When we speak of occupation, repression, displacement and control, we tend to look at the most powerful and visual sources of coercion and injustice: armies, government policies, policing and diplomacy. The decision of the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court that six Bedouin residents of Al-Araqeeb village in the Naqb/Negev, all Israeli citizens, pay some $100,000 to the state in compensation for the expenses incurred in the demolition of their homes demonstrates the effectiveness of less visible micro-mechanisms to affect these major aims. In this case, how the law can be used as an effective weapon of displacement.
Where people cannot be cowed to stop resisting the demolition of their homes, a poor population like the Bedouin can be attacked at their most vulnerable place: economically. About 75 per cent of the Bedouin population – 200,000 out of a nationwide total of around 270,000 – live in the Naqab, comprising almost 30 per cent of that region’s overall population. About 65 per cent of them have thus far been confined to the seven townships Israel has built for them, isolated places lacking infrastructure and employment, from where they are shipped daily into Israeli communities as manual labour. All seven are clustered in the ten poorest localities in Israel. A third of their residents do not have access to the national water or electricity grids. Only 37 per cent of employable Bedouin have work and 90 per cent of them earn less than the minimum wage. The average salary for a Bedouin man is $1,200 a month, for a woman $730.
Al-Araqeeb has been demolished by the authorities and rebuilt by the residents 116 times since 2010, a truly impressive case of popular resistance to displacement and deculturalisation. (Not losing their sharp sense of bitter irony, the 500 people of Al-Araqeeb have applied for entry into the Guinness World Records for breaking a record in the number of demolitions.) Changing tactics, the state has thus decided to go after each of the impoverished Bedouin families with court orders to pay for the demolition of their homes.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) estimates that more than 130,000 Palestinian (including Bedouin) homes have been demolished throughout the country since 1948. As in the case of many home demolitions, the underlying goal is taking Arab land and confining the Arab population to tiny nooks and crannies of the country. “Israeli-Arabs” make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population but are confined by law, land policies and planning regulations to only 3.5 per cent of the land.
Almost half the Bedouin population, 90,000 people, live in “unrecognised villages” like Al-Araqeeb. Since the Bedouin historically did not register land, certainly not as private individuals, it has been easy for Israel to claim in court that they have no legal ownership and that their traditional lands be reverted back to the state. Nonetheless, the Bedouin have been fighting for their land rights for years in Israeli courts, and the final outcome has still to be determined. That makes the demolition of the homes of Al-Araqeeb if not illegal (since they cannot obtain from the state the necessary building permits), then at a minimum unjustified and done in bad faith, especially since the genuine motive of the state is not to regularise land for the benefit of all its citizens but to take Bedouin lands for the settlement of Jews and for military purposes. Removed from their lands and their nomadic way of life, the Bedouin population is thereby transferred to the township to languor in poverty.
Forcing Palestinians to pay for the demolition of their homes is common practice in other parts of the country as well, including in East Jerusalem. A variation of that is the imposition of stiff fines on families that build “illegally” (although, again, there is no way in which Arabs anywhere can acquire building permits outside of approved enclaves that do not include the vast majority of Arab housing and farms) – fines reaching $15,000-20,000. Since the majority of Arab families live below the poverty line, they can be coerced by the courts to demolish their own homes in return for a reduction of the fine. ICAHD estimates that self-demolition accounts for an additional third of house demolitions, although it is not reported.
Although human rights should apply within Israel as well as in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT), it is much more difficult to apply it there, since Israeli courts do not recognise its applicability within Israel or rule (as in the case of Al-Araqeeb) on the basis of legal technicalities, thus excluding consideration of human rights. In the OPT the situation is different, and Israel has been challenged for its human rights violations – especially of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids house demolitions.
Unfortunately, human rights activists and the PA have not succeeded in getting international courts to take these cases, as they are obliged to do under Universal Jurisdiction. The Israeli legal system claims that international humanitarian law (IHL) does not apply to the OPT because there is no occupation. (Israel argues that occupation occurs only when a sovereign state conquers the territory of another sovereign state and no one ever had sovereignty over the OPT, a position accepted by no one in the international legal community but effective in gumming up the legal and political works.) Israeli courts, then, rule only on the basis of Israeli law in the OPT. This is doubly illegal – it amounts to a de facto extension of Israeli law into an occupied territory, in violation of IHL, and it ignores the protections that IHL affords to Palestinians living under occupation.
The six families have not yet decided whether to appeal. In the meantime, other Bedouin communities struggle to preserve their lands and their way of life – Umm Al-Hiran, whose lands Israel wants for a military settlement (don’t think all the settlements are in the OPT) – being the most immediate target – while the township residents are struggling to merely survive in Israel’s underclass.