Nuri el-Okbi is fighting for the rights to his ancestral land in Israel, in a case compared to Australia's Eddie Mabo.
Sunday, March 27, 2011 - 20:30

Is Nuri el-Okbi a Bedouin version of Australia's indigenous land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo?

Professor John Sheehan, an Australian authority on native title compensation, certainly thinks he could be. He's currently helping Nuri in his struggle to reclaim land taken from his family by the Israeli authorities 60 years ago.

Despite living in the Negev Desert for hundreds of years, long before modern-day Israel was even formed, Bedouin who want to live on their ancestral land are being accused by Israel of 'trespassing'.

Video journalist Amos Roberts travels with Nuri to the edge of the disputed land where he was born and which he's not even allowed to set foot on. Nearby, Amos witnesses a village being bulldozed by Israeli authorities, then rebuilt by defiant locals - for the seventh time.

The Israeli government says the Bedouin do not qualify as indigenous people, and it's just enforcing laws it inherited from the British and the Ottomans.

But Israeli geographer Professor Oren Yiftachel, who learned about the Aboriginal land rights struggle when he lived in Perth, accuses the government of declaring 'terra nullius in reverse'.

All previous Bedouin land claims have failed, but Nuri and his legal team hope that this will be their 'Mabo moment'.

WATCH - Click to see his story.

EXTRA - Follow the links on the right-hand side of the page for more from both sides of this story.




Conflicts over land in Israel and surrounds are almost as old as the land itself. But a current dispute in the Israeli courts by a Bedouin claiming ancestral land rights has a uniquely local touch to it. An Australian native-title expert is one of his key advisors, Amos Roberts reports.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

Israel's Negev desert is the least-crowded part of a notoriously crowded country - yet even here, people compete for territory. These Bedouin demand the right to live on their ancestral land, the government calls them "invaders," and wants to bulldoze them into submission.

SHLOMO TZESAR, LAND ADMINISTRATION (Translation): I have to enforce the law and if the same thing happened in Australia, the same thing would have occurred.

PROFESSOR JOHN SHEEHAN, NATIVE TITLE EXPERT: There are quite remarkable similarities between Australia and Israel.

Now, a legal challenge - partly inspired by Australia - could change everything.

MICHAEL SFARD, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER: We think there is no better example of correct application of the Mabo principle as here in the Negev.

And this veteran activist is being hailed as a Bedouin Eddie Mabo.

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Today I face Israel as an ordinary citizen, who does not own anything.

This patch of desert outside Beersheba is more fiercely contested than anywhere else in the Negev. The Bedouin call it al-Arakib. Nuri el-Okbi was born on this land but in 1951, when he was only nine years old, the military authorities expelled all the Bedouin from here. They've never been allowed to return.

PROFESSOR JOHN SHEEHAN: Neury, I wanted you to tell me, if you could, where the boundaries of your land is.

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): It goes down to the wadi and up to that wattle tree.

For 30 years, Nuri has struggled to reclaim his family's land.

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Not only me but my father, my grandfather, my father's grandfather cultivated this land.

Now he's enlisted expert help for a court case. Professor Oren Yiftachel teaches geography at Ben Gurion University, and Professor John Sheehan is an expert on native title from Sydney.

PROFESSOR JOHN SHEEHAN: So to be clear, then, there was a system of land law that the Bedouin operated under?

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Every citizen here knows his land and its boundaries.

In 2006, after years of pleading with the authorities, Nuri decided to take action.

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL, BEN GURION UNIVERSITY: See, this is the place, for four years, Nuri lived here.

He pitched a tent next to his father's land, and began a 4-year occupation.

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Look how many wires;how many wires they've cut - more than 40 times they took my tent.

Every time, police arrested him and pulled down his tent, Nuri returned.

SHLOMO TZESAR (Translation): Nuri el-Okbi is a law breaker, Nuri el-Okbi is quilty of criminal offences and that is how I regard him.

Shlomo Tzesar works for the Israel land administration, which manages public land. When I first met him, he was supervising the removal of trees planted by the Bedouin.

REPORTER: Do you accept that Nuri and his family were living at al-Arakib at that time?

SHLOMO TZESAR (Translation): That is what he says - that is what Nuri el-Okbi says. I wasn't there so I don't know.

After many arrests, a court order prevents Nuri from returning here unless he's escorted by one of his brothers.

REPORTER: How does it feel, Nuri, to be a prisoner on your own land?

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Very sad, whenever I come here I can picturemy father, my mother, my brothers, my children here.

Even with his brother here, Nuri's not allowed to set foot on the land he's claiming,, where the ruins of his father's house still stand.

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL: This is where archaeology would be helpful - the structure of the stones, the Indigenous nature...

The family home used to be surrounded by fruit trees. It was destroyed in 1951, when the tribe was moved off the land.

NURI'S BROTHER (Translation): In the name of God, the Most Merciful;. This was the house of the late Sheikh Sliman al-Okbi, 1914 - 1993.

While Nuri can only gaze at the ruins of his family home from a distance... bulldozers erase the Bedouin presence from another part of al-Arakib. They're destroying a home and uprooting hundreds of olive trees. The Israel Land Administration has a court order saying the farmers are here illegally.

REPORTER: He said we had a couple of minutes!

POLICE (Translation): That's it - come with us please. To wherever you were, okay? Thanks. You can't move freely around here!

The police supervising the operation don't want me here. Then, a young Bedouin man arrives. It's his family who farms this land.

MAN (Translation): My father is over there, he is 80 and I want to go there! My father is there! I'll walk if you won't let me go by car. Why is it forbidden?

