In an unusual and precedent-setting ruling, the Kirayt Gat magistrate's court cancelled a demolition order for an unrecognized Bedouin settlement in Israel's south on Tuesday.
The ruling effectively calls off the demolition of 51 structures in the unrecognized settlement of Al-Sura, which would have left its 400 residents homeless. The ruling was reached following a petition by Adala - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Al-Sura's 70 families have been residing in the village southeast of Be'er Sheva for the last seven decades, and were recognized by the British Mandate as legal owners of their land. Already in the 1970s, the families have petitioned Israeli authorities to be recognized as official owners, but their request has yet to receive a response.
Throughout the years they have been deemed squatters on government land, but claimed the state has yet to offer then an alternative, rejecting their offers at a solution.
In 2006, al-Sura residents began receiving orders to demolish their homes, at which time they appealed the relevant judicial authorities, with the court freezing those orders in 2007. A final ruling, however, was not given until Tuesday.
In his ruling, judge Israel Axelrod said that it was clear that the petitioners had been in breach of the law and that the state could act against the illegal structures.
However, Axelrod added that the houses have existed at their current location for dozens of years, saying that the state presented no evidence that the evacuation was meant to promote any public cause, and adding that enforcement would leave the families homeless.
"And as is custom in the Supreme Court, when the court is asked to rule in petitions such as these, it must balance, as it sees fit, between general and specific public interests that have to do with the case and the personal interest of those whose houses the state wishes to demolish," Axelrod wrote.
Adala legal representative Suhad Bishara called the ruling a precedent for the many unrecognized Bedouin settlements in the Negev.
The ruling's significance is that the state cannot continue a unilateral policy toward the unrecognized villages, while disregarding the basic legal rights of their residents.
In his closing notes, Axelrod quoted Supreme Court Justice Edna Arbel, who wrote that "the difficult reality with which Israel's Bedouin population faces necessitates – and better sooner than later – a general systematic solution."
"That is the essential message which the ruling in this case sends," Axelrod continued, saying that it "should be taken into account in any future attempt to deal with the issue."
Axelrod urged the Israeli government to "open an honest dialogue with the residents of the unrecognized settlements and recognize their legal rights to their lands and to the use of those lands."
It should be noted that the decision was made during a public campaign against a plan to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev, known as the Prawer Plan.
Several protests and rallies have taken place in recent weeks to protest the plan, backed by High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel. Human rights groups have also joined the struggle, with lawyers declaring their willingness to represent the Bedouin residents in their fight against the plan and the legislation that will follow it.