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Bedouin Arabs, Israel locked in battle over land rights
Ken Ellingwood - The Baltimore Sun - Wed 7th, July 2004
ARAQIB, Israel - Salim abu Medeghem bent to the parched earth and yanked up a crunchy tuft resembling straw - all that remained of his wheat crop, he said, after Israeli airplanes sprayed herbicide on the contested parcel.

"This is burned," he said. "This is all burned."

Abu Medeghem, 38, vowed to plant again in the fall, even if the Israeli government sends more planes. "This is my land," he said.

The stubbly field is one front in an increasingly tense struggle over land between the Israeli government and thousands of Bedouin Arabs inhabiting a broad desert swath of southern Israel known as the Negev.

The government insists that the Bedouins, who live in dozens of unsanctioned tent villages without running water or electricity, lack legal title to the land and should move to towns it has set up for them. This village, known to its inhabitants as Araqib, is unacknowledged by Israel.

But the Bedouins, their seminomadic ways long behind them, contend that they have occupied the land for decades, since before Israel existed, earning ownership rights that they have no intention of ceding. They accuse the Israelis of trying to push them aside to make room for Jewish settlers.

Intensifying conflict

The tug of war has intensified recently as Israel carries out a year-old initiative that combines tactics of persuasion and tough enforcement - including demolishing houses it says were built illegally and spraying plots it says are being cultivated without permission - to relocate the Bedouins.

An estimated 70,000 Bedouins live in 45 unrecognized villages, which seldom show up on Israeli maps. Some of the communities sit no more than 200 yards from traffic whizzing past on the desert highways, reflecting how life for the contemporary Bedouin is often a blend of dirt-floor tradition and cell phone modernity.

Many Bedouins still make a living by growing crops, herding goats and sheep, and raising camels for milk. But the vast majority work as low-wage laborers and construction workers in the larger Israeli towns and cities, such as Beersheba and Tel Aviv.

The festering land dispute has served to underscore the Bedouins' peculiar position in Israel, where their health and living conditions are among the worst of any group and charges are frequent that they get short shrift from the government.

But the Bedouins, although tradition-minded Arabs, have coexisted with the Jewish state that took root around them. As Israeli citizens, they made a name for themselves in the Israeli military with their tracking skills. Bedouin organizers have sought to capitalize on that record of service in fighting to remain on the disputed land.

Israeli authorities argue that moving the Bedouins into communities sanctioned by the government will bring them into compliance with zoning laws, creating more orderly land use and making it easier for Israel to provide water and electricity, schools and medical clinics.

"It's high time for this to take place. It should have been done ages ago," said Yaakov Katz, who is in charge of administering the Negev Bedouins for the Israel Lands Authority. "The main goal is to make order in this and to make sure the Bedouins get their rights and [fulfill their] duties."

Fighting back

The Bedouins have fought back with a high-profile campaign, accusing Israel of excessively harsh measures to uproot them, including the aerial spraying, which has made some people ill, and demolitions, which have included at least one small mosque.

Bedouin activists say it is the government's duty to bring services to the villages, which they say were left off the grid by a 1965 land-planning law that ignored them. As a result, there are only about eight medical clinics among the 45 far-flung villages. In villages such as Araqib, on the scrubby outskirts of Beersheba, the regional capital, it will be up to the courts to settle who is the rightful landholder.

Resolving ownership in this region is anything but easy.

Some families, including that of abu Medeghem, base their claims on papers they say date to the Ottoman Empire; others rely on tradition alone. Many Bedouins say they ceded their lands to the new Israeli state in the 1950s for military use, but only temporarily.

The current battle is over a shrunken pie. According to the government, nearly three-fourths of the Negev region, or about 2.3 million acres, is set aside for military use. About 35,000 of the remaining acres are leased to Bedouins for farming, including land around the villages. But as much as 125,000 acres is ensnared in court disputes or deemed by Israel to be improperly occupied.

Israel's government considers the Bedouins to be squatters on state land - a status that does not confer legal rights to the property.

The land conflict has simmered for years, but it has flared up since the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced last year a five-year, $250 million effort to resolve the issue. The campaign seeks to relocate Bedouins to seven established towns or to a few of the largest Bedouin villages being improved with schools, health clinics and running water.

"The Bedouins will assume responsibility for their future. They will elect their representatives. They will get all the services that citizens get in the country and be able to take part. They will enjoy much greater equality with the other citizens who live in the area," said Katz of the land authority.

As part of the push, Israeli authorities allotted about $10 million to the court system to help it sort out the land cases and $75 million for compensating families that are uprooted.

The government also has cracked down by sending police and demolition crews to take down dozens of new buildings, in addition to spraying the fields it says should not have been planted.

Others moving in

Israel said it has sprayed about 900 acres this year - a contentious tactic that officials view as less prone to violent confrontation than expulsion.

The Bedouins and their backers charge that the enforcement measures amount to a heavy-handed push to clear them out and make room for an expanded Jewish presence in the Negev. One of the government's newly approved settlements, consisting of mobile homes, appeared overnight in January on property claimed by Araqib.

In addition, Israel has promoted a new real estate development, known as private farms, under which families set up small homesteads on tracts the government supplies with water and other utilities. Bedouin villagers see these as another type of settlement.

Each year, more subdivisions sprout in the Negev, which recently has been mentioned as a possible site for relocating the 7,500 people who would be withdrawn from the Gaza Strip under Sharon's proposal to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements there.

In the meantime, the skirmishing continues.
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