Israel Sentences 68-year-old Bedouin Activist to 10 Months in Prison for Building Illegal Structures in His Village

Sheikh Sayekh Abu Madi'am struggled for years along with other Bedouin for their rights to the lands, and was among those who repeatedly rebuilt structures at the site after the land authorities demolished them

Sheikh Sayekh Abu Madi’am, 68, of the Al-Turi tribe in Al-Araqib, Israel on Dec 25, 2017
Ilan Assayag

The Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court on Sunday sentenced a key activist in the struggle over the land of Al-Araqib in the Negev to 10 months’ imprisonment for his role in erecting illegal structures in the Bedouin village.

The charges against Sheikh Sayekh Abu Madi’am were part of a years-long struggle between the state and the Negev Bedouin. During the 1950s the state evicted the Bedouin from the area located in the northwestern Negev near Route 40, expropriated the land and since then has claimed it is state land. The Bedouin argue that since the Ottoman and British regimes recognized their right to the land, Israel must also recognize it. Many of the evicted clans gradually returned to their land there, including Abu Mad’iam’s tribe, the Al-Touri clan.

Abu Madi’am, 68, struggled for years along with other Bedouin for their rights to the lands, and was among those who repeatedly rebuilt structures at the site after the land authorities demolished them. The temporary structures have been demolished more than a hundred times.

Since 1998 the state has been conducting eviction proceedings against Abu Madi’am. In 2000 a restraining order was issued that banned him from the area. Abu Madi’am denies that the land he was living on is state land, maintaining that he is the owner and that his family has lived there for years. In 2006 Abu Madi’am filed an ownership claim to the land in Be’er Sheva District Court. Since then there have been endless procedural hearings regarding the delay in filing his claim, and in May the court is expected to hear testimony from historical experts. The assessment is that a ruling is still years away.

In 2013, Abu Madi’am was charged with violating the orders keeping him away from the area, numerous counts of trespassing, squatting and building temporary shelters and tents. He also planted trees, grew crops, and obstructed Israel Lands Administration employees who came to evacuate him. Abu Madi’am called on the authorities to wait until the district court ruled on his ownership claim before trying him on the charges, but the state insisted that it was the owner until proven otherwise and the magistrate’s court accepted its position. Abu Madi’am was convicted in September of 19 counts of trespassing, 19 counts of illegal entry into public lands and of violating a legal order.

During the sentencing hearing, the police attorney, Gil Assif, noted, “This is the first time someone is being prosecuted in the State of Israel for these violations,” and it was therefore difficult to determine a proper punishment. In the end, the prosecutor asked the court to sentence Abu Madi’am to 15 months’ imprisonment and a 90,000 shekel (nearly $26,000) fine, even though those convicted of trespassing typically get suspended sentences. The prosecutor said he was seeking a harsher sentence despite Abu Madi’am’s age and clean record because the sheikh had declared that he planned to continue living at the site.

In the end, Judge Yoav Atar sentenced him to 10 months in prison, to begin in February, a five-month suspended sentence, and a 36,000-shekel fine. When Abu Madi’am requested a delay in implementing the sentence so he could appeal, the judge demanded that in exchange he stay away from the area, and he refused. Abu Madi’am now lives in a temporary structure near Al-Araqib’s cemetery.

This is not the only action the state has taken against Abu Madi’am. In 2011 the state filed suit against him, demanding 1.8 million shekels to cover the cost of eight of the demolitions and evacuations that took place in 2010, which were secured by hundreds of policemen, helicopters and vehicles. This past August, Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court Judge Iddo Rusin reduced the sum considerably, but Abu Madi’am was still required to come up with 260,000 shekels for the costs of the evacuations and 100,000 shekels in lawyers’ fees.

Abu Madi’am’s lawyer, Shada Ibn Bari, called the prison sentence “among the harshest we’ve known. A 68-year-old man living on the land of his ancestors, in a cemetery, is being sent to prison for 10 months. This is a dangerous precedent since thousands of people are living on lands in dispute with the state. This is an effort to keep people off their land even before the question of ownership has been resolved in court.”