Mabo native title laws inspire Bedouin claims
Joel Gibson, smh
June 27, 2009
AUSTRALIA'S native title laws are providing inspiration for indigenous claims in one of the most contested places on earth.
Israel's Bedouin people are preparing a landmark test case on behalf of a traditional landowner and have engaged an Australian expert on native title compensation to advise how the success of the late Eddie Mabo can be replicated in the Negev Desert.
John Sheehan, an adjunct professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and former president of the NSW division of the Australian Property Institute, travelled to Israel this month to assist in the formulation of the claim, which will be the first of its kind in Israel.
He said the plight of the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic people who have travelled the desert regions of southern Israel since before Ottoman and British rule, was "virtually identical" to that of indigenous people before the High Court's historic Mabo decision found native title persisted in Australia.
Like failed claims in Australia before Mabo, previous Bedouin claims have challenged the sovereignty of the Israeli state and failed to get off the ground, he said. "Eddie Mabo was a smart man who realised that you have to put the rights in a manner that could be translated into British common law notions of property. Otherwise it's too easy for them to be knocked over."
With some input based on the Australian experience, Professor Sheehan said he hopes to see "the settlement of the first land claim of a Bedouin indigene in Israel".
Bedouin officials are still deciding upon their ideal test claimant, but the man most likely is a Bedouin named Muri, the son of a sheikh whose family has lived in the same area of the Negev for centuries.
While the Bedouin are a nomadic people, Muri's father's status meant he lived in a stone house, making his claim more palatable to a legal system based on the British common law of property.
Muri is one of tens of thousands of Bedouin inhabitants of unrecognised villages without connection to the water and sewerage systems and threatened with demolition because they are not among the seven villages recognised by the Israeli Government.
Their unrecognised status means are not counted in the census, and cannot vote in local government elections.
The dispossession of Israel's Bedouin tribes has been largely swept aside in the debates about Jewish settlements.
The Bedouin lawyer Morad Elsana, who is involved in the land claim on behalf of the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said the problem of the Bedouin was that they were "invisible".
The Israeli Government created a commission headed by Judge Eliezer Goldberg to investigate the issue in late 2007. It recommended last year that most of the villages be recognised and a committee be established to settle land claims.
Groups such as Habitat International have called for reparations, a moratorium on all demolitions and a new framework for settling land claims.
Meanwhile, lawyers and Bedouin officials behind the test claim hope it could one day be used as a pilot for solving the more vexed issue of Palestinian land rights.