UK family claims ownership of Negev village
By Ilene Prusher
Jerusalem Post 28th September, 2012
Regavim group seeks to force state to stop building on land near Beersheba and relocate 7,000 residents of Beduin village.
Mark Ismailoff, who moved to Israel from the UK in 1979, lives in Jerusalem. But his sights are on the Negev, where he owns 6.25 percent of a 640,000-square meter plot of land southeast of Beersheba that he inherited from his grandfather – who bought it in 1935.
Standing on the plot today, however, is the unrecognized Beduin village El-Zarnoug. Ismailoff, aided by Regavim – a group which defines itself as having a “Zionist agenda to protect national lands” – is trying to force the state to stop building on the land, vacate a school and a kindergarten built there, and eventually relocate all of the residents.
Regavim filed a complaint on September 9 with the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court, demanding the state evacuate and dismantle 14 educational buildings.
Earlier, in May, Regavim and Ismailoff – along with three cousins who also own land there, and other landowners who live in the UK – filed a separate complaint with the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court requesting the demolition of 300 homes built on the land.
Theirs could be the latest battle in the ongoing war over building on private land and its place at the heart of the conflict on both sides of the Green Line.
Ismailoff compared his legal wrangle to the recent controversy over the West Bank settlement outpost of Migron. The 50 Israeli families who lived there were evacuated at the beginning of the month because the outpost was proved to have been built on privately owned Palestinian land.
“Does the government have a consistent policy of dealing with land that is privately owned or do they have double-standards?” asked Ismailoff, a former legal adviser for the Jewish Agency, in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
The issue is complex, and as with most land disputes, the various sides tell very different stories.
Yoni Blum, spokesman for Ismailoff and Regavim, said Beduin began coming to the area in the 1980s.
Salem Wakili, of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, said that, on the contrary, they had been there long before the establishment of the state.
Aerial Photo of Al Zarnoug (click to enlarge)
Wakili says that there are some 7,000 residents.
In 1996, in a related dispute over the land, the government agreed to let a greater number of Beduin live there temporarily, but said that it would find other, equivalent housing for them in Rahat. That plan fell through, and an acceptable substitute has still not been found.
In the meantime, over the past 20 years, a state school and a kindergarten have been built, despite the fact that the village remains “unrecognized.”
“The government had no right to give permission to live on land that they’re trespassing on,” said Ismailoff. “My expectation is that the land will eventually be vacated. It must be evacuated because it’s not their land.”
Wakili said it was outrageous to speak of trying to uproot 7,000 vulnerable people, some of whom are the grandchildren of Beduin who have been on the land since the time of Israel’s establishment, and some of whom were moved there by the Israel Lands Administration (now the Israel Lands Authority) in the 1950s.
“Whether it’s on private land or state land, the public good is always more important than the rights of the individual,” said Wakili. “But Regavim knows that when dealing with the Arab public, it’s another story.
“If they want to move 7,000 people, which in my mind is delusional, it could only be done on a racist basis, because if it was a Jewish village it for sure would not happen,” he said.
Wakili said that in cases in Israel’s history when there was a need to have private land declared public, the state wouldn’t hesitate to declare it as such – and offer compensation to the landowners if necessary.
“A school is for the betterment of the wider public, so if we need to get to the High Court to prove that, we will,” Wakili said. “The government can do as they do elsewhere and declare it public land.”
Of Regavim, he said that, “It seems that this is a right-wing organization that does not want the Negev to develop and will take every opportunity to make provocations in the year to come.”
Regavim this week declared an “Emergency Campaign to Save the Negev Before It Crashes Into Anarchy,” according to the group’s website, and is to ramp up its activities during Succot. Next week, the group is to hold an event at the Begin Center in Jerusalem entitled “Which Way for the Negev?” with Information and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein as a featured speaker.
On Thursday, Regavim is scheduled to take three busloads of English-speaking tourists – visiting for Succot – to the Negev, where the group says a “silent surrender” that must be halted is taking place.
Meir Deutsch, a field coordinator for Regavim whose focus is the Negev region, believes that the group, Ismailoff and the other complainants have a strong case.
“It’s one thing if one person is trespassing – but it’s much more serious when a state does it, and builds illegal buildings,” he says. “In general, more than 70,000 illegal houses have been built in the Negev. We’re trying to return sovereignty to Israel in the area, but how can the state ask citizens to follow [the] law if the state itself doesn’t?”
Nwaf Quider, a lawyer from the Abu Quider clan living on the land in question, said that his family has been in negotiations with the Beduin Administration, in search of a new place, but that the process has been moving slowly.
“We’re here more than 60 years. People live here, they have their connections to family and neighbors, their houses, it isn’t so easy to move,” he said.
“For three or four years there’s been talk of moving the whole family to the south of Rahat, but so far, there’s no place to move, and in the meantime it’s a catastrophe for us. New couples want to build and we’re not allowed – three months ago the authorities destroyed three or four new houses,” Quider said.
“In the meantime, we’ll stay here, and when there’s a good replacement for where we live now, I don’t think there will be great resistance to moving,” he said.