The unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Araqib was in court Wednesday, where the state of Israel argued the southern desert town must pay $500,000 [2 million Israeli Shekels] to cover the cost of demolitions, and more than 1,000 police deployed to carry out the destruction. Since 2010 al-Araqib has been razed to the ground 83 times, more than any other locality in Israel.
In Israel around half of the Bedouin population, 90,000 Arab-Palestinians herders, live in towns the state does not view as legitimate. Without “recognition,” these villages are pre-approved for demolition. In al-Araqib’s case additional legal battles over land ownership prompted Israel to issue the entire desert hamlet the mass eviction order. The state claims it legally expropriated the territory using Ottoman code still on the books during the 1950s. Al-Araqib’s residents still have copies of their old deeds and say they are valid and up to date.
While individual owners have been charged with the cost of demolishing a home in the past, this is the first case in Israel’s history where an entire town was told it must pay for its destruction. In instances when Israel demolished settlements, outposts the state viewed as illegally construction in the West Bank, those Jewish-Israeli towns were never later given a bill.
“[Jewish] Israelis were never sued before for the cost of these demolitions,” Khaled Sawalhi, an attorney representing al-Araqib, told me. Sawalhi has tried dozens of demolitions cases throughout his career. He underscored al-Araqib is unique in that could set a costly precedent for 45 other unrecognized villages facing demolition where land ownership is contested.
Israel has demolished more than 27,000 homes in the occupied Palestinian territory since its occupation began in 1967. When the state demanded Palestinians pay for the razing of the structures, the Civil Administration or the city of Jerusalem set the fees. In al-Araqib’s case, the fee is being demanded by the Israeli Lands Administration, a government agency that oversees state owned plots, and that is the plaintiff in a petition filed by the village.
“There is no justice in the way the state is handling it. We have proof that this land is theirs and that it is private property,” Sawalhi said.
After more demolitions than any other village in Israel, and rebuilding their homes just as many times, al-Araqib’s residents are now cramped in tents between gravestones. Since the demolitions began more than a decade ago, residents have moved into the town’s cemetery. Villagers do not see resting next to a headstone as morbid; camping is regarded as a creative measure to pose a challenge to Israel’s frequent demolitions.
“I hope that Ayman Odeh [a leading politician and head of the Joint Arab List] will do something,” al-Araqib resident Aziz Abu Madegam, 41, told Mondoweiss, lamenting, “I don’t believe that in this government he can change Israel’s politics.”
Abu Madegam was born and raised in al-Araqib and is one of the town’s most prominent activists against the demolitions. He lives in a small tent in the graveyard with his wife and six children. They own a car, and sometimes Abu Madegam sleeps there when the weather turns cold and rainy. His youngest son, age three, is named al-Araqib after the village. “He was born at the same time, the same minute that they [Israel] demolished al-Araqib,” Abu Madegam said.
Aside from the demolitions Abu Madegam’s family is constantly entangled in legal woes. The state dropped criminal charges against Abu Madegam’s father for “forcibly taking control” of al-Araqib’s land “failing to obey orders to leave the land,” last February.
In a separate case pressed by the Israeli Lands Administration, Abu Madegam is one of ten al-Araqib residents charged with a combined $1,300 [5,000 NIS] in daily fines. Those damages are for “arona,” or back rental fees in which the state has demanded payment even though the question of who owns the land has been locked up in court for years. Al-Araqib’s residents see these battles as attempts by Israel to drive them off of their land permanently.
Abu Madegam will be back in court this fall in late September– when the $500,000 penalty trial opens.