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General News    H3'ed 9/1/10

Bedouin Land Fight; Claim For Native Title Threatens Jewish State

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Reporting in Hura, the Negev

Nuri al Uqbi's small cinderblock home in a ramshackle neighbourhood of Hura, a Bedouin town in Israel's Negev desert, hardly looks like the epicentre of a legal struggle that some observers say threatens Israel's Jewish character.

Inside, the 68-year-old Bedouin activist has stacks of bulging folders of tattered and browning documents, many older than the state of Israel itself, that he hopes will overturn decades of harsh government policy towards the Negev's 180,000 Bedouin.

For the past few months, Mr al Uqbi has been in court pursuing a case that has pitted his own expert witnesses against those of the state.

Mr al Uqbi claims the right to return to a patch of 82 hectares in the Negev, close to the regional capital, Beersheva, that he says has belonged to his family for generations. But as both the government and the judge in the case, Sarah Dovrat, seem to appreciate, much more is at stake.

Should Mr al Uqbi win his case, tens of thousands of Bedouin, who long ago had their properties confiscated, could be entitled to repossess their agricultural lands or seek enormous sums in compensation.

Theoretically, it might also open the door to claims by millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

The Negev, constituting nearly two-thirds of Israel's territory, has been almost entirely nationalised by the state, with the land held in trust for world Jewry. But the Bedouin have outstanding legal claims on nearly 80,000 hectares of ancestral property.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, observed that the historical documents presented by Mr al Uqbi "raise a fundamental question: Who does this country belong to?"

The lawyers and witnesses in the case, Mr Segev added, were not just "arguing over a plot of land. They are arguing over the justness of Zionism".

Such high stakes may explain why over the past few weeks, as Ms Dovrat has been considering her verdict, the authorities have sped up plans to plant over Mr al Uqbi's land a "peace forest", paid for by an international Zionist charity called the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

Until now the main obstacle in their way has been a small village, Al Araqib, re-established a decade ago by several Bedouin families who, rather than pursue Mr al Uqbi's legal route, have simply reoccupied the land.

Last week, about 300 Bedouin were again evicted when the police destroyed the village's 40 homes for the fourth time in less than a month.

Mr al Uqbi, a father of eight, said that five years ago after years of challenging the land confiscation with protests and appeals to the authorities he launched the lengthy legal process that has finally reached the Beersheva court.

"I realised that the authorities were simply waiting for me to die. When all the old people are gone, who will be left to come and testify?"

Mr al Uqbi said his father, Sheikh Suleiman al Uqbi, and the other villagers were "tricked" by the authorities in 1951. They were told that they would have to relocate "temporarily" while military exercises were carried out in the area.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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