An aerial view of the Al Zarnog squatters’ camp

Beer Sheva District Court instructs the government to remove the squatters of Al Zarnog: “The State cannot condone the violation of individual proprietary rights.”

A decisively-worded verdict was recently handed down by Judge Chani Slotki of the Be’er Sheva District Court, in a petition demanding that enforcement procedures be taken against hundreds of Bedouin squatters from the Abu-Quider tribe who invaded private, Jewish-owned land near Moshav Nevatim in the Negev. The decision ends a legal battle and countless attempts at mediation that have dragged on for over a decade.

“The state may accept the violation of its own property rights, but it cannot condone the violation of the property rights of individuals,” noted Slotki, who ordered the issuance of demolition orders for all the structures in the Al Zarnog encampment, prioritizing enforcement against structures located on privately owned land and finding immediate accommodations for relocating the residents. In addition, legal expenses were awarded to the petitioners in the amount of NIS 15,000.

This is the second petition involving this land parcel; the first petition, submitted in 2012, was set aside in light of the state’s commitment to curb further invasion of squatters, and to develop a residential complex in the south of Rahat to which the existing squatters would be relocated within 6 years. The state further committed to strict enforcement against any new illegal construction in the interim period.

In practice, construction of the new neighborhood has taken more than a decade, during which hundreds of additional families invaded the private plot and law enforcement against new illegal construction in the ever-expanding squatters camp was virtually non-existent.

As the new neighborhood of Rahat neared completion, it became clear that the state had designated most of the plots to the families that have been squatting on state land adjacent to the privately-owned land; no relocation site was set aside for the families squatting on the privately-owned lands of Al Zarnog. Additionally, the state has refrained from taking enforcement action against the illegal structures that continue to pop up on the privately owned property.

Arguments were heard in the Beer Sheva District Court this past May. Attorney Amir Fisher, who represented the petitioners, argued that the state violated its commitments to the legal owners of the land and to the court by enabling the continued growth of the illegal encampment and is now washing its hands of the problem, resulting in expropriation of the petitioners’ property without compensation and violation of their rights.

Attorney Yaari Roash, representing the state, argued that due to the opposition of the Rahat Municipality, the development of plots to accommodate the evacuees was delayed for years, during which time the state allotted the plots in the new section of Rahat to any families willing to sign relocation agreements – without distinguishing between those who were squatting on private versus state land. “While the Bedouin Authority is obviously interested in relocating all the squatters,” Roash argued, “no additional solutions are available.” The representative of the Bedouin Authority presented official data on the situation: There are 550 households squatting on the private land, and only 50 families have signed relocation agreements; the remaining families are adamantly opposed to relocation and do not cooperate at all with the authorities or engage in negotiations.

Judge Slotkin opined that families living illegally on privately-owned land should be prioritized in receiving lots, in order to speed up enforcement procedures and regulation processes. The state’s representatives explained that, “regrettably, there are no vacant lots left, and due to this situation the authorities refrain from enforcement; the longstanding policy is that no enforcement procedures are carried out against squatters who do not have a readily available alternative.”

Slotkin replied: “I’m looking for solutions; this situation cannot be allowed to continue. That is why what you ‘regret’ is not what I regret. I regret that there is a violation of property rights.” Judge Slotkin gave the parties 30 days to reach a compromise; after mediation attempts were unsuccessful, the parties returned to court and the decision was handed down.

“The court has required the state to remove the kid gloves with which it has dealt with Bedouin construction offenders,” says Meir Deutsch, Director General of the Regavim Movement. “The state admitted, during the course of the hearing of this petition, that the program for regulation and relocation it presented to the court ten years ago, which was the basis for dismissing the original petition, was a work of fiction. Not only did the state fail to relocate the squatters, it also failed to demolish new illegal construction as promised. Thus, we have reached a situation where instead of 150 families who were squatting on the property at the time of the original petition, there are now 550 families that have taken up residence on private property, and they flatly refuse to cooperate with any attempt at regulation and regularization.”

“The District Court’s verdict restores hope – to the owners who have been waiting for decades to redeerm their property, and to all Israelis, who have waited for too long for justice to be done and for governance to be restored to the Negev,” Deutsch added.

An aerial view of the Al Zarnog squatters’ camp

On 10 May 2021, the May riots, during the Guardian of the Walls operation, began throughout Israel. It all started when rockets were fired from Gaza on Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim), and continued in the form of lynches and attacks against Jews in mixed cities, riots on the streets of the Negev, violence and terror during a long and difficult week.

As soon as the riots in Lod broke out, we set up a ‘situation room’, together with My Israel, for the sake of the Jewish residents in mixed cities. We helped to organize volunteers: medics, drivers, armed ex-officers, caregivers, and more.

