Bedouin rights campaigner handcuffed to hospital bed
NURI EL OKBI left, mingles with delegates to make his point at UN NGO's Palestine conference
and right, going to town on their rights, Bedouin march in Be'ersheva,
ISRAELI President Shimon Peres has been boasting how his state has only one set of laws for all its citizens, under which all are treated the same. Peres was commenting on the conviction of his predecessor, Iranian born Moshe Katsav, on rape and other charges, for which he faces imprisonment.
But his view of equal treatment does not seem to be shared by Orthodox rabbis, on the state's payroll, who have been telling landlords in Safed that they should not rent to Arabs, a warning followed up by mobs that have firebombed flats where Palestinian students were staying.
Several families have had to leave Tel Aviv because of similar prejudice, among them a Druze who was not only a citizen but an Israeli Army veteran. No wonder the leader of a Holocaust survivors' association has said what is happening reminded him of Germany in the 'Thirties.
Another citizen who may have his own view of what it's like to be 'equal before the law' in Israel is Nuri el Okbi, who heads the Association for Protection of the Rights of Bedouin in Israel, and who was handcuffed to a hospital bed as the old year neared its end.
I first met Nuri almost twenty-five years ago, on a visit to Palestine and Israel, when a group of us called on the Association's premises down a back lane in Beersheva, where it was combining campaigning and adult educational work, including English classes. Later Nuri took us to a Bedouin camp out in the desert, where we heard about the army's 'green patrols' harassing girls tending their flocks, while the menfolk were working on building sites in Beersheva. That is the least of the unequal treatment they have endured in their own country.
A few years later I was pleasantly surprised when Nuri al Okbi managed to turn up at a UN conference of Non-Governmental Organisations, in Europe, to speak about his people's rights, which often seem forgotten in more general discussion, and make delegates aware of their problems.
More recently, I was pleased to hear Nuri speaking in London's School of Oriental and African Studies, SOAS, where he described how Bedouin in the Negev were trying to hold on to traditional grazing lands, demanding legal recognition for their villages, and develop their farming - which not only suffers from lack of water supplies but has often been sprayed with poisonous chemicals by Israeli planes.
It was at a place called al Arakib, from where his own family were among Bedouin 'ethnically cleansed ' by Israeli forces in the early 'Fifties, that Nuri al Okbi has been supporting Bedouin whose homes were destroyed three times by Israeli troops with bulldozers. The Bedouin insist that the land was theirs, even in the nineteenth century, and the Association for Bedouin Rights has tried to fight their case in court.
The irony is that the Jewish National Fund, JNF, which is recognised as a 'charity' in Britain, and liked to raise funds by claiming it wants to 'make the desert blossom', has been behind the destruction of homes and crops at al-Arakib, and the eviction of Negev Bedouin. Preventing non-Jews owning or working the land was always the underside of the JNF's promotion of Jewish settlement, but in this case the Zionist 'charity' is working in tandem with an American Christian outfit called GOD TV to erase trace of the Bedouin by planting a forest at al-Arakib. These are the kind of aggressive Evangelicals for whom 'love thy neighbour' comes a long way behind praying for Armageddon to speed the Second Coming, and not just praying.
Besides his work in the Negev, Nuri al-Okbi has also been active for the rights of the Arab residents of the town of Lod, many of whom were originally Negev Bedouin. But he has been sentenced to seven months imprisonment on charges of "running a business without a license". The business in question is a garage which al-Okbi has been maintaining since 1964 in Lod. Friends say that over the years, the Municipality of Lod's policy has undergone unpredictable changes, with the garage getting a permit in some years and being denied it in others.
Following the verdict, Nuri said:
"I have become the target of politically-motivated discrimination and intimidation, with the intention of gagging me, putting an end to my speaking out against the municipality's policies - for example, the demolition of seven homes of Arab residents about a week ago. The Police, Fire Department, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of the Environment all certified that my garage conformed to all regulations. Nevertheless, the municipality had deprived me of a business license, while granting one to people in my neighbourhood whose businesses were started after my garage. 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."
Originally, the court seemed inclined to let the Bedouin campaigner perform community service in lieu of imprisonment, and in fact he had already made arrangements with a Ramla soup kitchen which was interested in having him. At the last moment, however, Judge Zachariya Yemini of the Ramla Magistrate's Court decided to act severely and imposed a seven months' term - rather than six months, the maximum term which under Israeli law can be commuted to community service.
In his verdict, the judge, referring to his human rights work, specifically noted that "treating the defendant leniently would constitute a negative message to the public, and especially to the Bedouins" – i.e. his activism on behalf of the Bedouin community was the specific and explicit reason why he was treated severely.
Following the harsh sentence, Nuri – who is 68 years old and suffers from a heart condition - felt ill and collapsed. He was hospitalized at the Assaf Harofeh Hospital, where he is remained under under police guard, and his feet were handcuffed to the bed. The police also prevented his son, who came to the hospital, from talking to him.
On the sentence, see:
On the al Arakib struggle, see: