Against the backdrop of a cabinet decision this week regarding unrecognized Bedouin communities and land claims in the Negev, it now comes to light that in 1952, a government-appointed committee recommended that Negev Bedouin ownership of agricultural land that they had cultivated over a long period of time be recognized. The 1952 document, which was classified as secret at the time, is in the possession of Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights.
This week's decision provides monetary compensation or alternate land to Bedouin who can claim they worked land to which they lay claim. Documents in Adalah's possession make it clear that Bedouin ownership rights to land in the Negev had been recognized for decades.
The 1952 committee noted that as far back as the Ottoman Turkish regime, the Bedouin refrained from registering their land out of concern that the records would be used by government authorities to find them and draft them into the military. Nonetheless, the committee noted that both the Turks and the British Mandatory authorities recognized Bedouin ownership to land they cultivated and also cited instances in which ownership to land was formally transferred from Bedouin to Jewish hands. Among the panel's members were Jewish National Fund leader Yosef Weitz, who was an expert on land issues, and Yehoshua Palmon, on adviser on minority affairs to then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Adalah also has a 1966 document written by Sasson Ben-Tzvi, who headed the military government that was then in place in the Negev, in which he made reference to government recognition of Bedouin ownership of land in the region and the purchase from Bedouin by the Jewish National Fund of some of the land. In advocating recognition of Bedouin claims to land they had cultivated, the 1952 committee also recommended that the Knesset pass a law that would bring the land under state ownership and compensate the Bedouin either through a monetary payment or by giving them other land.
This week's cabinet decision on Bedouin land claims provides for legislation to be passed to establish a mechanism for the filing of ownership claims by Bedouin who prove possession of land. The compensation would range from 20 percent to 50 percent of the land's value. The cabinet decision has been seen on the right wing of the political spectrum as a process by which the government would give up land, but a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said the deal presents economic benefits to the state.
"Up to now, the dispute between the state and the Bedouin hamstrung the capacity to use land so it had no economic value," the official said, adding: "Now the state can carry out development plans and the Bedouin can also lease or sell land or make zoning changes and pursue construction plans."
A lawyer for Adalah, Suhad Bishara, said the cabinet decision does not yet constitute a change in what she said was the government's mistaken approach - it is based, she said, on the concept that Negev land has no owner. She urged the government to address what Adalah sees as an injustice in the way the Bedouin have been treated. She also expressed concern that the government can still take the position on individual land claims that the claimants lack sufficient proof of ownership.
A number of organizations working with Bedouin communities have noted that in recent years the state has been active in challenging Bedouin ownership claims. From 2005 to 2009, four hundred such cases were filed by the state, about half of which ended up in court. The state won all of the court cases, but in more than half the cases, the Bedouin never showed up for their hearings.
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