69-year-old Bedouin Activist Begins Prison Sentence Over Building Illegal Structures in His Village

Sheikh Sayeh Abu-Madi’am, who lives in the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, is likely the first Bedouin community to go to prison over his fight to have the state recognize his ownership of land in the Negev

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

At the age of 69, Sheikh Sayeh Abu-Madi’am, a prominent activist in the Bedouin’s fight with the state over the control of land in the Negev, entered Ma’asiyahu prison in Ramle on Tuesday, accompanied by a convoy of cars and hundreds of people.

Abu-Madi’am, who lives in the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, is probably the first member of the Bedouin community to go to prison over his fight to have the state recognize his ownership of land in the Negev, in Israel’s south. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail for trespassing on land, The Supreme Court confirmed the sentence.

The disputed Al-Araqib land lies south of the Bedouin town of Rahat, and stretches over a wide area between Rahat and Be’ersheba. Members of the Al-Turi tribe, to which Abu-Madi’am belongs, claim that ever since the days of Ottoman rule in the country, they have been working the land in question as part of their semi-nomadic existence. The tribe also claims that the Ottoman rulers and the subsequent British Mandatory government recognized the tribe’s rights to the land.

In 1953, the Knesset passed a law relating to the acquisition of land rights that resulted in the expropriation of hundreds of thousands of dunams of land in the Negev, including the Al-Araqib land. In the 1970s, the state registered the area as state land and called upon Bedouin residents to assert any claims that they had to ownership interests there. More than 3,000 claims were filed, pertaining to large expanses.

In 2016, the State Comptroller published a report stating that of the 590,000 dunams (150,000 acres) over which ownership had been claimed in 2007, the fate of only 16,000 dunams had been resolved.

In May 2015, after lengthy legal proceedings involving documents and the testimony of experts and tribal elders, the Supreme Court rejected the claims of the Al-Turi tribe. The case before the court only related to a portion of the disputed land, the land relating to Al-Araqib. The ownership of other land over which Abu-Madi’am is still fighting is pending before the Be’ersheba District Court.

Structures built by Bedouin at Al-Araqib have been demolished by the state on several occasions over the decades. The largest demolition operation was carried out in 2010, with the protection of 1,000 police officers. Since then, a small group of people has been waging the stubborn campaign against the authorities that led to criminal charges against Abu-Madi’am.

Nothing on the ground remains in the area other than a cemetery, a tiled structure and a few shacks covered with sheets of cloth or plastic. The authorities, under police protection, continue to come periodically to demolish the shacks, only to have the residents rebuild them as soon as the police leave. This has been going on for several years, involving more than 100 demolition operations.

Abu-Madi’am persisted, however, in sleeping in the remaining areas of the village near the cemetery.

“I’m here at night, near the graveyard. The Israel of 2018 claims to be an egalitarian country, a law-abiding state that protects all of its citizens. That is not true,” he said prior to going to jail. “We, the living from 2018, go to sleep with our dead.” Abu-Madi’am owns homes in the nearby town of Rahat, but he doesn’t sleep there for ideological reasons. “If I move to Rahat, in a few years, they may tell me to move from there too,” he said.

It is Abu-Madi’am’s obstinacy that may have turned him into one of the most prominent activists on the issue and, according to some activists, what led the state to seek to have him imprisoned. The state and the police tried repeatedly to remove Abu-Madi’am from the village. Even after he was told that he could not build on land and settle it while his ownership claims went unrecognized, he persisted. The court convicted him on 19 counts of trespassing, 19 counts of unlawful entry onto public land and of disobeying a legal order.

“Even now, I won’t commit not to return,” he told Haaretz. He said he refuses to accept the state’s position. “They say I’ve built illegal buildings. Look around. It’s a bunch of boards with some coverings. What buildings are these? Everyone has the right to build a shack where he can sit and have a rest. What building have I built? The state should be ashamed of making these claims.”

The court, he said, immediately adopted the state’s stance and dealt with criminal charges against him rather than the wider context. “I’m always the criminal. There’s no law to protect me,” he said.

But he added: “If the court says I have no rights to the land — the court, not the police — I will respect the law and the court’s decision. I will tell the nation and the entire world that the court ruled that I have no right to this land.”

For most of his entire life, Abu-Madi’am recounted, he has had good neighborly relations with kibbutz and moshav collective communities in the area and has become friends with some of their residents. Relations soured over the years, however, which he attributes to the way the government portrays the Bedouin and their land claims.

“I used to go to the home of a Jewish friend and be welcomed as a brother. He would come to my home and be treated like a member of the family,” he said. “We would go into the communal dining hall and not be viewed s Arabs. We worked there and would go to eat with everyone else. But lately I’ve gone to visit friends and had to first ask for permission to enter. I was searched and questioned regarding whom I was visiting, whether he knew I was coming, etc. What is all this? The government we have now, this racist right-wing government, has made me look ahead, thinking that Arabs have no future in this country.”