The Imprisonment of Nuri al-‘Oqbi

By Nasser Rego

‘I think the fact that the defendant is an activist for Bedouin ‘diaspora’ rights only makes it harder for his situation. Because he cannot on one hand argue that there are rights violations or non-preservation of rights for a group that he belongs to, while on the other hand he crudely violates the law time after time.’

The crude violation of the law that Judge Zachary Yemini of the Ramle Magistrate Court refers to in last week’s conviction of Nuri al-‘Oqbi, the prominent rights activist for the Palestinian community in the Naqab (Negev) and in Lydd (Lod) and head of The Association for Support and Defense of Bedouin Rights in Israel, was building and operating a garage without a license in his residential space in Lydd. Nuri began operation of this garage in 1964 at a time when Lydd lacked an industrial zone from which he could operate. The judge handed his decision on December 27 2010, ruling that Nuri’s garage was illegal, its operation being a violation of Article 18 of the Business Licensing Law (1968).(1) 68 year old Nuri, who suffers from a heart condition, was sentenced to serve a 7 month prison sentence in Nitzan jail in Ramle. On his way to prison, where he was led immediately following the sentence because he could not raise the necessary NIS 30,000 (US$ 8,500) to stay his sentence by a week, Nuri collapsed and had to be hospitalized.

The purpose of penalising business operations and construction without license can be appreciated. Issuing of licenses is to better guarantee that businesses conform to standards that protect the environment and better ensure public peace, safety and health. However, a more circumspect look at the case would ask who issues licenses and on what grounds?

Generally in Israel, the municipal authority is designated as the licensing authority with approval of other relevant government ministries also required. As the Israeli human rights NGO, Gush Shalom reports, in Nuri’s case, the Lydd municipality’s policy for issuing licenses has varied, with the garage receiving a license in some years and in others not. Nuri is quoted as saying that he had received certification from the Police, Fire Department, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of the Environment that his garage conformed to all regulations. Nuri asserts that others in his situation, who have operated a business in a residential zone, have received a license from the municipality and that the Lydd municipality’s refusal to issue him a license stemmed from his critical stance of the municipality’s policies towards Palestinians in the community, particularly the policy of home demolitions. “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.”(2) The Lydd municipality, that body with the authority to issue Nuri a garage license is also that body which brought forth the case.

However, discriminatory action towards Palestinian citizens in Lydd (3) did not emanate solely from the municipality in Nuri’s case. Judge Zachary’s decision betrays the racism implicit in how the legal system racializes the Palestinian Bedouin community.

Although the court had initially hinted that community service in lieu of six months imprisonment was to be Nuri’s sentence, in the sentencing, Judge Zachary decided different. “I think that giving a lesser sentence will convey something of a negative message to the community and to the Bedouin ‘diaspora’ especially. The negative message is that breaking the law in Israel, and especially violating a court ruling, is worthwhile and a triviality”.
Judge Zachary’s words are telling. He refers, and this is not uncommon to how the authorities and the legal system refer to the Bedouin community, as ‘diaspora’, meaning that they are characterised as the ‘dispersion’, or a community spread out, feeding the myth of being squatters and interlopers on government land, justifying the government’s deliberate denial of water and electricity to 83,000 citizens living in the Naqab’s unrecognised villages. Second, the judge decides to imprison Nuri with the specific purpose of sending a message particularly to the Bedouin community, meaning that he sees the community as especially criminally inclined. Third, as the opening quote states, the judge equates the illegality in the Israeli state’s dispossession, land expropriation, enforcing of military rule, destruction of crops and homes of the Palestinian Bedouin community (as he says Nuri argues) with the illegality of building a garage in a residential zone without license, indicating how ‘grave’ indeed he considers the acts of the state towards the Bedouin population and the seriousness with which he takes civil rights struggles in the Naqab. In the decision, there is also chastisement of Nuri’s work as a civil liberties activist, as if fighting for equality and human rights warrants such sanction.

Nuri’s encounters with the legal system are many. Subsequently, so is his familiarity with prison. This is not the first time in 2010 that Nuri has been imprisoned. He was arrested in February 2010 for an entire week, an incarceration he described as “intolerable…[Where] people are treated like animals.” He was charged with 40 criminal counts of invasion, uprooting trees and violations of an order for being present on his family’s historical lands in al-‘Araqib in the Naqab, which the state refuses to recognise as him having ownership claim to.(4) In the end, the court issued him an ‘exclusion order’, preventing him from being less than 10km from his land in al-‘Araqib without a guarantor. In addition, in another decision of a magistrate court in June 2010 (which he has appealed) he has been ordered to pay the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) roughly NIS 300,000 (US$ 85,000) for expenses the ILA incurred in demolishing his tent and uprooting his land in al-‘Araqib!

As the above developments in the Israeli legal sphere indicate, the courts are, prompted by executive action, actively working towards:

– The silencing of counter-hegemonic voices to official governmental/municipal plans and narratives, such as Nuri’s, given the injustices happening to the Arab Palestinian community in Lydd;

– The issuance of home demolition and evacuation orders to entire villages as happened in Umm al-Hieran, ‘Atir and al-‘Araqib, thereby enabling projects of the clearing of entire villages of Bedouin in the Naqab;(5)

– The construction of culture and ideology where myths about the racialized ‘Bedouin diaspora’ are constructed, affirmed and deployed, such as Bedouin as inclined to criminal activity, as a dispersion (historically and at present) having no fixed abode, as perpetual law breakers and as squatters on government land;

– The penalization of activism, human rights and civil liberties struggles and of human rights defenders, such as Nuri al-‘Oqbi;

– The deligitimisation of the human rights struggles of the Palestinian community by detracting from the state’s discriminatory policies and instead emphasizing the community’s ‘crude’ illegal activity, such as operating businesses and constructing homes without license, and not following court orders that call for their demolition.

Nuri has a lands claim case pending before Justice Dovrat at the Beer Sheva District Court over 5 strips of land in al-‘Araqib and Zahiliqah that he is asserting ownership of. Over the length of the case, it is expected that many pertinent issues dealing with Zionist settlement in the Naqab and the uprooting and dispossession of Bedouin will be addressed – whether the Naqab was indeed terra nullius (‘mawat’/no man’s land) before 1948, whether traditional Bedouin use, occupation and ownership of the land will be recognised by Israeli courts, if oral histories of Bedouin will count or be trumped by the writings of European explorers, and if indeed a gross illegality was committed when the authorities forcibly expelled Nuri’s family and other al-‘Araqib residents in the summer of 1951 while promising them a return in six months that never happened. Nuri’s land claims case would be an appropriate opportunity for the Israeli court to live up to its assertion of being an independent arbiter and not a site of racial rule, where stratifications of political, economic and social privilege along ethnocratic rationales are constructed, maintained and reproduced.

– Nasser Rego is a PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada, studying socio-legal aspects of the Palestinian Naqab community’s encounters with the Israeli legal system. He contributed this article to


1. Municipality of Lod v. Al-‘Oqbi, Ramle Magistrate Court, 40579-08.

2. Gush Shalom, “Selective law enforcement against an activist for Bedouins rights” (December 29 2010).

3. Al-Jazeera, “Israel Demolishes Seven Palestinian Homes” (December 13 2010) (Arabic). Al-Jazeera English, “Israel’s Unwanted Citizens” (December 9 2010).

4. Aviva Lori, “Reclaiming the Desert”, Ha’aretz (August 27 2010).

5. Nasser Rego, “Legalizing injustice in the Negev and implications for ‘democracy’ in Israel”, Redress (August 8 2010).

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