Monday, November 30, 2020

Displacing Bedouin villagers to build a Jewish town

By Marta Feirra - March 16, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Negev Desert]

Photos by Marta Feirra.

In a document presented by Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure outlining the plan to build the Jewish town of Hiran in the Negev desert, in southern Israel, three problems were listed: the environmental damage to the desert; the slowing down of planning to examine the development of the region; and lastly, the fact that “there are Bedouins on the land.”

The Bedouin community of Atir-Umm al-Hiran, located about 20 kilometres east of Be’er Sheva, has been living in the area since 1956. The residents were handed house demolition orders to facilitate the construction of the Jewish town of Hiran in its place, and to expand the neighbouring Yatir forest.

The construction of the Jewish town of Hiran was initially approved by Israel’s National Council in 2002, and followed by a demand for the expulsion of the Bedouin residents and house demolition orders.

A long legal battle for the rights of the residents started, but after 13 years of litigation the court ruled the land belongs to the state, and the Bedouins living there for decades have no legal rights to it.  The decision allows the government to carry out the plan to establish the Jewish town of Hiran over the ruins of the Bedouin community.

“You cannot take a person from a place and bring another person,” says Ahmad Abu Qian, a resident of Umm al-Hiran facing house demolition and eviction orders. “I can’t accept this. There is so much space in the desert.”

The Bedouins, who are Israeli citizens, comprise around 30 percent of the Negev’s population, but their villages take less than 3 percent of the land.

The case of Atir-Umm al-Hiran came to public attention after petitions against the displacement of the Bedouin residents were delivered to Israel’s Supreme Court. The petitioners claimed they did not squat the land, but were transferred to the area in 1956 by direct order of the military administration of that time. The court recognized the fact that the community was residing in the village with the permission of the state.

However, in the beginning of March, the Supreme Court rejected the residents’ petition against the demolition of the village, arguing that the land belongs to the state and that the Bedouin community has no legal right over it.

The village of Umm al-Hiran is one of the 40 Bedouin villages unrecognized by Israeli authorities, and thus considered “illegal” despite being created by direct order of military authorities.

Ahmad Abu Qian sits in front of the village’s mosque and tells visitors the story of his clan. The Abu al-Qian Bedouin tribe arrived in the Negev in the 19th century, and settled in an area now used by Kibbutz Shoval.

“In 1948, the government told us to move from where we were. We were moved again by the army in 1956,” Ahmad tells the Palestine Monitor. The villagers were expelled from their tribal land by Israeli authorities and transferred to the area of Atir by the military administration.

“When we came we found only desert, there was no water,” remembers Ahmad. “We were told to bring water from Nevatim. We used to go there with camels and sheep, six men would go to get water in the morning and they would come back in the evening.”

Today, the village is still not provided with basic services and infrastructures by the government, as the inhabitants’ appeal to be connected to central water pipes have been rejected. Solar panels provide the residents with electricity, and water is carried in tanks from the nearest recognized Bedouin town of Hura.

“If [Israel was] a democracy, [it] wouldn’t do this to its citizens,” says Ahmad. He points to a nearby farm owned by a Jewish family, who unlike the five hundred Bedouin residents in the village, he says, is provided with basic services as electricity, water and health care.

A large Hebrew sign now stands at the entrance of the village. It announces the construction of the town of Hiran, overshadowing the small sign pointing to Umm al-Hiran. Bulldozers stand near the village’s valleys with the imminent threat of displacement.


Wolfgang Gehrcke, a German politician visiting the village to show his support for the Bedouin community, looks at the valleys’ olive trees. “When I see these olive trees I think they take a long time to grow and to give olives. I hope the Bedouins can eat these olives and enjoy the fruits of their work.”

Demolitions, however, already started with several acres of crops being destroyed around the village, and starting preparatory dirt works. “Last Sunday they destroyed two hundred dunams of barley fields,” says Ahmad. “If they demolish our houses we have no money to build new ones,” he adds.

Forced urbanization

For the residents of Umm al-Hiran, the only option offered by the government is moving to the nearby Bedouin town of Hura, where they are promised plots of land. Hura’s Local Council, however, warned about the difficulties of absorbing the community in the town where hundreds are still waiting to acquire building plots.

“We know the only option is [to move to] Hura and we don’t want to discuss this option,” says Ahmad. He tells the Palestine Monitor the community suggested being integrated in Hiran, but the proposal was refused, since the communities “have different ways of living,” explains Ahmad. “We even said we could stay here separately, but they didn’t accept it.”

Kessem  Adiv, a spokesperson for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), a local organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the problems of the Bedouin community, says village residents are forcibly being transferred to townships and “taken out of their original way of living without being offered any other solutions.”

“Many Bedouins want to live in agricultural communities,” she says. “Every Jewish person has that possibility, but for Bedouins the townships are the only solution.”

The Israeli government says the proposal to settle Bedouins in townships will bring the benefits of permanent housing and public services, but most Bedouins refuse to move to overcrowded and impoverished towns, and to give up their lands and pastoral way of life.

“Townships for Bedouin are like ghettos”, adds Rafat Abu Aish, who works as the Coexistence Forum’s Freedom of Speech Coordinator.

As a member of the Bedouin community, Rafat believes Bedouin have to “work five times harder than any Jewish person” to reach the same position. He says unequal access to education, jobs and governmental services is persistent, as well as violations of the rights to freedom of speech and demonstration.

Organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the Association for Civil Right in Israel have widely documented “discriminatory practises” towards Bedouin in the Negev, considering it “one of the most discriminated groups” within Israeli society.

“For me as a Jew, it is impossible to understand this,” says Amos Gvirtz, an Israeli activist and journalist who frequently visits the Negev in solidarity with the Bedouin cause. Amos is the author of a weekly mail called 'Don’t Say We Did Not Know’. His goal is to ensure this excuse is not used by Israelis when confronted with their government’s actions.

“We learn from Jewish history we used to be a persecuted minority”, he says, “but to see our government acting this way now is out of understanding.”



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