Bedouins Demand a Halt to Ongoing Village Demolitions

by | Sep 5, 2016

Al Araqeeb, Southern Israel — About two dozen Bedouin men gathered near noon on a recent Friday to pray beneath a willow tree at this village in the barren Negev Desert, just north of Beersheba, Israel, and populated by members of the Al-Touri family. The tree now serves as the community’s mosque. At that time, the Israeli government had razed the previous mosque along with homes and other buildings of this community 98 times since 2010.

All that was left that sunny afternoon when the mercury reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit was a cemetery dating to 1914, a few plywood-framed structures covered with tarps and fabrics salvaged from past demolitions, and a couple of cars, now used as homes. In all, about 20 people, including several children and one woman over 100 years old, live on the site.

Villagers of Al Araqeeb, an unrecognized Bedouin village from Israel’s Negev desert, claim that the mosques that stood by their village cemetery were razed to the ground by the government in 2010. Though government representatives deny that Al Araqeeb ever was an official village, residents refuse to move and now gather under the largest surviving tree for Friday prayers. So far, residents have lost most court cases and have counted over 100 demolitions. They fear that bulldozers might appear at anytime over the arid terrain to demolish the remaining smattering of tarp houses, but fear isn’t enough to keep them from praying on the land they claim as theirs. Christina Thornell and Tola Brennan/CUNY J

Since that day, additional demolitions have taken place at Al Araqeeb, bringing the total to, by the villagers’ count, more than 100.

“We are still here,” said Sheihk Sayyah Al-Touri, chief of Al Araqeeb, as two young children played with the rocks and rubble behind him. “They try and push us outside. It’s unbelievable to leave the cemetery and the land. We are still here because we love our land.”

Bedouin men praying under a willow tree at Al Araqeeb in the Negev Desert just outside of Beer Sheba. Donna M. Airoldi/CUNY J

Even though Sheihk Al-Touri said more than 600 people lived on the site at one time – and that the excuse that the Bedouin are still nomadic “is a lie” – the Israeli government says there is no village and there are no documents proving the family owns the land. And the courts have ruled in the government’s favor numerous times.

“They were never a village, only a cemetery, so every time they built houses there it was illegal,” said Yair Mayaan, head of the government agency in charge of the Bedouin in the Negev. Mayaan claims the government has aerial images from 50 and 80 years ago that show a village did not exist on the site that the Al-Touri family claims.

The earliest headstones at the cemetery at the unrecognized village of Al Araqeeb date to 1914. Donna M. Airoldi/CUNY J

Bedouin Villages and Designated Cities

The Israeli government recognizes just 11 Bedouin villages in the Negev, which the Arabs call the Naqab; Al Araqeeb is one of 35 unrecognized villages in the region. Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, much of the Negev fell under the newly formed state of Israel. Most of the Bedouin, who are Arab, moved to neighboring countries in order to remain under Arab rule.

Those who stayed were offered Israeli citizenship, however their land was unrecognized, meaning they would not receive basic services, such as water and electricity. Still, they identified as being Israeli more than other Arab minorities, and though exempt from serving in the Israel Defense Forces, some eligible Bedouin volunteered. About 1,600 currently serve, with many in elite tracking units. Participation rates have dropped since 2000, however, after the Second Intifada and as Israel has stepped up its clearing of the unrecognized villages.

Since 1968, the government founded seven cities built specifically to house Bedouins in order to provide those services unavailable in their villages, which in addition to water and electricity include sewage systems, paved roads, schools and health centers. A little more than half of the estimated 210,000 Bedouin population now live in these urban areas, which include Rahat, one of the early ones founded in 1971, and Hura, the last of the cities, established in 1989.

Bedouin woman who is more than 100 years old at Al Araqeeb in the Negev Desert just outside of Beersheba. Donna M. Airoldi/CUNY J

But some Bedouin argue that the authorities do not take into consideration their way of living, which includes herding animals and agriculture, and that moving into the cities can break apart extended families. These cities also tend to be in poor shape, with higher crime rates and unemployment than the Israeli average.

Mayaan countered that the reason these cities may not be thriving is because of the low tax base of its citizens. Not only are they “pretty poor,” but the collected tax rate is only at about 20 percent compared to 85 to 90 percent of the average city in Israel, he said, noting that the mayors are related to half the residents of the cities and are reluctant to collect the tax monies.


