Sunday, March 7, 2010

The obsessive tresspasser

Nuri el-Okbi in and out of prison

Nuri el-Okbi was nine years old in 1951, when he was expelled from the home were he was born at el-Arakib, north-east of Be'er Sheva.

The state representatives promised Nuri's father, Sheikh Salman el-Okbi, that the tribespeople have to leave their homes only for half a year, because "the land is needed for military maneouvers" and hat afterwards they could come back.
The promise was not kept. Sheikh Salman el-Okbi tried in 1956 to go back to his land and was immediately arrested and expelled again.
While the el-Okbi tribespeople were living in poverty at Al-Hora, to which they were brought on trucks, the authorities initiated the judicial procedures to confiscate their land and register it as State Lands. According to the "real-estate-purchase law" passed by the Knesset in 1953, the State of Israel purchased all the lands of the el-Okbi tribe at a bargain prize of zero Israeli Pounds and zero Agurot. Nobody bothered to inform the tribespeople of this nice deal. They found out about it only by accident, and only many years later.

Nuri el-Okbi spent his life in the struggle for his tribes people and for the Bedouins in general. He founded the "Association for the Defence of Bedouin Rights in Israel" in the 1960s, at a time that hardly anybody knew of such a problem, and Bedouins were usually thought of as exotic and friendly ornaments of the desert.

Ten years ago, there came up the possibility that the government of Israel will allow the el-Okbis to get back to at least part of their land. It came up - and immediately went down again.

In 2004, then Minister of Housing Effi Etam took care to create on the land - in a semi-military fact-creation operation in the middle of the night - a community for Jews only, known as "Giv'ot Bar" (Wild Hills).

In April 2006, Nuri el-Okbi arrived at the lands of el-Arakib - facing the perimeter fences of Giv'ot Bar, not far from the ruins of the house were he grew up - and erected there a tent. From then until last week he lived alone in this tent - day and night, winter and summer, ceaselessly demanding that he and his tribe be allowed to go back to the land.

Sometimes friends came from all over the country and also visitors from abroad, to encourage and support him. At other times there came less friendly visitors on behalf of the authorities - police and the Jewish National Fund and the so-called Green Patrol. Many times they destroyed the tent - and Nuri lived under the open sky until he acquired a new tent. Many times he was detained - but when released he went back to the land. Several times he was beaten and needed medical treatment - and also that did not intimidate him.

Last week Nuri el-Okbi was detained again - but this time he was left behind bars and there was presented against him a charge sheet. A very, very long and extremely detailed charge sheet, 22 pages with no less than 40 charges, divided into dozens of sub-charges. Again and again the charge sheet notes that "the accused did tresspass by entering real estate which is state land, and stayed in it and held on to it without the slightest shred of a right.

This crime was committed by Nuri el-Okbi in the year 2006, and also in the year 2007, and again in 2008, and in 2009, and in 2010, in every month of everyone of these years, on dozens of dates which are carefully and meticulously noted down in the charge sheet. The prosecution has the names of eye-witnesses, no less than fifty of them, who are able to truly testify that indeed Nuri el-Okbi persisted day by day in his tresspassing and also confronted the bulldozers which the Jewish National Fund sent to flatten the land of his father, preventing them from continuing to work and thus disturbing public workers in fulfilling their job, and he also annoyed the public workers and threatened them and in one case even attacked them (one man with not more than his bare hands, aged nearly 70, in face of five young and strong public employees...).

In every article of the charge sheet the state takes care to note and remark again that Nuri el-Okbi has "not a shred of a right over the land". Literally, the term used in rather poetical Hebrew reads "not a mote of dust of a right". Indeed, it was all crushed to dust and blown by the wind.

A public danger

Last Monday the hall of the Magistrate Court in Be'er Sheva was full of peace and human right activists who came from all over the country - but they did not get to see Nuri. The court's agenda was overcrowded, and other detention hearings were given precedence. Nuri remained incarcerated at the courthouse basement from morning to evening, unseen and unheard, and was finally taken back to spend another night in a crowded detention cell.

On the following day, Nuri's case did come for a judge's attention. "In his many police interrogations he insists, repeatedly asserting that the land is his" was the bitter complaint of the police prosecutor. "Nothing helps. Even when the police interrogators present to him official documents proving beyond doubt that the land is a state property, he denies it and persists in maintaining his version, that the land had belonged to his ancestors. This is an obsessive trespasser. He is a danger to public safety and to the public's property. He should be remanded in custody until the end of judicial proceedings!"

"The state's claim for ownership of this land are far from being established beyond doubt. Nuri el-Okbi is in possession of weighty judicial arguments substantiating his claim of ownership over the land, which might invalidate the state's arguments. This is the subject of civil proceedings in the Be'er Sheba District Court, here in this building, where a ruling was not yet rendered" stated Adv. Saul Davis, Nuri el-Okbi's lawyer. "The real estate where he erected a tent is a place over which he has a serious claim to ownership. In my view, it is natural for a person to be a bit obsessive about a property being taken away. How can a person be a trespasser in his own property, in his own home? I think the court should help him preserve his property rights, as set down in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

Finally, Justice Ido Rozin resolved to reject the police demand for a remand, and stated that there was "no danger in releasing him on bail". The judge also recognized that there is an ongoing dispute between Nuri el-Okbi and the State with regard to ownership of the land, a dispute not yet settled. He therefore ruled that pending a final verdict the state (or the JNF acting on its behalf) should not create "facts on the ground".

On the other hand, the judge also ruled that Nuri el-Okbi must stay, until further notice, under house arrest in the home of his brother at al-Chora, that he may leave only during daytime and only when accompanied by his brother – and that he be forbidden to approach closer than ten kilometers to the land of al-Arakib. "Thou shalt see the land before thee, but thou shalt not go thither unto the land".

And so do things stand at the moment. Tomorrow, Monday March 8, 2010, at 10.00 am, there will resume before Justice Sarah Dovrat of the District Court, on the fifth floor of the Be'er Sheba Hall of Justice, the deliberations in the civil suit where Nuri demands recognition of his rights over the al-Arakib lands. Prof. Oren Yiftahel of Ben Gurion University will present to the court an expert testimony on a subject in which he is a recognized authority: Bedouins' ownership over their lands in the Negev, which had been recognized by Ottoman and British authorities for decades and centuries before the State of Israel arose to spread its rule throughout the Negev.

It is important and worthwhile to be there.

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