In this week's session of the Bedouin Land Case, held before Justice Sarah Dovrat of the Be'er Sheba District Court, Att. Michael Sfard cross-examined the state's expert witness, Prof. Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Sfard represents Nuri el-Okbi, Bedouin rights activist, who demands restoration of lands at al-Arakib, northwest of Beersheba, where he was born and from where he and his tribe were expelled in 1951. Professor Kark, who specializes in historical geography, has already provided a large number of expert opinions in earlier legal cases, invariably supporting the state's denial of Bedouin land ownership claims in various parts of the Negev. Hitherto, however, she was not subjected to a thorough cross-examination.
As confirmed by Sfard's questions, the principled position of Professor Kark is that in the 19th century there did not exist any permanent settlement or agricultural cultivation in the Negev (except for its coastal region, which corresponds to the present Gaza Strip) and that its Bedouin population were nomads with no fixed abode. Therefore, Negev lands are to be considered "Mawaat" (literally, "Dead Lands") under the Ottoman Land Law of 1858 – i.e. uncultivated, ownerless lands deemed to be the property of the Sultan, which at present makes them belong to the Government of Israel.
Sfard's questions revealed the fact that Professor Kark did not see any need, before formulating an expert opinion on ownership of the al-Arakib land, to conduct a survey of the land in question and examine remains which may have bearings on its situation in the Ottoman period. She also did not see any need to meet the Bedouin residents themselves or hear their own version of the matter, based on the extensive oral tradition which is the primary way of transmitting historical data in the Bedouin society.
Instead, Professor Kark chose to rely mainly on accounts written by European and American travelers who visited the Negev during the 19th century. In his cross-examination, Sfard faced the witness with the opinion of many scholars and researchers, in Israel and abroad, who question the reliability of these travelers. This, since many of them came to Palestine out of mainly Christian religious motives and were more interested in Biblical antiquities than in the contemporary residents of the Negev; because the writings of many of them display a strong prejudice against Bedouins; and because their perceptions of what constitutes "a village" and what "agriculture" is were derived from European concepts, and did not apply to the Bedouin way of life in which people go through a regular cycle of moving back and forth between a winter habitation and a summer habitation.
Att. Sfard also noted the fact that many of the Western travelers on whom Prof. Kark based her expert opinion had never visited the al-Arakib area, making their accounts completely irrelevant to the case. Sfard noted, moreover, that Prof. Kark ignored the testimony of a Western traveler who did visit al-Arakib, and already in 1807 found there an encampment comprising no less than seventy tents of al-Okbi tribespeople. To this Prof. Kark responded "It was a tent encampment, not a village. They were nomads, they might have gone away from there on the next day."
Prof. Kark's cross-examination will resume before Judge Sarah Dovrat on 10:00 am, Thursday, May 13th, at the Be'er Sheba District Court.
Contact: Nuri el-Okbi 0545-465556, Chaya Noah 052-4269011 Adam Keller 054-2340749