The year: 1935. Three Zionist Jews, born in Persia and its environs, decide to buy plots in the Holy Land. They find a Bedouin Sheikh named Hussein Salaam Abu Kuaf, pay him and receive a 654 dunam tract [158 acres] in the Negev. Almost 80 years later, their descendants discover that a Bedouin village was constructed on the land that had been purchased for them, and the new tenants have no intention of leaving. “This is exactly like the Ulpana Hill crisis,” claim the Jewish land-owners. “Only this time, it’s about Bedouins who took over Jewish land.”
This week we joined Attorney Mark Ismailoff on a tour of the [unrecognized] Bedouin village Al Zarnug, located east of the Nevatim Moshav [village] in the Negev. This was the first time that he laid foot on land he inherited from his father, land on which he never had the opportunity to settle. Ismailoff, father of eight and grandfather of five, was born in South Africa 59 years ago and grew up in England. He made aliyah [immigrated] to Israel at age 24 for Zionist reasons, and today serves as legal adviser at the Jewish Agency.
Mark’s grandfather, Shlomo, was a true Zionist who wanted to make aliyah all his life. Ninety years ago he realized his dream, but when his business failed he moved to England. On June 22, 1935, Shlomo, his brother Simcha, and a friend named Zvi Aminoff bought a 654-dunam plot of land in the Negev. After Shlomo passed away in 1944 he bequeathed the land to his two sons, and they, in turn, bequeathed the plots to their sons. “All these years I knew that my father had property in the Negev, but I never showed special interest when Dad was still alive,” says Mark Ismailoff. “Even after he died, 16 years ago, I didn’t exhibit special interest for this land in the middle of the desert and I didn’t know that Bedouins had settled there in recent years. Then the people from the Regavim NGO [Israeli right wing NGO engaged in monitoring and documenting Arab illegal activity within the Green Line and the West Bank] located me and told me that the Abu Queder clan had established an unrecognized village on my land, a village called Al Zarnug. Although my part of the inheritance is not large, still, more than 37 dunams belong to me.”
The Regavim NGO was founded six years ago as the right-wing response to the activities of Peace Now in the territories. “We saw how they forced the state to play the legal game against the settlers,” says Amihai Yogev, the NGO’s coordinator in the South, “and we decided to do the same thing about illegal construction within the state borders.”
Yogev is Regavim’s answer to Dror Etkes, former Settlements Watch Director [patroller] for Peace Now who currently [heads the Land Advocacy Project] of the Yesh Din NGO [Israeli group providing assistance to citizens of the Palestinian territories] in the settlements. Yogev’s job is to patrol the Negev, document each new house built by the Bedouin in open territories and transfer the evidence to Regavim’s attorneys, Abraham Palmon and Amir Fisher who then activate the legal system. Regavim’s stated objectives are,“Setting a Jewish and Zionist agenda for the State of Israel,” “Guarding the nation’s lands,” and “Preventing foreign agents from taking control of the territorial resources of the Jewish nation.”
The country is party to the robbery
It is not hard to reach Al Zarnug. A ride eastward from Beer Sheva on Route 25 to Dimona, leads us relatively quickly to the Abu Queder junction. We turn left and ascend a bridge built above the train tracks to Dimona, and reach the village. It has one-story, shabby houses as well as more luxurious homes. A large portion of the village roofs sport solar panels for producing electricity from the sun.
In addition to private homes there are public buildings built by the state: a health clinic, school and kindergarten were built on a site surrounded by a column of cypress trees. With the help of Regavim, Ismailoff and another three heirs turned to the Beer Sheva district court with an administrative petition for evicting the dwellers on the land and destroying all the structures built on it. The petition was submitted against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the Regional Planning and Construction Committee, the Interior Ministry’s National Construction Supervisory Unit, the Authority for Regulation of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, and the representative of the Bedouins [from the village], Ali Abu Queder.
The petition, written by attorney Amir Fisher in the name of Ismailoff and other heirs (Shoshana Ben David, Rut Levi and Shlomo Shmueli), states that “despite the criminal takeover of private land, and despite government declarations that this kind of construction that harms the possessory rights of the individual is at the head of the list of priorities of enforcement authorities. Nevertheless, the Regional Committee and National Construction Supervisory Unit refrained from realizing their authority and taking action to demolish the structures that were built without permits. Instead of carrying out its function and evacuating the robbers, the state instead joined the law-breakers and became partner to acts of robbery when it constructed public buildings in an unrecognized village.”
In 1998, the government signed a framework-agreement with the Bedouins of the Abu Queder clan, to transfer them to the Bedouin city of Rahat. The Regavim petition states that the  agreement opened with the Bedouin statement that they have been living on that land from before the establishment of the State of Israel [in 1948]. Regavim argues that this statement is groundless. They attached aerial photographs to the petition showing that in 1956 and 1968, the plot of land was completely empty. A 1980 photograph shows isolated tents. In 1989, the beginning of a village is evident. By 2000, photographs show several dozens homes, and an up-to-date photo displays a developed village with public buildings, a school and about 300 ground-floor houses.
In 1998, the government offered the following basket of bonuses to every Bedouin from Al Zarnug who would willingly relocate from the private land to an alternate plot in the city of Rahat: a bonus of up to a 100 thousand shekel; an additional bonus of 35,000 shekels to the first 30 families and more perks. The agreement stipulated that the state would not carry out demolition orders on the site until the Bedouins would move to their new homes.
Since then, the Bedouins did not move to new houses because of opposition from the Rahat municipality. The municipality argued that the plots in its boundaries were set aside for young couples who were residents of the city and, due to the city’s large natural increase, there were not enough plots within the city anyway. In addition, the municipality argued that the presence of the Abu Queder clan would cause conflict and strife between the families in Rahat.
The petition states that since the evacuation was delayed for long years in search of alternate plots,“the state conspired with the law-breakers and became partner to the acts of incursion, trespassing and building without permits…so that the law-enforcing state became an active partner in the robbery of private lands from their owners.”
Cannot find a place
Attorney Yaari Roash submitted a response to the Beer Sheva District court in the name of the state. Roash argued that there is great difficulty in finding an alternate site for the Abu Queder tribe, numbering about 3,000 people. The State holds that about 400 plots are needed to resettle them. In addition, it is argued that the agreement signed by the State with the Bedouins in 1998 — to evacuate them from Al Zarnugto Rahat — is invalid, as it was never ratified by the Israel Lands Administration even though the agreement itself stipulates that its validity is dependent upon such authorization.
“This case is no different than the Migron settlement or the Ulpana Hill neighborhood,” claims Fisher in a hearing that was held this month before Justice Rachel Barkai in the Beer Sheva District Court. “Both cases involved private lands on which were built structures without permits many years ago. In both cases, the state claimed that it planned on demolishing the buildings, as it did in the case of our petition. In both cases, when it became clear to the court that the state was not doing its duty and was not demolishing the buildings, it instructed the state to demolish the buildings — and immediately after the order, the state acted at the correct rate [swiftly] and demolished, or is in the midst of demolishing, the structures these very days.”
Ariel Dloomy, Deputy Director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development [an NGO that assists the Bedouins] (NISPED) says that the Abu Queder tribe never claimed that they own the land on which they live. “This is one of the few cases of unrecognized villages in which the Bedouins themselves do not claim ownership to the land,” Dloomy argued. “They are ready to move voluntarily to another site. But someone must find them a solution.”
Eli Atzmon, former Deputy Director of the Bedouin Administration, says that there are thousands of dunams in the Negev under ownership of Jews — in other words, heirs — who do not even know that they have inherited land in the Negev from their parents. Regarding the Abu Queder tribe, Atzmon says that the family patriarch settled on the land in his time because its Jewish owners did not use it, and from then on, the tribe has been searching for another place in the Negev, without success.
“Your house is built on your land?” I randomly asked a member of the Abu Queder tribe that I met on Al Zarnug. “It’s a big mess,” he answered.
So what is the solution? “Maybe we will be moving to Rahat.”
“That’s an even bigger mess.”
When all is said and done, we are talking about a political issue. If not for Yogev and his friends, most of the Jewish land-owners would not bother going to the courts. Even if they win, no one promises that they will make any kind of use of the land. But in a country in which everything is political, nothing is more important than the principles involved. As they explained in Regavim, “The same law that was applied to Ulpana Hill, must be applied to Al Zarnug.”
“The settlers settle wherever they want, and even if it’s not legal they still have water and electricity and roads,” says Haya Noah, volunteer CEO of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “When they are evicted, as in the Ulpana case, it is after innumerable postponements and orders from the High Court of Justice. They receive alternative housing in near-by territory, costing millions. On the other hand, you have Bedouins who are citizens of the State, living within the Green Line. Not only do these Bedouins lack services and live in sub-standard conditions, in the case of Al Zarnug they are also willing to evacuate. But no-one offers to [move them to a new location as in the Ulpana Hill case] or provide alternate housing, no-one waits for their consent or their agreement to the eviction. They have nowhere to go.”
In the words of Nahum Sokolowof, “Without land you have no stability, no religion, and no food for your body and soul.”