POLICE (Translation): You can't go in there.

MAN (Translation): Put a sign here and I'll go around - you're not human beings.

Born on this land six years before Israel was created, Mohammed el-Turi can only watch as years of labour are swept away by the bulldozers.

MOHAMMED EL-TURI (Translation): It's all nonsense, they want land without people - that's what it is. See that tractor, it's uprooting the grapevine - see the vine?

The most serious confrontation between the government and the Bedouin takes place here, at the village of al-Arakib. Just a few hours ago, this village was demolished for the seventh time and for the seventh time, the villagers are starting to rebuild. Al-Arakib is at the centre of a vicious circle. Since July last year, every time the state has destroyed their homes, Bedouin have built new ones from the ruins. It's something that frustrates the Israel Land Administration's Shlomo Tzesar.

SHLOMO TZESAR (Translation): Every year they invade, we remove them - they invade, we remove them. We are not going to let this land be invaded, not by Nuri, not by el-Turi and not by Ya'akov or Moshe.

REPORTER: Isn't it strange to describe someone as "invading" land that they grew up on? That was taken from them?

SHLOMO TZESAR (Translation): If the Israeli courts determine that they are invading and don't have any rights in the area - for me, that's it, period.

Shlomo Tzesar's office at the Israel Land Administration looks out over the Beersheba District Court. It's become a graveyard for Bedouin land cases.

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL: In the Negev itself, the state has won 190 out of 190 cases. This is 100% record, which shows that the legal system - surely something is distorted here.

The Israeli Government says it's just upholding laws that applied when the Negev was ruled by the British - and before that, the Ottoman empire.

REPORTER: So the Bedouin are essentially trespassing - they are invaders on their own land under Israeli law?

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL: Absolutely. And even worse, they are trespassers on land that they've been trespassing for generations without knowing that their trespassers, according to Israeli law. Since 1858, you have been trespassing. You didn't know about it. The Ottomans didn't tell you. The British didn't tell you but now we're telling you. You're trespassers and you have to move out."

REPORTER: Nuri, your familys a actually been trespassing here for 150 years.

NURI EL-OKBI (Translation): Why 150? Maybe 700 years, no the Ottomans did not take any of our land.

All these documents are not enough for Israel;.to acknowledge our land. It's written in three languages - English, Arabic and Hebrew. A photograph of our village from the 2nd of October '49 - you can see the crop storage bins - here they are and this is residential - people lived here. More than 1000 people lived in this village - they destroyed it.

For a so-called trespasser, Nuri el-Okbi has a lot of documents to back up his claim. There are records of land sales and tax payments here - evidence that the authorities recognise the family's presence at al-Arakib until 1951. Nuri's now back in court and defending him is Michael Sfard, one of Israel's top human-rights lawyers. He's hoping to be the first lawyer to win a Bedouin land-rights case.

MICHAEL SFARD: When I came to the issue of Bedouin land in the Negev, I was mesmerised.

Sfard says Israel relies on a 19th-century Ottoman law declaring uncultivated land to be "mewat," or dead. It sounds a lot like Australia's terra nullius, or "empty land" doctrine, used for so many years to deny Aboriginal land rights.

MICHAEL SFARD: This is exactly what the state of Israel is now arguing about the Negev. Physically it was empty, there was no cultivation, there was no inhabitation and legally it was empty - no rights, no titles. So the similarities are quite astonishing.

PROFESSOR JOHN SHEEHAN: And of course, the reason why we could occupy, or the British could occupy, the continent of Australia, was because of this Latin phrase "terra nullius" - a "a vacant land - No-one's land - No-one's place."

Driving the similarities home is Professor John Sheehan, an authority on native title compensation in Australia.

REPORTER: Do you seriously think that Nuri's case could end up being the Bedouin equivalent of Mabo?

PROFESSOR JOHN SHEEHAN: I think there's a distinct possibility it could be, if it's presented in that manner that I proposed, I think there is a distinct possibility that it could be a benchmark case.

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL: And Israel actually stripped off the autonomy that Bedouins had are for generations and generations;.

Professor Oren Yiftachel, the key expert in Nuri's defence team, says governments in Israel have done something the Australians never did.

PROFESSOR OREN YIFTACHEL: They created terra nullius in reverse. They created terra nullius - empty land, the concept that the land was empty - but neither the Ottomans or British ever claimed the land was empty.

But Shlomo Tzesar from the Israel Land Administration believes the Bedouin are on the losing side of history, according to his bizarre logic, even Australian history.

SHLOMO TZESAR (Translation): In World War One, Australian and New Zealand soldiers served in the British army, the ANZACS. As the soldiers were digging their tunnels, they unearthed a magnificent mosaic floor from a church, so I think that the Australian soldiers have more rights than the Bedouin here in the state of Israel.

After yet another demolition at al-Arakib, protesters line the main road. The police arrive to keep an eye on things. The village leader, Sayach al-Turi, is defiant.

SAYACH AL-TURI (Translation): They can pull them down a 100 times and we will rebuild. They have done it 7 times and there are still 93 times left.

MICHAEL SFARD: We are spiting into the well that we are drinking from. Zionist movement is all about people getting the right to live in their homeland. And here, we ourselves deny Indigenous people the acknowledgement that they are Indigenous people. We may be Indigenous people of Israel and the Bedouins, Indigenous people of Israel, from two different eras. Make no mistake - the two truths can live together.

MARK DAVIS: Amos Roberts filming and reporting. There are links to more information on that story on our website, where you can also leave your views on that subject.












Original Music composed by


Additional footage provided by Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, Tommy and Fionan Sands

27th March 2011