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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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The Jahalin Bedouin: A Question of Justice

Residents of the deserts of Palestine for thousands of years, the Jahalin Bedouin fight to preserve their ancient way of life.

For several millennia, Bedouin tribes have lived in the Arabian deserts, moving seasonally with their herds of camels, cattle, sheep and goats between Hejaz to the south, Alexandria to the west and Damascus to the north. In the 19th century, the Jahalin tribe gradually settled in the Naqab (now the Negev), a region of Palestine, and claimed the desert as their home. In 1858, the Ottoman Turks, who had occupied Palestine since the 16th century, introduced a land registration law for the collection of taxes. The region’s Bedouin, as with most landowners in Palestine, minimized the extent of their landholdings to ease the tax burden; a ploy they would later regret.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and the British and French creation of nominal nation states in the Middle East, forced the Bedouin to submit to new laws where their traditional lands lay. During the British mandate over Palestine (1922-48), the Naqab’s Jahalin and other Bedouin, who numbered approximately 85,000 persons, turned to farming. Wheat, oats, olives and oranges were cultivated and sold in the markets of Beersheba, together with the traditional sheep and goats. Although their way of life changed, the Jahalin nevertheless maintained the patriarchal order of their society.

The Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 devastated the Naqab’s Bedouin. With the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948 (and the subsequent Israeli rout of the Palestinian and Arab coalition forces) the majority of the Bedouin fled to neighboring Arab nations – except for the Jahalin, who had no intention of leaving.

As hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the large Jewish diaspora arrived, Israel’s government rushed to build settlements and towns. To make room for the creation of the town of Arad, the Jahalin were pushed into the Jordanian controlled West Bank. They crossed the southern border and migrated northward, settling near Jerusalem on land owned by the villagers of Abu Dis and Azzariya.

The decade-long peace enjoyed by the Jahalin ended in 1967 when the Israelis crushed the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and occupied the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights. Through-out the 1970s, portions of land on which the Jahalin tended their sheep and goats were appropriated by the Israeli authorities for military zones and nature preserves.

Eventually, in 1981, the land the Jahalin occupied was seized from its legal owners in Abu Dis and Azzariya and confirmed as state or government land for the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. This settlement – really a satellite city of Jerusalem, housing more than 29,000 Jewish settlers – is the largest in the West Bank and plans are presently underway to double its size.

To embrace the increasing number of Jewish immigrants the government needed land in the West Bank to build settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim. However, under Jordanian law, which remains in use in the West Bank, selling land to a Jew was a capital offense because private land purchases could serve as springboards toward claims of sovereignty. The Israeli government bypassed this impasse in the early 1980s by issuing a military decree for use in the West Bank: if the military commander confirmed land to be state land, then it was state land. The military authorities had to take into account, however, that most of the property was legally owned and occupied by private Palestinians. Therefore, an objection could be submitted to a military committee and proof submitted that the land in question was cultivated.

The Israeli High Court, which has no jurisdiction over the occupied West Bank, defined cultivated land as soil plowed for 10 consecutive years. According to this definition, the cultivation of olive and orange trees did not count as cultivation; the soil under the trees had to be tilled. In addition, in some years drought plagued the region, rendering the plowing of soil impossible and precluding fulfillment of the criteria set by the High Court.

Objections to the Israeli appropriation of property leased to the Jahalin were submitted by a few residents of Abu Dis and Azzariya, who tried to prove their ownership. But many could not afford the huge legal expenses incurred by this procedure, which entailed hiring the services of land surveyors and lawyers. The Jahalin themselves did not petition an objection – they were tenants.

Hearings were held and the files with the records and evidence were numbered – 12/81, 13/81 and 22/81 – and filed. It appears that the committee outlined a compromise: the Israeli government and the Palestinian landowners each retained portions of the contested land. Maps were not issued, however, to clarify which areas were which.

There the matter rested until the military authorities issued eviction orders against the Jahalin in 1994. They were declared illegal tenants based on the evidence of the files listed above. The authorities also maintained that the Jahalin had only occupied the land since 1989, a claim based on a document signed by the Israeli-appointed tribal leader.

As counsel for the Jahalin, I appealed these orders before a military appeal committee and asked to see the evidence. My requests, which were submitted several times, were denied. Based on his impressions, and without my appearance in court, a decision was reached by the military judge – the Jahalin did not object to the designation of the land as state land in the early 1980s.

In response, a petition was submitted to the High Court of justice charging that the decision of the military judge must be voided: the government had not proved its claim and the Jahalin’s counsel was not permitted to argue the case.

Once again, a request for the files 12/81, 13/81 and 22/81 was submitted. My contention was, and remains, that the authorities never distinguished, on a survey map, state land from Palestinian private land. Aerial photographs, which were filed as evidence, would also prove that the Jahalin indeed inhabited the area before 1989. The entire case rests on these files.

On 30 October 1995, in a hearing before the High Court on my petition, the legal counsel for the state of Israel declared that the files in question had been destroyed. He repeated this twice. A Justice of the High Court asked the counsel if the Israeli authorities had any proof that the property in question was “government or state land.” He replied in the negative.

Nevertheless, in a majority decision written by the President of the High Court, theland in question was declared state land.

It is on the basis of these destroyed files, and the presumption of the President of the High Court of justice, that the Jahalin, a community of 2,000 people, are being forced to move their homes and livestock to a rocky hill of just 50 acres. Located 550 yards from the municipal garbage dump, which serves Jerusalem and all the surrounding villages, the site is not suitable for human habitation. Electrical facilities, waterworks and gasworks do not exist. Infrastructure for transportation, irrigation and telephone service, and public works – such as clinics, schools, community centers and mosques – are also lacking. And, to complicate matters further, this property is also the subject of controversy – it too was confiscated from the villagers of Abu Dis and Azzariya.

In late August, the Jahalin won a temporary stay of eviction when the High Court of Justice issued a court order.

At present, the case remains unresolved.

Lynda Brayer is the Executive Legal Director of the Society of St. Yves, a church-founded legal reosource center for the poor and the oppressed.

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