Supreme Court Rejects Appeal by Bedouin Land Rights Activist Convicted of Trespassing

Court lets 10-month sentence stand ■ Sheikh Sayekh Abu Madi'am repeatedly returned to the village from which he had been removed

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

The Supreme Court rejected an appeal by a leading activist in the fight over land rights in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Al-Araqib, leaving a 10-month jail sentence against 69-year-old Sheikh Sayekh Abu Madi'am for trespassing in place.

The court rejected Abu Madi’am’s argument that the state was criminalizing protests over state policies on Bedouin land claims. He is to begin serving his sentence next month. Bedouin-rights activists claim the decision will have broader implications for residents of the Negev's unrecognized Bedouin villages, which the Israeli government does not recognize and therefore lack any infrastucture.

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Abu Madi’am was convicted of 19 counts of trespassing for illegal entry on public land as well as for violating a legal order for resettling on land that had been cleared of residents. The court rejected his claim that legal proceedings on the ownership of land are pending and that he should be allowed to remain on it until a final decision is made.

“One cannot accept Abu Madi’am’s attempt to couch his request as one of principle, arguing that his acts are part of an ongoing public battle on the part of the Bedouin population in the Negev to settle their status,” Justice Elron said. The judge added that he also could not accept the argument that “historical issues and disputes are not appropriate to be resolved through criminal proceedings.” The justice added: “Criminal activity, including repeated incursion onto land that had been cleared so that residential buildings could be constructed on it, while ignoring the court decisions on the matter exceed the bounds of legitimate protest.”

Abu Madi’am’s lawyer, Shada Ibn Bari, said in response: “While the issue of the ownership of the land at Al-Araqib is still pending, the Supreme Court has decided to turn tens of thousands of people in the unrecognized villages, who are fighting for a dignified existence in the Negev, into criminals. The court ... has sent a dangerous message to the entire Bedouin community that anyone who dares protest the looting of lands and the demolition of homes and fight for the recognition of the villages will find themselves in detention.”

The right-wing Regavim organization, which has been engaged in an effort against the unrecognized Bedouin communities, said in response to the ruling: “Al-Araqib has become a symbol of the illegal incursion of Bedouin onto state land, incursions aimed at exhausting the state and trying to seize lands that they never owned by force.”

For his part, Michael Sfard, a lawyer representing Bedouin residents seeking to remain on the land, called the issue a social problem that goes beyond the case of a specific individual. Abu Madi’am’s case, he said, is one of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Bedouin living on their “historic land in an unrecognized manner.” If he violated the law, then so did the others, he said.

The chairman of the largely Arab Joint List Knesset faction, Ayman Odeh, accused the authorities of demolishing homes in the village as part of a drive to have “as much land as possible with as few Arabs as possible.” He called Abu Madi’am “a symbol of the non-violent fight on behalf of the rights of the residents to maintain their homes and live on the land of their forefathers.”

The villagers maintain that they own the bank on which the village is built and were forcible evicted from their land by the Israel Defense Forces in 1950.

The state argues that the land was taken over by the state in the early 1950s because it had been abandoned and that the attempts to settle it that began in 1998 were illegal. Israeli courts have consistently upheld the state's position.