Um Elheran

Um Elheran, located southeast from Al Araqeeb down a long, unpaved road, is another unrecognized village in the region that is under threat of demolition, but has yet to be bulldozed. The settlement — established in 1956 after being moved by the Israeli military from another part of the Negev — is larger than Al Araqeeb, with roughly 1,000 residents. It is surrounded by land for grazing and has a recognizable mosque. Some homes are built with bricks; others are little more than shacks.

The village lost a battle that lasted more than a dozen years in May 2015 when the Israeli court ruled that the government had the right to raze the community and relocate its residents in order to clear the land for a new Jewish town, to be named Hiran, according to a court document. Um Elheran appealed, but lost in January 2016.

Adjacent to the village, the government is clearing land for the new Israeli settlement, said Abdul Rahman Isa Al Gawaid, as he returned from nearby fields with his sheep and goats for the evening. Women from the village began to milk them while half a dozen children played in and around the animal pens. One young girl had a visible eye infection.

UM ELHERAN, ISRAEL, JUNE 4, 2016. Bedouin girl who lives in the unrecognized village of Um Elheran. The Israeli government is trying to get the village residents to move to new settlements that have running water and medical services. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi

“We are under pressure from all sides,” he said. “We are besieged by the lack of water, and we are besieged by the equipment and with the bulldozers and the ongoing works,” describing the dust caused by the land clearing taking place less than half a mile from the village. “One cannot open the window or look west because of the dust. There are elderly inhabitants who suffer from respiratory problems. But they [the government] don’t care about that.”

Mayaan said the village sits illegally on government property, but that it’s close to Rahat, so that would be a natural place for its residents to live, adding that relatives of the family also already live in nearby Hura. He then described a new neighborhood being developed close to their current location where the government will give out 1,500 plots of land that are being designed less like a city and more to accommodate agriculture.

“Half the property will be for a house and half for agriculture,” he said. “And around the village will be enough land that they can still work it for agriculture.” These plots will be available for free, he said, even though they will cost the government about $100,000. “They just have to agree to move to the new land.”

The justification for relocating people from Um Elheran and other such designated unrecognized villages is money. The government says it can more readily provide needed services for the people when they are in a centralized location, but it’s too expensive to do so with scattered groups.

Al Gawaid argued that the government does not want to deal with the clan as a whole, that it prefers to deal with individuals on a case-by-case basis. “Two or three weeks ago, government representatives came and distributed leaflets on the street and at the children’s playground saying that those who want to negotiate that there is an office,” he said.

This can cause friction between family members and weaken the group’s fight.

Children playing on a metal bin at the Bedouin village of Um Elheran in the Negev area of Israel. Donna M. Airoldi/CUNY J

“And then there are the children,” he added. “They don’t know what to do. They go to school and they look behind. They expect to come back from school one day and find their homes either destroyed or displaced.”

The latter could become reality sooner rather than later. Bulldozers plowed a trench recently around the village and the homes it plans to destroy, according to The Electronic Intifada. Um Elheran citizens, including children, staged a protest to try to block the machinery. Six residents were arrested.


Future Plans

Israel’s goal is to get the rest of the members from the unrecognized villages to relocate to the Bedouin cities or new developments.

“Our mission is to make the Bedouin in the Negev equal to the average people in Israel,” Mayaan said. “My duty is to develop 20,000 lands for 20,000 illegal houses … and make the next government for all Bedouin cities stronger, with more education, more employed people, better employment, better income. We will work together, me and the mayors. We ask what they need and give them a government budget.”

The Israeli government has a lot of work to do to attain those goals. According to an Inter Agency Task Force report on Bedouin in the Negev, updated in 2014, these settlements are traditionally characterized by high poverty rates (71.5 percent) compared to the Jewish (16.2 percent) and other Arab (54.4 percent) sectors. School dropout rates also are high, reaching 6.8 percent in Rahat in 2010, compared to 3.6 percent and 1.7 percent in the general Arab and Jewish systems, respectively.

Not surprisingly, Um Elheran’s Al Gawaid is skeptical about leaving his land to move to these settlements.

“We are not thinking of the [new] projects,” he said. “The Israeli government is saying that there is a place for you, [but] these things do not exist. We sense this pressure that the government will come and displace us to an unknown location. We don’t know what is going to happen. God willing we will stay in this village with the help of the humanitarian organizations and international organizations, if they stand with our right. We have the right, and we are not wrong!”

Top Photo: AL ARAQEEB, ISRAEL, JUNE 3, 2016. One of the makeshift shelters at the Bedouin village of Al Araqeeb. Israel does not recognize the village and has demolished it more than 100 times. It is located in the Negev Desert just outside of Beersheba. Photo by Donna M. Airoldi