Driven to despair

Driven to despair

November 13, 2009 07:18
beduin 248

beduin 248. (photo credit: Ron Friedman)

A long black hose that runs along the ground is the only thing that connects the small Beduin village of Khashm Zanna with the state authorities. The hose carries water from the main pipeline that runs alongside the highway to a single faucet in the center of the village, the sole government concession to the existence of the community of 250 people. Soon, however, the state's presence will be felt much more. In a few years the whole valley that surrounds the village, as well as six others that neighbor it, will be covered with concrete and asphalt. The reason: Khashm Zanna lies smack dab in the middle of the proposed extension of the Trans-Israel Highway, otherwise known as Highway Six. In Douglas Adams's Science fiction classic, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the main character, Arthur Dent, is forced to leave his house, and eventually the solar system, because the authorities want to tear it down in order to build a bypass. Unfortunately for the residents of the unrecognized Beduin villages in the southern Negev, they have no friendly aliens that will save them from their doom and take them on a zany tour of the galaxy. If forced to leave their ancestral dwelling, they will have nowhere to go. Khashm Zanna, which in Arabic means Zanna's nose (named after the shape of the hill that it rests on) is one of those villages that you often see on the side of the road when traveling in the south of Israel. Like many others, it is a ramshackle collection of houses made out of cinder bocks and tin. Piles of wood and old cars lie out in the open, and thin, wiry dogs lie in the middle of the path in the midday heat. Around the village you can see small patches of vegetation, and here and there an olive tree or a date palm stands erect. Khashm Zanna is an unrecognized village, one of 46 such villages spread around the Negev Desert. Unrecognized, means that the state does not formally acknowledge their existence. Despite the fact that upward of 5,000 residents inhabit some of the villages, the villages do not appear on state maps and plans, they don't receive any state services, and they are considered illegal and are under constant threat of eviction and demolition. Atiah El-Ahtamin lives in Khashm Zanna with his wife and six children. The youngest of them, five-year-old Elias, welcomed me with a wave and a smile, and rushed off to call his father when he saw me enter the village. After greetings and the obligatory cup of bitter black coffee, El-Ahtamin, a soft spoken man in his early forties, began chronicling the history of the village. "This is a historic village, it's been here for hundreds of years," he said. "My family has lived here long before the State of Israel was founded or even thought of." El-Ahtamin's family has been living on the small patch of land, located 10 kilometers east of Beersheba, for generations. Contrary to the romantic notion of the nomadic Beduin who traverse the desert in their camel caravans, never remaining in one place for more then a short stay, the Beduin of the region have, for the most part, stayed in the same spot for centuries. The migrations of the local Beduin were mostly seasonal. For some it meant taking the flocks up north for the summer months and leaving one wife behind in the permanent settlement, while for others it just meant moving from the top of the hill in the summer to the valley, several hundred meters away, in the winter. "The reason many of the Beduin's lands don't have formal registry is because for many years registering with the authorities meant being under the thumb of the ruling empire. It meant having to pay taxes and being subject to conscription to the armies of the colonizing monarchs of the ages," El-Ahtamin explained. "Those Beduin whose land ownership is recognized by Israel, owe it to the records compiled by the Ottoman Empire and in turn kept by the British. "When I was little we used to live in tents made of goat and sheep wool. Today, as you can see, we've replaced that with cheaper and more durable materials like tin and burlap," he said. "The new materials are more readily available but far less insulating. In the summer it's much hotter and in the winter it's colder." People who live in unrecognized villages like El-Ahtamin have a dilemma. On one hand they would like to build more modern and comfortable houses that will leave them less exposed to the elements, but on the other hand, they don't want to invest in expensive construction with the knowledge that the house could be torn down at any moment because it has no permits. What some people have started doing is building brick houses, only without the expensive foundations. "It costs more to demolish a house like that then it costs to build it," said El-Ahtamin. "The government comes around every once in a while and tears down houses," he continued. "They don't differentiate between old and new ones. Three months ago my cousin's house was demolished, and there are demolition orders on other new houses in the village." What El-Ahtamin and others lack in formal documentation, they have in communal memory. El-Ahtamin said that anyone in the village, if asked, could tell you exactly where every family's property began and ended. "We have a very strict system in place when it comes to respecting each other's property. We have customs that date back thousands of years," he explained. "For example, no one would dare come near my house unless I was home. They'd stand 40 meters away and announce themselves, and only approach if permission