State to raze mosque Bedouin reservist built in unrecognized village

Officials: Structure illegal as it was built without permission, place not designated for construction.

bedouin children 88.298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bedouin children 88.298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mahmood showed up for a second day of IDF reserve duty on Thursday not knowing whether the new mud and straw mosque that he built in the unrecognized village of Wadi el-Naam, 10 minutes by bus from Beersheba, will still be there when he returns home. The Israeli Beduin was ordered by government officials to stop building the structure in August, and last week he was told he must demolish the nearly completed building by Thursday or it would be destroyed for him. He has been sleeping there for the past several months. Interior Ministry officials say the structure is illegal since it was built without permission and in a place not designated for construction. "It is forbidden to destroy holy places," Mahmood, 43, said while sitting in the mosque after reciting the afternoon prayer. He asked that his last name not be used. "Just as Jews have [holy] places in Egypt and all the countries of the world and they protect them, they also have to preserve our places. We are religious people, Muslims, and we have to preserve our religion," he said. Nine Israeli and international activists, some of them who have helped build the mosque that is intended to also serve as a community center, camped in the structure on Wednesday night in an effort to prevent the demolition from taking place. Several local and international journalists joined them on Thursday. While two plainclothes police officers visited Mahmood at the site in the morning, the demolition team never came. "It's not legal," said Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, in a telephone interview on Thursday. "If he wants to build a mosque, he doesn't do it this way. He is supposed to turn to the [ministry's] unit of holy places and he's supposed to do it in a organized way." "I've never heard of a private person building a mosque or a church," Haddad said. Mahmood said such a request would have been rejected. Activists said their efforts on Thursday had perhaps helped delay the demolition, but they feared that ultimately the building would be destroyed. "Did we win here? Not really. What we did is buy time," said Tess Lehrick, Green Center and volunteer coordinator for Bustan, a nonprofit organization that works for fair resource allocation and environmental and social justice for Beduin and Jewish communities in the Negev. Bustan helped bring volunteers to build the "environmentally-friendly" mosque. "We bought time and Mahmoud can appeal again to the courts, but as far as I know... it's just a waiting game. They can come next week or they can come in three years" to demolish the building, Lehrich said. According to Bustan, 80,000 Beduin live in 45 unrecognized villages in Israel that lack basic infrastructure, health care, electricity and water access. Yeela Raanan, public affairs officer of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, said many residents of Wadi el-Naam were willing and even eager to be relocated but that no final agreements had been reached with the government. "In the meantime, they want to have a mosque and made it out of mud, of all things," Raanan said. "They broke the law, but they don't have a legal way of building a mosque. The government should be happy about it because it strengthens the community in a positive way." Mahmood, however, isn't eager to leave Wadi el-Naam. He can show you the precise spot on the ground next to a rundown house where he was born. After living in the recognized Beduin town of Segev Shalom for 15 years, he returned to the unrecognized village six months ago to be close to an elderly half-brother who essentially raised him. Mahmood's family was evacuated decades ago from a nearby area that was designated as a military zone. The father of one dreams of owning a large piece of land and building a house there, but he is skeptical that the government will make him an offer that he considers reasonable in another area. Mahmood said he was an Israeli from every perspective and loves the country. "I have no other country," he said. But it's also clear that he feels bitter at times. "Today, I wouldn't let my son serve in the army," he said. "I served from age 18 to age 27. I was a soldier. I was ready to die for the sake of the country. Now, I see there is no need... When you wear the uniform you have value, when you take it off, you don't."