But it doesn’t end here. Since last year, the situation on the roads in the Negev hasn’t exactly calmed down, while shootings and violence in the streets of mixed cities haven’t stopped. The sense of security and safety among the public has taken a hit. And the public’s trust in the authorities has also been damaged. However, as an organization that’s been battling for the Negev for over a decade, we feel as though the public is waking up and understanding the challenge that Israel faces. The Negev issue has become important and significant in the Israeli public discourse. There’s an understanding that the Negev is a place worth fighting for. Although it’s become an ‘ex-territory’, the State of Israel can and must return to the Negev!

In the last year, we have initiated and participated in Knesset hearings about the erosion of governance. We have engaged policymakers, and taken them out to the field to see, discuss, and monitor the various issues in the Negev and elsewhere. We opened dozens of new cases relating to the authorities’ conduct during and after the May riots. We wanted to find out how many rioters were caught, how many criminal cases were opened, and how many indictments were filed.

We weren’t surprised to learn that the real problem today in the State of Israel is the legal system. While we were critical of the Police’s efforts (or lack thereof) during the riots, it should be noted that criminals were indeed arrested. However, the Courts released the criminals back into the streets without significant punishment, undermining the authorities, the rule of law, and Israel’s security.

Looking forward, it’s pretty obvious that the next round of violence is just a matter of time. The judiciary must undergo serious reform. The criminals must be given the message that there’s accountability. When you break the law and engage in violence, there must be heavy punishments that serve as a deterrent to others!

We must not let down our guard. Israel is our one and only homeland – and we shall always work to protect it.

This morning, Bedouin lawbreakers herding flocks of thousands of sheep invaded the IDF Tzeelim Base, leading to a confrontation with the Israel Police and the Green Patrol who were called out to remove the intruders from the IDF’s live-ammunition training area. The intruders called in backup of their own – Bedouin residents of the Bir Hadaj squatters’ camp – who stoned the police officers, faced off with the enforcement patrol, and attempted to run over one of the inspectors.

As this scene was unfolding, a different face-off was taking place in the Knesset, where ministers were embroiled in a tug-of-war over the government’s new five-year plan for the Negev. Over the past several weeks, the previous five-year plan (2397) – a ₪3 billion package that included 200 million shekels for forestation, land protection and law enforcement – ran its course. The new plan, which the government is scheduled to debate and approve this week, does not include one single shekel for these crucial projects; the chapter on enforcement was simply cut out of the draft legislation.

The plan in its present form includes funding for Bedouin municipalities but is completely devoid of any allocation of resources for enforcement authorities. It will cause long-term damage to the state of governance in the Negev.

Increased enforcement activity in the Negev over the past year is the result of government decisions and budgetary allocations legislated in 2017. As it now reads, the new Negev Five-Year Plan will cut the oxygen supply for enforcement, and the results will be felt over the coming years. Under no condition should this plan be approved; all ‘carrots’ and no ‘sticks’ is not a plan, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The Negev from above

Despite heavy pressure by the Raam Party to make substantive changes in the wording of the government’s decision, cooperation between Regavim and the staff of Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked’s office resulted in wording virtually identical to the proposal tabled by the Netanyahu government.

Earlier today (Wednesday), the government approved plans for a new Bedouin city and three rural Bedouin communities, intended for the resettlement of residents of illegal squatters’ camps who would be brought into legal, permanent communities.

Regavim’s spokesperson noted that despite the very heavy pressure from the Raam Party to make changes in the government’s decision, the wording of the decision that was approved is virtually identical to that of the proposal tabled by the Netanyahu government. The language that was eventually adopted was the product of several months of intensive consultation and joint effort between Regavim and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s staff.

Meir Deutsch, Director General of Regavim, reacted to this morning’s decision: “We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: This plan is both an opportunity, and a risk.”

“On the one hand, this plan may lead to real change in the Negev, the restoration of state lands to the government’s hands and the beginning of the process of resettlement of the Bedouin squatters who have taken over the open spaces of the Negev. This plan envisions relocation into legal, organized settlements rather than the fictitious “expansion” of existing settlements that was standard procedure over the past decade. The decision approved by the government today establishes criteria for relocating residents of the Bedouin encampments into permanent settlements according to clearly-defined timetables; if the criteria are not met, the plan to create new settlements will be cancelled.”

On the other hand, the merit of the government’s plan must be proven by action, not intentions. To date, Israeli governments have been most adept at offering “carrots” but have failed to use “sticks” and enforce the conditions of previous plans. This plan, like its predecessors, is built on carrots and sticks, and it’s up to the government to prove that it intends to see the program through – including the evacuation of the squatters’ camps and the return of state land on which the Bedouin are currently squatting illegally, to state hands. The failed policy of endless land allocations for the Bedouin sector must come to an end.”

“If the government stays the course and sees the program approved today through – both carrots and sticks – it will be the first real progress toward a better future for the Negev and for the restoration of national resources to government jurisdiction.”