The Supreme Court ruled last week that six residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Araqib, which has been demolished over 100 times in recent years, will compensate the government 450,000 shekels ($135,000) for the cost of demolishing their village, instead of the 1.3 million shekels determined by the district court last year.
The residents of the Negev village, who claim historical ownership of the land, have been fighting the government for years over the village's land. The Israel Land Authority and the police have demolished their temporary structures dozens of times, but the residents rebuilt them, leading the government to file a civil lawsuit demanding payment of 1.8 million shekels from the activists in 2011.
Of the 34 activists, 26 reached an agreement with the state prosecution to pay about 320,000 shekels, while two others have died. After six activists refused to reach an agreement, the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court ruled three years ago that they would pay the government about 260,000 shekels for the demolition expenditures – a sum equal to their relative part in the original lawsuit. The court also decided that they would pay 100,000 shekels for the professional fee of the state’s attorney.
The court also ruled that the evictions and demolitions caused the government damage of 1.6 million shekels rather than 1.8 million shekels. Both sides appealed Magistrate’s Court’s decision, and last year the Be’er Sheva District Court increased the sum that the residents must pay. The District Court accepted the opinion and ruled that the residents must pay 1.3 million shekels, the full sum of the lawsuit minus 320,000 shekels paid by the 26 activists who reached an agreement. This sum is the highest fine ever charged in the battle over land between the state and the Bedouin community.
Last week, the hearing took place before Supreme Court justices Menachem Mazuz, George Karra and Alex Stein. Mazuz tried to persuade the parties to agree on a sum greater than the residents’ relative part, but lower than that ruled by the District Court. “We don’t want to enter a labyrinth,” said Mazuz. “We want to reach a solution that seems right and just for both parties.”
The justices decided that the six defendants would pay 35 percent of the sum of the damage of 1.6 million shekels, taking into account inflation and including interest. They noted that they had struck the compromise “in light of the unique circumstances of this case, taking into account the state’s obligation to behave with equality and decency even in settlement proceedings in a civil case.”
Attorney Khaled Sawalhi, who represented the activists, said that “In effect the court narrowed the many legal issues to questions of mathematics and dry calculations.” He added: “I hoped that the court would accept the basic position of the appellants and focus on the bigger picture, such as the constitutional question – why is it that in the case of demolition of communities in the Bedouin diaspora the residents have to pay [the state] compensation, while settlers on Palestinian land are not only evicted with the utmost gentleness, but the state also pays them compensation?"
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The people of al-Araqib say they own the land on which the village was built and were forcibly evicted by the army in 1950. The state says that the land was taken over by the state in the early 50s because it had been abandoned and that attempts by the Bedouin to settle beginning in 1998 were illegal. The courts have upheld the state’s position.