The number of illegal buildings demolished in Bedouin communities has tripled over the past five years. In 2013, when the government first began keeping records, 697 buildings were demolished. By last year, the figure had reached an all-time high of 2,326. Of these, 2,064 were demolished by the owners themselves to avoid the fines the state imposes if it has to tear a building down.
An analysis of the data shows that over the past three years, the number of demolitions has grown steadily, but the number of demolitions carried out by the state has actually been shrinking. Last year, for instance, the state tore down just 262 buildings, while owners razed 2,064. In 2016, the government demolished 641 buildings while owners razed 1,579.
Many Bedouin in the Negev live in communities that have been established without any government permission, in which case any construction on the site is deemed illegal. The state issues demolition orders against construction built without a permit, but not all of it is in unrecognized villages. Some is in legally recognized Bedouin communities. In addition to homes, the government data show that demolition orders have been issued against a range of other structures, including orchards, animal pens and fences.
For the state, having the owners demolish the structures themselves is preferable for two reasons. It not only spares the government the cost of carrying it out. It also avoids the possibility of clashes between the police and the Bedouin population in the course of the demolition.
As a result, government inspectors routinely warn owners that they can be sued for demolition costs if they don’t tear down illegal structures. In a press release several years ago, the Israel Land Authority, which manages much of the country’s land, acknowledged the effectiveness of the approach. As a practical matter, the state rarely sues to recover demolition costs, but the fact that it has authority to do so is often enough to coax building owners to demolish the buildings themselves.
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Attiya al-Assam, who heads of the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, said his organization attempts to discourage owners from razing illegal buildings on their own, because, as he put it, if they do so, “it appears as if the state isn’t doing anything, but when the state does the demolition, everyone sees it.” Nevertheless, he said, people often succumb to the threat of lawsuits, out of a sense that “they can’t stand up to the state.”
Sabah Abu Lakima of the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj in the Negev recently demolished the home of a relative on her behalf, a woman who lives alone. As he described it, “we were afraid of arrests, of criminal proceedings,” in addition to being sued for demolition costs. “It’s a kind of pressure tactic that makes people demolish by themselves, so [the state] won’t send in bulldozers and then you would have to pay for it,” he said. The woman has now moved in with other relatives, he added.
The demolitions are part of a broader battle over the state’s efforts to relocate Negev Bedouin to urban Bedouin towns. Many Bedouin want to remain in their rural villages, a considerable portion of which are unauthorized.