of these villages were ordered by the Israeli army to leave their homes. They were however promised that they would be able to return within two weeks (Ettinger, Ha'aretz, 27 June 2003). They have been waiting for 57 years. After six years of hearings, the Israeli S upreme Court accepted the state's claim that Israeli interests, based on a combination of the current security situation and the Palestinians' persistent demand for the right of return of refugees, could not justify the return of the displaced. Return could only be considered if there was a change in the political situation. Meanwhile the displaced have the choice of receiving land elsewhere in the country or monetary compensation. At the court hearings, the Israeli government also claimed that the return of the displaced would pave the way for the return of the other 200,000 internally displaced, which would harm Israel's strategic interests. When reporting the decision, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz argued that political considerations should actually make the government respond positively to the aspirations of these Israeli citizens -- who are supposed to have equal rights -- and allocate them the small amount of empty land they were asking for (Benvenisti, Ha'aretz, 3 July 2003; Barkat, Ha'aretz, 27 June 2003). Another Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, also regretted the decision of the court. It added that the Bir'em Residents Committee had prepared a detailed resettlement plan, which made no claim to land where Jewish communities currently lived or farmed, in order to foster coexistence (Prince-Gibson, Jerusalem Post, 19 April 2004).

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