Supreme Court: Arab Bedouin in the Negev have the right to access to water

The Israeli Supreme Court delivered past week a decision on an appeal filed by Adalah five years ago, in 2006, on behalf Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel living in six different unrecognized villages in the Naqab (Negev) representing 128 families. Adalah asked the Supreme Court to overturn a 2006 ruling by the Haifa District Court sitting as a Water Tribunal, which rejected their applications to be connected to the main water distribution network.

The judgment was issued by Justices Ayala Procaccia (recently retired), Edna Arbel, and Yosef Alon. The justices accepted the appeal in part – from residents living in Gatamat, Umm al-Hiran, and Tel Arad – and rejected it in part – from residents living in Tel al-Maleh, al-Atrash, and Tla’ Rashid. The court ruled that two of the appellants had reasonable access to water, while in the case of the third, the court directed that he be given access to the main network. Regarding the three others, the court ordered the water committee to review their cases, as the facts concerning their access were not clear.

Justice Procaccia ruled that the right to water is a constitutional right for all citizens of the state because it stems directly from the constitutional right to life and the right to dignity and equality, and that it is the duty of the state to secure this basic right. However, she emphasized that the case posed a dilemma: while the persons living in the unrecognized villages, citizens of the state have equal rights like other citizens, they live illegally on “state land”. As stated in her ruling, it is incumbent on the State to resolve this “dilemma” and with its budget by providing “minimum access to water” needed by the residents of the unrecognized villages. She did not specify what constituted the “minimum”.

Justice Procaccia added that the solution to this “dilemma” is the movement of the residents of these villages to other locations, which have been built according to the planning and building laws, and are therefore connected to a water network, electricity and other essential services. In these towns, they will be provided with equal rights like other citizens of the state, she stressed. Justice Edna Arbel added that the State needed to regulate the issue of housing for the Arab Bedouin in the Negev.

Most Arab Bedouin inhabitants of the unrecognized villages are forced to obtain their drinking water by buying it from a central location and transporting it at their own expense in unhygienic metal containers or from water access points located several kilometers from their villages via improvised plastic hose connections.

Former Adalah Attorney Adel Badeer who filed the appeal to the Supreme Court argued that aim of the Water Tribunal’s decision is to support the government’s policy of seeking to relocate Arab Bedouin from their land to government-planned towns, by refusing to provide them with basic services such as access to clean drinking water.

Attorney Sawsan Zaher, the director of Adalah’s Social and Economic Rights Unit, commented that, “despite the importance of the Supreme Court decision, especially in light of previous judgments that totally negated the rights of these residents, the court unfortunately did not decide that the Arab Bedouin’s right to water is equal to that of other citizens of Israel. Instead, the court ruled that the inhabitants of the unrecognized villages, around 90,000 people, have the right to “a minimal access to water sources,” but without specifying what is “minimal”. The Supreme Court’s judgment gave undue weight to the fact that these villages are “unrecognized”, despite that the Arab Bedouin have been living there for generations, and in some locations, even before 1948. The Supreme Court tacitly approved the policy of successive governments, which punished the Arab Bedouin, and failed to regulate housing for these citizens of Israel.”

The Supreme Court’s Decision (Hebrew)

For more information on the case, see HERE