Op-ed: Unwanted Citizens Vs. Citizens Who Protect the Land

The difference between two Supreme Court rulings on land rights cases lies in the difference between what Israel views as “unwanted” Arab Bedouin citizens, versus Jewish citizens who “protect the land” from the unwanted.

By Adalah Attorney Mohammad Bassam


The Israeli Supreme Court recently issued two principle rulings concerning two separate but similar legal disputes raised by the state against citizens of Israel. The first case is the eviction of the Arab Bedouin village of Atir–Umm al-Hiran, and the second case is the eviction of a Jewish shepherd named Shai Seltzer from his farm on Mount Eitan near Jerusalem. In both cases, the state alleged that the citizens were taking up illegal residence on lands owned by the state, and as such sought to expel the inhabitants because it regarded them as trespassers.


In the first case of Atir–Umm al-Hiran, the Supreme Court gave a green light for the state’s plan to expel the Bedouin residents of the village. The Court claimed that the state, which granted the villagers permission to reside on the land in 1956, is entitled to revoke this permission and remove the inhabitants.


But in the case of Shai Seltzer, the opposite decision was made. The Court instead took other considerations into account in the case, which justified the search for a solution that would allow Seltzer to remain on the land despite the state’s opposition.


The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Seltzer case rejected most of the state’s arguments, saying that the case’s circumstances were exceptional. What exactly were these exceptional circumstances that justified a “trespasser” to remain on state land?


According to the Court’s ruling, Seltzer is a shepherd who has lived on the farm since the early 1970s, where he holds workshops on agriculture and sells the cheese he produces to many visitors. In addition, the Court wrote in its ruling that Seltzer’s residence on the land has received the support of various government officials who viewed his activities on the farm as a “means of protection against trespassing by undesirable elements.” As such, the Court concluded, the planning committees should enter negotiations with Seltzer to enable his continued residence in the area, and added that they should not adopt a policy of “upholding the law without a compromise,” despite the fact the state sees Seltzer as a trespasser.


It is possible that the Court had compelling reasons to find a just solution in Seltzer’s case instead of ordering his eviction. However, a glance at the Court’s ruling in the case of Atir–Umm al-Hiran shows that when it came to Arab Bedouin citizens, “exceptional circumstances” did not lead to the cancelation of the eviction orders. Unlike in the Seltzer case, where agricultural activities carried significant weight in the Court’s decision, the dominant rhetoric in the Atir–Umm al-Hiran ruling was characterized by a formalistic legal tone that portrayed the Bedouin inhabitants as ungrateful people who are unwilling to return the land on which they reside to the rightful owner, the State of Israel.


In the Court’s view, the exceptional circumstances of the inhabitants of Atir–Umm al-Hiran did not provide sufficient reason to examine the possibility of allowing them to remain on the land. The Court did not give weight to the fact that the families were moved there by order of the state more than 60 years ago, far longer than Seltzer’s time on his farm. The ruling also did not refer to the fact that the master plan for the area – which is the main cause of the Bedouins’ eviction – designates the currently-inhabited area as land for housing and grazing.


Most of all, the Court ignored the fact that a Jewish town to be called ‘Hiran,’ whose future inhabitants have no property rights to the land, will be established at the expense of the current Bedouin inhabitants. In other words, the state simply decided to establish a Jewish town over the ruins of a Bedouin village.


Thus, the history of a community numbering 1,000 people; the dreams and desires of its young sons and daughters; and the memories and legacies of its elders – all of these were missing from the Court’s ruling. The residents of Atir–Umm al-Hiran were instead portrayed in a hollow image lacking any human qualities; as if their interactions with their environment are random, and that the distress they will suffer from their eviction is simply a regrettable necessity. The characteristics of this hollow image became the underlying foundation of the ruling: because the state granted the Bedouin permission to use the land, it was also entitled to revoke it.


The difference between the two Supreme Court rulings perhaps lies in the difference between who Israel views as “unwanted” citizens, versus who “protects the land” from the unwanted. The Court sees Seltzer as a Jewish pioneer who made the desert bloom. The Bedouin of Atir–Umm al-Hiran, on the other hand, are uninvited guests.


The writer is an attorney at Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which represents the residents of the village of Atir–Umm al-Hiran.