were given. "It is important for us to pass the knowledge on to our children. Slowly, the people who were alive before the state was formed are dying away. We need future generations to know where our land is," El-Ahtamin said. According to Beduin tradition, if El-Ahtamin or any other member of the family is evicted, the extended family and the tribe will come to their aid. The responsibility of the family extends to the financial and legal realms, too. Any dispute that arises within the community is resolved by the tribal council, headed by the local sheikh. The oldest structures in Khashm Zanna are a burial vault and an old well that was turned into a cistern, and which is now closed and covered by a metal grill. Because of the Beduin's semi-nomadic lifestyle, they tended not to leave many permanent marks on the land they inhabited. For El-Ahtamin the old stone structures are like a physical reassurance that they are connected to the land in a permanent way. Israel's land disputes with the Beduin date back to the earliest days of the state. In 1948, many of the Beduin fled the country to avoid the battles. Those who remained and some who returned were relocated to a restricted zone in the northeast corner of the Negev, in the triangle of Beersheba, Arad and Dimona, called the Siyag. The Beduin were given citizenship in 1954, but lived under martial law until 1966 and were not allowed to dwell outside the boundaries of the Siyag. The new arrangements created many problems among the tribes, as their territories were not defined. Some relocated Beduin were put on lands belonging to other tribes, creating a second class of landless Beduin. Because they saw the move to the Siyag as merely a temporary solution, many of the Beduin don't recognize the state's allocation of land, and still hope to return someday to their ancestral dwellings and pastures. In an attempt to regulate the land situation, in the early 1970s the government called on all Beduin to file claims for their ancestral land. The Beduin, with their intricate knowledge of the land and the familial borders, were eager to draw up precise maps delineating the territory for each family, down to the individual tree or river bend. As far as the state was concerned, the claims were to be the basis upon which financial settlements and reimbursements would be established, but for the Beduin, the State's acceptance of the claims meant that they were about to receive their lands back. "It was a trap," said Atwa Abu Fraih, the general director of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev (RCUV). "In 2003 the Sharon government came out with counterclaims to the land. The State took the Beduin to court and the result was that not one of the trials ended in favor of the Beduin. "We and the government are conducting different dialogues using different terms," he continued. "We are talking about possession by virtue of generations of life on the land, and they are asking for Ottoman certificates that prove the land was grazed on before 1948." Abu Fraih said that one of the reasons the government took so long - 30 years - between requesting the claims and suing for counterclaims is so that the older generation of Beduin would disappear and there would be fewer around who could accurately point out the ancestral boundaries. The RCUV is a non-profit organization that seeks to represent the residents of the unrecognized villages before the State. Because the villages do not exist as far as the State is concerned, their residents are not part of any formal municipality or regional authority, and as a result cannot elect representatives. The RCUV was founded in 1997 in order to offer a semblance of representation for the ignored population. Every village sends representatives, usually the family elders, to the general assembly, which in turn elects a chairperson to lead the organization every five years. Most of the RCUV's work is in advocacy for the residents of the unrecognized villages, but they are also active in education, legal consultation, limited construction - such as assistance in paving dirt access roads to remote villages - and alternative planning. The RCUV's main objective at this point is work on a comprehensive master plan that will offer a solution to the unrecognized villages that will be acceptable to a majority of Negev Beduin. Together with two other non-governmental organizations, the RCUV is canvassing the residents to find out what kind of solution will satisfy them, so they can in turn present a united front before the State. "Often the Beduin are accused of not knowing what we want and not presenting enough solidarity. We hope that this plan will provide the principles for a comprehensive and lasting solution," said Abu Fraih. Over the years, Israel has set up a multitude of special committees, taskforces, action plans and investigations to help come up with a solution for the "Beduin problem." Every few years a new initiative is launched, hoping to provide an answer that both sides can accept. The most recent attempt was in 2008 when an independent commission headed by former Supreme Court Judge Eliezer Goldberg set out to reach a compromise between the Beduin community and the government. In his report, Goldberg determined that the State should give legal standing to the unrecognized villages, adding that the residents could also request to have their community relocated to the northern Negev. "Recognizing these villages would prevent the perpetuation of their unbearable state," he said. The committee found that there are 50,000 illegal buildings in the area to date, and about 1,500 to 2,000 more are being