Teacher’s death, demolition policy raise tensions between Beduin and state

It will take much more than words of empathy to undo the profound damage done to the relationship between the Beduin community and the government.

FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan during his funeral in the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan during his funeral in the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Government ministers are coming closer to giving an all-out apology for the police having branded a Beduin teacher as a terrorist who was slain along with a police officer during a controversial January demolition operation in the Negev village of Umm al-Hiran.
As media reports indicate that Justice Ministry officials have concluded that the teacher, Yacoub Abu al-Kaeean, was not engaged in a terrorist attack, the possibility that he was shot without justification looms large.
If true, this would justify the anger in the Beduin community, which is widely convinced that police showed a light finger on the trigger. When Umm al-Hiran residents speak of Abu al-Kaeean’s death, they say he was simply “murdered” by police.
Agriculture Minister Uriel Ariel waded into this maelstrom of charged emotions Tuesday, when he offered a qualified apology. “I take advantage of this platform to say that if there really was a failure in Umm al-Hiran, I say here to you that I apologize profoundly.” As more details emerge from the investigation and especially after its findings are issued, the apologies will no doubt become more explicit and profuse.
But it will take much more than words of empathy to undo the profound damage to what even before the Umm al-Hiran incident were severely frayed relations between the Beduin and the state. The issue of home demolitions, and the state’s failure thus far to reassess that policy, could escalate tensions even further, observers say.
“The anger is that you are always guilty,” said Taleb a-Sana, a former MK, “that the blood of an Arab citizen is cheap, that the government incites against you and that it isn’t ready to take responsibility. They come to the house of an educator, they shoot him, they demolish the house and leave the orphans in the ruins, then they hold onto the body and don’t allow its burial [for six days].”
But the issues brought out in the Umm al-Hiran affair are larger than Yacoub Abu al-Kaeean’s death. A central one is the question of home demolitions in unrecognized Beduin villages. In Umm al-Hiran, the Beduin seem to be the victims of an egregious injustice. They were forcibly moved by the army in 1956 from the Wadi Zbala area of the Negev to their current location.
But they were never given title to the land and a 2015 Supreme Court decision set in motion a process for them to be displaced again, with the new town of Hiran to be built in place of their village. The January 18 demolition operation, in which 10 homes were leveled, was part of an effort to force Umm al-Hiran residents to move to the nearby township of Hura on the state’s terms.
Despite Abu al-Kaeean’s death, the state is showing no second thoughts about the demolition policy.
Instead of trying to open a new chapter with Umm al-Hiran, officials are indicating it remains in danger of being leveled.
“I don’t think there is a need to halt the demolitions, where the court has established that there should be demolitions, then there should be demolitions,” Yossi Maimon, assistant to the director of the Beduin Development and Settlement Authority, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The 35 unrecognized villages, housing some 120,000 people, are all considered by authorities to have been built illegally on state land, despite Beduin land claims.
Residents fear demolitions and because their villages are unrecognized, lack hookups to water and electricity.
“We can’t accept the current reality among the Beduin in Israel,” Ariel said. “The continuation of the situation will harm the south of Israel, Beduin society and the future of the Negev.”
If the demolition plans are kept intact and the policy goal remains to force residents out of the unrecognized villages, that is a certain blueprint for intensified anger and even violence.
“The issue of land is an issue of identity and has the potential for inflaming Jewish-Arab relations in the Negev and the state’s relations with the Beduin,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives.
His prescription for avoiding this is holding genuine dialogue between the state and Beduin leaders. “Government officials can convey a message that ‘you are part of us,’ that Israeli society has enough room for everyone, that we will be generous with you and you will be equal citizens of the Negev, offering you different options of settlement just like the Jewish residents. This kind of civic discourse can help lower the flames.”