By Muna Haddad

“That is absurd,” the lawyer for the Israeli government blurted out as she rose to her feet. We were arguing before the judge in the Beersheva (Bir al-Saba’) District Court in a case on the educational needs of the children of al-Sira, a Palestinian Bedouin village in the Naqab. The state attorney ranted: “It is unacceptable to use the term ‘village’ here. It is misleading. The state isn’t obligated to provide educational services to a bunch of people who decide willy-nilly to settle down wherever they want. The petitioners are trying to mislead the court into thinking that we are talking about a village when really this is just an unlawful cluster [mikbatz bilti-hoki].”

Al-Sira is one of the dozens of villages in the southern part of Israel that are denied any legal status. The government refers to these communities in a degrading manner and refuses to recognize their existence and the people’s right to their own land. The term “unlawful cluster” is just one small example of how the state of Israel misuses language to distort history and deny rights to Palestinians, even those who are citizens of the state. Moreover, the authorities use a range of discriminatory policies to compel people of the unrecognized villages to abandon their land and villages by violating their most fundamental human rights, including their right to land and adequate housing, water, electricity, health care and education.

In 2014, however, Adalah successfully convinced the Beersheva District Court to uphold the cancellation of 51 demolition orders that would have wiped out the village. In its ruling, the District Court acknowledged that the village of al-Sira “was built before the establishment of the state, and has existed since without any problems … [and] there would need to be a strong and genuine public interest to justify uprooting 350 people from their homes and displacing them.” While al-Sira remained unrecognized in the eyes of the state, the District Court’s decision accorded some kind of legitimacy to its existence.

With the village no longer living under constant threat of demolition, Adalah turned to seeking to secure the rights of the people living there, starting with the right to education. Israel introduced compulsory pre-school education for ages 3 to 5 in the recent 2015-2016 academic year. Yet unsurprisingly, the state refuses to make this service available in the unrecognized Naqab villages.

This past May, Adalah submitted a petition in the Beersheva District Court on behalf of Al-Sira’s families, demanding that the Ministry of Education and al-Qasoum Regional Council provide access to pre-school education – either by allocating a dedicated space or by providing transportation to schools in neighboring communities. It was during a court session on this case that the outraged government lawyer insisted on using the term “unlawful cluster” to refer to a village whose existence predates the state of Israel.

As it turns out, this was not a one-off usage. In its written pleadings, the Ministry of Education, as represented by the state’s attorney, repeatedly refers to al-Sira as an “unlawful cluster.” The state’s brief includes a section giving a general overview on Naqab Bedouins, again distorting historical facts that even Israeli courts have already accepted. The pleadings describe how “over 50,000 Bedouins from different places decided to build their homes outside state-planned townships and without any government planning,” all while ignoring the fact that villages like al-Sira existed before the state of Israel. The state speaks of the Bedouin as greedy in their demands for basic services such as roads, clean water, electricity, and health care. For the state, the problem is that the Bedouin “choose to settle at any site as they see fit.” Terms like “unlawful cluster” erase the history of long-established communities and are used to deny them any rights in the eyes of Israeli law.

At this moment, the state has indicated that it is planning to provide some educational services to al-Sira out of goodwill – but resolutely rejects any legal obligation to do so. Undoubtedly they are seeking to forestall any legal decision that could obligate them to extend educational rights to all Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab. We will see how the situation actually develops, but the denialist mentality in Israel’s legal vocabulary, as represented in terms like “unlawful cluster,” will no doubt stay with us.