built every year. The committee suggested redefining the legal status of some of the structures, providing they not interfere with the State's construction outline for the area, and that a "hardline enforcement" approach be implemented to prevent any future infractions. Other recommendations included giving incentives to Beduin who serve in the IDF, in order to increase the motivation to serve and strengthen the community's bond with Israel. Offering monetary compensation in the case of relocation was also advised. "The Beduin residing in the Negev are not illegal aliens; they are citizens of Israel and as such have rights, as well as obligations," said the Goldberg Report. He concluded the report by urging the government to move rapidly. "Time is running out as any further delay in finding a solution to the Beduin settlement in the Negev may cause irreversible damage for generations to come," wrote Goldberg. "The State of Israel must not continue burying its head in the sand. In the Beduin issue and in the defending of State lands, the clock is ticking both for the Beduin and for the State of Israel," wrote Gilad Altman from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, in a report published following the Goldberg Commission. "A population growth rate of 5.5 percent per year, which doubles the Beduin population every thirteen years, exacerbates the situation plaguing Beduin today and will bring about not only future generations of Beduin growing up in poverty and misery, but also will cause the Jewish majority to lose its grip on the Negev." Altman wrote that the government's policies on the land issue serve to further alienate the Beduin community from the State. "The younger generation grows up in this reality [of life in the unrecognized village] and discovers that breaching the law is in its best interest and learns to ignore the State's demands. There is no one who counters this wrongdoing, and the State itself, in its actions, sends a message that delinquency pays off. The current habits of ignorance of the law and ineffective enforcement cause the crime rate to spread to other areas: from property damage to violence. On the whole, people prefer to belong to stronger, more just and higher quality society. From the point of view of the Beduin child in the Negev who grew up in such a reality, the State of Israel is not strong, as it does not enforce its laws; is not just, as it does not stand behind its promises; and is not of high quality, as seen by the low standard of living in his village. In such a reality, it is easy for a Beduin child to join one of the many separatist groups that oppose the State." Ibraheem Al-Walakili, the chairman of the RCUV, voiced a similar sentiment. "People are getting closer to the red line. If the government doesn't begin acting, things will not go smoothly. "I go to the villages and I hear things. People are saying very harsh things about the State. They are angry about the demolitions. They are angry about how Beduin lands are being taken over and turned into forests. They are angry about the lack of responsiveness to appeal," he continued. "The Beduin of the Negev have begun stirring and uniting in opposition to the State policies." Al-Walakili said that the land issue has negatively altered the relationship between the Negev Beduin and the State. One indication is the declining conscription rate among Beduin in recent years. Beduin are not enlisted into mandatory military service like the Druze and Circassians, but hundreds volunteer every year. The army has a special patrol unit made up entirely of Beduin, and many serve as trackers and scouts alongside combat units. A recent example of the level of frustrations and anger that some Negev Beduin have reached is the lamentable incident that took place in the archeological site of Avdat. In an act of revenge on the State after their illegal homes in an unrecognized village were demolished, two young men took crowbars and spray paints and severely vandalized a 3,000-year-old Nabatean city. When describing the case, Dep.-Cmdr Yossi Cohen, head of the Negev Regional Command, said, "We were dealing with people who have no appreciation of the law, who don't take it into account," adding that he believed the men had no idea of the seriousness of their deeds. "They simply didn't understand the significance and degree of the damage," he said. "They thought it was just a wall or just a rock. They decided to ruin the site because it belonged to the State." Land is not the only factor alienating the Beduin community. Poverty is rampant among the Negev Beduin. The townships that the government would have the residents of the unrecognized villages relocate to are constantly ranked as the poorest in the country, and the municipal services they receive are far below the national standards. Low levels of education also negatively affect the relationship, and high crime rates reveal growing disregard for the laws of the land. Last month, 20 Beduin men were arrested after a demonstration protesting construction on land, which a local tribe claimed was theirs, turned violent. A large group of protesters confronted police officers, who were on the scene to protect JNF-KKL workers while they dug up the soil to plant a roadside forest. El-Ahtamin said that a similar incident was likely to occur in Khashm Zanna when bulldozers arrive to prepare the ground for the new highway. "I am not willing to move to a different village. I am not even willing to relocate the village to an empty spot somewhere else. You move the road to a different spot," said El-Ahtamin.

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