(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Late last week, Raid Abu Elkian led a group of 35 Israelis and visitors from abroad to the edge of a road skirting the southern part of the unrecognized Beduin village of Umm el-Khiram, where, on June 25, police demolished nine permanent homes and 20 other buildings.
Below the road, the ruins of the demolished buildings were evident alongside gleaming white tin structures which the villagers had defiantly erected to replace them.
Minutes earlier, in an impassioned talk to the group, Abu Elkian had declared, "When [the government] comes with such a large [police force], it shows me it is weak. It does not believe in anything. But I have faith. I will rebuild my home. I am stronger than the government."
At the same time, he warned that the Beduin, whose villages the government has refused to recognize for the past 40 years, would not put up with alleged mistreatment forever.
"The Arab Beduin minority is the strongest people in the world because no one else suffers like it," said Abu Elkian. "But I believe that someday the situation will explode, worse than it did during the [Palestinian] intifada. Everything has a limit."
Abu Elkian's speech was one of the most poignant moments during a tour of his village and the area around the Yatir forest where Umm el-Khiram is situated. The tour, part of a program named "Negev Unplugged," was organized by Bustan, a non-government organization devoted to the humane and ecologically-sound development of the Negev, including coexistence between Jews and Beduin based on principles of fairness and mutual consideration. Dvorah Brous, an American immigrant, founded the organization and has been its director for the past nine years. The study tours have already brought 3,000 curious visitors to the Negev since 2003, she said.
On Monday, residents of Umm el-Khiram, together with thousands of others whose homes have been bulldozed into rubble over the past six months, are due to launch a tent camp protest in Jerusalem's Wohl Rose Garden, opposite the Knesset. Sudanese refugees have set up a tent camp in the same park to protest the state's refusal to grant them refugee status and prevent their return to Egypt.
Brous told The Jerusalem Post that the Beduin protest, organized by the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, would be a protest of the "internal refugees." Brous added that the protest would not only look backwards towards those whose homes have already been destroyed, but to a future where many more stand to lose them, including 70 families who have been told they must leave their homes to make way for the infrastructure of the civilian section of an airport near Arad. Green Patrol and Israel Lands Authority officials distributed the evacuation orders in the village of A-Sir last week, said Brous.
While preparations for the protest camp were underway, the government announced on Sunday the establishment of an authority to resolve the question of Beduin settlement in the Negev. According to a cabinet decision, the authority will be part of the Ministry of Housing.
Among the tasks it will fulfill, the resolution said, are resolving the Beduin land claims in the Negev, providing permanent housing including infrastructure and public services, offering assistance in finding jobs and coordinating welfare, community and educational services.
The authority will be headed by a director-general. The housing minister will appoint a public committee headed by a retired judge and including representatives of all the relevant government ministries, as well as public representatives - including Beduin who do not have land claims of their own - to prepare a law to provide for the settlement of the Beduin, compensation for expropriated land, land exchanges and other elements involved in resolving the problem.
The decision, however, did not include a freeze on housing demolitions, which, according to Erez Tzfadia, a lecturer at Sapir College and an official for Bimkom - Planners for Human Rights, has apparently increased in tempo since 2002. That was the year the government began to implement a plan to recognize some of the hitherto unrecognized villages and appoint a special regional council, known as the Abu Basma Regional Council, to administer them.
According to Tzfadia, the unrecognized villages were established during the period of the military government, when Beduin living in the western Negev were forced to move to the eastern region. All of the Beduin - some 11,000 in the mid-1950s - were herded into a special area, called the Siyaj. Many of them established villages and continued to live their own lifestyle, though they were restricted to an area comprising 2.5 percent of the Negev.
Starting in 1968, the government began to build towns in an effort to force the Beduin off the land and into an urban lifestyle. They were given plots of 500-800 sq.m. per core family in seven towns, including Rahat, which is now a city of 50,000. Today, there are about 160,000 Beduin in the Negev, of whom about half live in Rahat and the six towns.
Umm el-Khiram is not one of the unrecognized villages slated for recognition. The government intends to transfer its inhabitants, including Abu Elkian, to the legal town of Khura, situated nearby. But they refuse to go.
"What does it mean to be an unrecognized village?" he rhetorically asked the group. "You won't find one on the map of Israel, on an outline or development plan. [The government] doesn't want anyone to know there ever was such a village. I was born here, and I deserve to be allowed to live here. How can you be a squatter in the house where you and your father were born?"
Elkian accused the police of behaving violently during the demolition. He tried to take photos of the event, but police allegedly ripped his camera away. He then borrowed another camera and bent over it to protect it from police, who allegedly took the opportunity to beat him over the head.
Elkian, who is articulate in Hebrew, pulled out an IDF draft notice from his wallet. He said he received the first notice one day before the demolition, but was too busy to open it. He was also too busy the next day. A week later, he received a second notice.
"I don't intend to open this one," he said. "If we don't have any rights, we don't have any obligations."
Another poignant incident took place earlier in the morning, when Bustan took the group to visit a grazing farm run by Jewish farmer Noam and two partners. The farm was originally established 20 years ago to allow single Israeli farmers to graze livestock and, at the same time, prevent Beduin from taking up residence on the land. One of Noam's neighbors is Shai Dromi, who last year killed a Beduin who was trying to steal from him. The permit granted the five single Jewish farmers did not include the right to build homes, but all of them did.
Noam has lived on the farm for the past four years and is devoted to organic farming and developing indigenous herbs that the Beduin use for healing. His farm includes 800 dunams of land. He, his wife and two children live the most Spartan of lives, but they are entirely devoted to their idealistic pursuits.
He complained, however, that the authorities want to evict him from the land because he does not have a housing permit.
During the group's visit, it emerged that the farm was located on land that had been occupied by Beduin of the Elkamlat tribe until they moved to Rahat in the 1970s. One of the members of the group was Elham Elkamlat, a Beduin woman whose husband's family was among the Beduin who left the land around Noam's house. She said many of her neighbors now regretted the move.
"Living in a house is like living in a tomb," she said. "Everyone lives in a separate room. The family is never together." She told the group that once a year, members of the tribe came to visit the land and mourn the end of their traditional rural life.
Those visitors included Elham's husband and late father-in-law.
Noam replied, "We have [Beduin] visitors, usually in the spring. The few we have spoken to were really pleased with what we are doing. I have never heard them say they want to come back."
"They know they can't come back," Elham responded.
"I'm sure they wouldn't want to live in a tent," Noam said.
Elham, however, wasn't sure. "Land is expensive. We are waiting for land to buy. If not in Rahat, why not elsewhere?"
The irony of the parallel circumstances between Elham and Noam was lost on the Jewish farmer. In his anger at the government for threatening to evict him, he complained that it was treating him like a Beduin.