Four-day march for Beduin rights led by Knesset’s Joint List approaches Jerusalem

Effort is to raise awareness of 100,000 citizens in unrecognized villages.

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March 29, 2015 01:20
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SUPPORTERS OF Beduin rights approach Abu Ghosh on march to Jerusalem. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

 
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Ayman Odeh, the leader of  the Joint List, is determined to bring awareness to the demands of Beduin living in unrecognized villages in the Negev. For three days he has been walking, covering around 40 kilometers a day, with activists from the Negev.

The march has been done on a shoestring budget with around 10 volunteers and with Arabs from around the country volunteering to bring water, food, and other supplies for those walking in the heat.

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Saturday morning at dawn found the marchers sleeping in a large communal tent that had been provided by Beduin from al-Araqib, a small, unrecognized village that has been demolished dozens of times by Israeli authorities.

The mostly male marchers were visibly tired. Some washed themselves in a gas station bathroom before breaking camp and beginning their walk toward Jerusalem along route 35. The route Saturday would cover almost 40 kilometers from Beit Guvrin to Abu Ghosh, where a festive dinner was waiting.

They walked through rolling hills, through the valley where David defeated Goliath – a struggle that one supporter connected to the modern day situation of Arabs in Israel, except with the roles reversed.

Odeh, the leader of the newly elected Joint List, had promised that he would raise the issue of the unrecognized villages months ago. He decided after his party received 13 mandates in the new Knesset that he would march to Jerusalem before being sworn in and making his first speech to the body.

On Thursday when they set off in the Negev, he had asked the hundreds gathered why 100,000 citizens of Israel are living in unrecognized villages, in poor conditions, without proper schooling, and water. In December 2013, the government canceled the so-called Prawer Plan, which sought to recognize some of the unrecognized villages and combine many of the others into new towns. But the issue remains unresolved.



Odeh was noticeably exhausted setting out from Beit Guvrin. A stocky man wearing a white shirt with the logo #Marching_ 4_recognition, he set out in front. Most of the marchers were younger than Odeh, who was born in 1975 in Haifa.

Fadi Msamra, the head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, consulted with some of the Hadash Party activists about the best route to take. A young man from the Beduin city of Rahat, he has been leading the struggle for recognition and was enthusiastic about a long day ahead.

“Ayman and I have been walking the whole time. It is tiring, but we will do it. Yesterday we covered 45 kilometers from al-Araqib to here.”

The other marchers included a cross-section of Arab society in Israel. Collette, a young woman, had come from Rameh in the North and had slept in Abu Ghosh the night before. She had found out about the march on social media and wanted to support the struggle.

“I saw on Facebook and I want to help them. They have no electricity in the villages,” she said.

Another young man named Ibrahim came from a Beduin village near Arad and wanted to raise awareness for the community.

As the group strung out along the road, police showed up and demanded through loudspeakers that the walkers stay off the road and within the emergency lane.

Msamra spoke of his hopes for the days ahead.

“We want to bring this demand to President Rivlin,” he said.

There was a feeling that now, with a new Knesset and the Joint List being the third largest party, that even though it is not in the coalition it can press its demands more loudly. Although the list’s Dov Henin had joined the march on the first day, the third day found only Odeh and MK Osama Sa’adi from the Islamic Movement, who had won a seat as number 12 on the Joint List.

It was a reflection that this eclectic group of marchers also included secular communists – one bearded man sported a hammer and sickle while another wore a Mao Zedong-style hat with a red star – and devout Muslims, as well as some Christians and Jews.

After 15 kilometers the hundred or so walkers stopped at a bus stop and were joined by new volunteers. Rawia AbuRabia, a Beduin woman lawyer, stopped by with her daughter and husband.

“I think Ayman Odeh’s direction to demonstrate his way of thinking and this march is extremely important, in not just a symbolic but a proactive initiative, and very important after the racism from Bibi,” she said. “We are here to stay. I think having one large party will be able to push this forward, even if the parties have unique characteristics, and it will have an impact.”

There was also anger at the situation among the participants. One man noted that there are 400 small, unrecognized villages in the Negev and all they demand is to recognize 40 of them.

“They want farms and places for sheep and not to live in a town, but with places to work and have their lifestyle,” he said.

“Look at how the people who came to Israel came from ghettos and they want to put us into ghettos,” a woman declared.

“We have the same troubles in the Galilee with lack of services and infrastructure.”

The marchers felt that the Hebrew media were ignoring the march. Indeed, during the day no Israeli media showed up. The walkers were accompanied by only a single man in a black suit from an Arabic radio station, 103.20 FM.

There was incongruity among the hundreds who came. These were not professional hikers – some smoked as they walked.

Some of the older women picked fresh almonds along the way. They pointed out the signs of Arab villages from before 1948 and distributed signs to the group with names of the unrecognized Beduin villages.

The signs and the fact that a small entourage of cars gathered around the group, playing Arabic music and stopping intermittently, caused the police to issue tickets and ask the marchers they must leave the road and find a way through the hills and forest to Abu Ghosh.

The last 12 kilometers up the picturesque Wadi Kessalon were the toughest, but very few people gave up and asked for a ride. By nightfall the marchers made their way into the center of Abu Ghosh, on the cusp of their goal. Cheered by hundreds of village residents, they entered a large tent as a gentle rain began to fall. The call to prayer from the mosque echoed through the town.

MK Ahmad Tibi, another member of the list, had joined them, as had a member of Balad. Tibi spoke proudly of Odeh’s leadership and the struggle “stretching back to the Nakba of 1948,” for Arab rights in Israel’s Knesset. But while Tibi roused the crowd, Odeh was more circumspect.

“We have walked today a long way. We want to raise the issue that we are equal citizens, and these [Beduin] are equal citizens, and we believe in Jews and Arabs working together.” Those who had been marching for three days seemed tired of the speeches.

The man with the Mao Zedong hat who had joked about the “long march” scanned his phone.

On Sunday the march will proceed through Beit Zayit and enter Jerusalem via Givat Shaul, making its way past the Knesset to its conclusion at the President’s Residence.

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