Israel’s racial courts: the imprisonment of human rights defender Nuri al-Oqbi
“I think the fact that the defendant is an activist for Bedouin ‘diaspora’ rights only makes it harder for his situation. Because he cannot the on one hand argue that there are rights violations or non-preservation of rights for the group that he belongs to, while on the other hand crudely violating the law time after time.” (Judge Zachary Yemini, Ramle magistrates court)
The crude violation of the law that Judge Zachary Yemini of the Ramle magistrates court refers to in last week’s conviction of Nuri al-Oqbi, the prominent rights activist for the Palestinian community in the Negev and Lod and head of the Association for Support and Defence of Bedouin Rights in Israel, was building and operating a garage without a license in his residential space in Lod.
Nuri began operation of this garage in 1964 at a time when Lod lacked an industrial zone from which he could operate. The judge handed his decision on 27 December 2010, ruling that Nuri’s garage was illegal, its operation being a violation of Article 18 of the Business Licensing Law (1968).
Sixty-eight-year old Nuri, who suffers from a heart condition, was sentenced to serve a seven-month prison sentence in Nitzan jail in Ramle. On his way to prison, to where he was led immediately following the sentence because he could not raise the necessary 30,000 shekels (8,500 US dollars) to stay his sentence by a week, Nuri collapsed and had to be admitted to hospital.
The purpose of penalizing business operations and construction without license can be appreciated. Issuing of licenses is to better guarantee that businesses conform to standards that protect the environment and better ensure public peace, safety and health. However, a more circumspect look at the case would ask who issues licenses and on what grounds.
Generally in Israel, the municipal authority is designated as the licensing authority and the approval of other relevant government ministries is also required. As the Israeli peace bloc Gush Shalom reports, in Nuri’s case the Lod municipality’s policy for issuing licenses has varied, with the garage receiving a license in some years and in others not. Nuri is quoted as saying that he had received certification from the police and fire departments, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of the Environment that his garage conformed to all regulations. He asserts that others in his situation who have operated a business in a residential zone have received a license from the municipality and that the Lod municipality’s refusal to issue him with a license stemmed from his critical stance of the municipality’s policies towards Palestinians in the community, particularly the policy of home demolitions. “I am sure that if I had been ready to toe the line dictated by the municipality, I would have had no problem in obtaining a license. Their real problem is not my garage, but my public activity.” The Lod municipality, the body with the authority to issue Nuri a garage licence, is also that body which brought forth the case.
However, discriminatory action towards Palestinian citizens in Lod did not emanate solely from the municipality in Nuri’s case. Judge Zachary’s decision betrays the racism implicit in how the legal system treats the Palestinian Bedouin community.
Although the court had initially hinted that community service in lieu of six months imprisonment was to be Nuri’s sentence, during the sentencing Judge Zachary decided differently. “I think that giving a lesser sentence will convey something of a negative message to the community and to the Bedouin ‘diaspora’ especially [emphasis added]. The negative message is that breaking the law in Israel, and especially violating a court ruling, is worthwhile and a triviality”.
Judge Zachary’s words are telling. He refers to the Bedouin – and this is not uncommon in how the Israeli authorities and legal system refer to the Bedouin community – as “diaspora”, meaning that they come from elsewhere, a characterization which feeds the myth that the Bedouin are squatters and interlopers on government land. This myth is also used to justify the government’s deliberate denial of water and electricity to 83,000 citizens living in the Negev’s unrecognized villages.
Second, the judge decided to imprison Nuri with the specific purpose of sending a message particularly to the Bedouin community, meaning that he sees the community as especially criminally inclined.
Third, as the opening quote states, the judge equates the illegality in the Israeli state’s dispossession, land expropriation, enforcing of military rule, destruction of crops and homes of the Palestinian Bedouin community (as he says Nuri argues) with the illegality of building a garage in a residential zone without licence. This indicates the gravity with which he considers the acts of the state towards the Bedouin population and the seriousness with which he takes civil rights struggles in the Negev. In the decision, there is also chastisement of Nuri’s work as a civil liberties activist, as if fighting for equality and human rights warrants such sanction.
Nuri’s encounters with the legal system are many. He was arrested in February 2010 for an entire week, an incarceration he described as “intolerable … [where] people are treated like animals”. He was charged with 40 criminal counts of invasion, uprooting trees and violations of an order for being present on his family’s historical lands in al-Araqib in the Negev, where the state refuses to recognize his ownership. In the end, the court issued him an “exclusion order”, preventing him from being less than 10 kilometres from his land in al-Araqib without a guarantor.
In addition, in another decision of a magistrate court in June 2010 (which he has appealed) he has been ordered to pay the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) roughly 300,000 shekels (85,000 dollars) for expenses the ILA incurred in demolishing his tent and uprooting his land in al-Araqib!
As these examples show, prompted by the executive, Israeli courts are actively working towards:
- Silencing voices of resistance to official plans and narratives, such as Nuri’s, given the injustices happening to the Palestinian community in Lod
- Issuance of home demolition and evacuation orders to entire villages, as happened in Umm al-Hieran, Atir and al-Araqib, thereby enabling the clearing of entire villages of Bedouin in the Negev
- Construction of a culture and ideology where racist myths about the “Bedouin diaspora” are constructed, affirmed and deployed, such as Bedouin as inclined to criminal activity
- Penalization of activism, human rights and civil liberties struggles and of human rights defenders, such as Nuri al-Oqbi
- Deligitimization of the human rights struggles of the Palestinian community by detracting from the state’s discriminatory policies and instead emphasizing the community’s “crude” illegal activity, such as operating businesses and constructing homes without licence, and not following court orders that call for their demolition.
Nuri has a claim case pending before Justice Dovrat at the Beersheba District Court over five strips of land in al-Araqib and Zahiliqah. Over the length of the case, it is expected that many pertinent issues dealing with Zionist settlement in the Negev and the uprooting and dispossession of Bedouin will be addressed – whether the Negev was indeed terra nullius, whether traditional Bedouin use, occupation and ownership of the land will be recognized by the Israeli courts, if oral histories of Bedouin will count or be trumped by the writings of European explorers and if indeed a gross illegality was committed when the authorities forcibly expelled Nuri’s family and other al-Araqib residents in the summer of 1951 while promising them a return in six months that never happened.
Nuri’s land claims case could be an appropriate opportunity for the Israeli court to live up to its assertion of being an independent arbiter and not an instrument of racial rule, where stratifications of political, economic and social privilege along ethnocratic lines are constructed, maintained and reproduced.
Nasser Victor Rego is a civil and human rights expert and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada.
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