Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Homeless Bedouin Take On the State

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

AL-ARAQIB, Israel, Sep 26 2010 (IPS) - The pukk…pukk …pukk of a generator wired into the engine of a small truck punctures the silence of the desert. A man folds the bottom of his long yellow galabiya robe, tucking it into his blue jeans. He takes a plank of wood from the back of the truck and carries it over to a younger man who is sawing other planks.

A traditional Bedouin village of tents and huts is re-emerging through the shimmering heat. Rebuilding itself from dust. Until, that is, the Israel police return to destroy it yet again.

This is Al-Araqib in Israel’s Negev desert. Or what remains of it.

Five times now, the Israeli police have demolished the village that has become a focal point of claims and counter-claims over land ownership between the State of Israel and the country’s traditional Bedouin communities.

The battle over Al-Araqib is worsening Jewish-Arab relations, and threatening to evolve into a tectonic rift.

Salem Abu-Midyam points to a pile of rubble: “This used to be my home. That’s my home now,” he adds, pointing to one of several dozen makeshift wooden structures which he and fellow villagers have thrown up in wake of the last police action.

It’s the middle of the day, stifling hot. At the side of the new ‘home’ two children are enjoying a wash in an improvised shower room. Encased in corrugated iron “walls”, the door to the small “bathroom” is a black goat-wool blanket. Salem’s ‘kitchen’ behind the hut is in an even narrower space, just large enough to open a small fridge attached to another generator.

Despite the repeated evictions, and the demolitions, most of the 35 families have returned to re-make their home — around 400 people in all. “We have nowhere else to go,” says Salem. And so they rebuild only to face another demolition.

Sheikh Sayyah Abu-Medgheim, the clan head, sits on an old mattress inside a much larger corrugated iron structure: he’s found refuge near the dead, literally. This is where they wash the dead before burial.

The old cemetery is the only place left untouched — safe from the next police action to come.

“Should I leave the cemetery where my grandfather’s father is buried?” Sheikh Sayyah tells us. “On one hand, the authorities say they’re willing to compensate us for the land; on the other, they say we don’t have permanent housing, that we’re nomads. We’re not.” Israel considers the Bedouin “illegal occupiers of State Land”. The police contend they’re simply enforcing zoning and building codes. They insist the Bedouin can relocate to the nearby town of Rahat, built specifically for them by the government.

Sheikh Sayyah shows copies of old ‘Kushan’ titles from the days of the Ottomans stretching back into the 19th century. His Turi clan, he says, has lived on the site for over a hundred years — long before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. “We’ve worked the land; we’ve paid taxes. Turkish and British documents testify to that.”

In 1951, three years after Israel’s creation, the Al-Araqibs, like many Bedouin communities, were removed from the land on which they lived. The area was earmarked for military training.

They were promised that they could return in six months. They never were allowed back, though they’ve sometimes been allowed to graze their flocks.

A shiny black Mercedes Benz approaches. Out steps Jumaa A-Turi. He’s nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. A small seasonal whirlwind swirling desert sands narrowly passes by his car. Unscathed, he approaches, smiling.

Jumaa is in his late 30’s. He also grew up in Al-Araqib. Now he’s a successful businessman with interests in many directions — inter alia, importing rice from Thailand and providing qualified workers for frozen food manufacturing plants. Eight of the houses and warehouses that were knocked down belonged to him.

He argues that the future of the village depends on being pragmatic. “Though we have 100 percent right to our land, we’ll never get that right fully recognised, not in a million years. The State will never agree.

“Rather than absolute justice, we should look for a smart compromise, a logical compromise. There could be a solution implemented within just a year: Allow each family to own a parcel of land for housing and lease them another parcel to work their land.

“Many of us, however, not only the authorities, foolishly brush off any idea of compromise.”

Al-Araqib does not appear on official Israeli maps. Because 45 Beduoin villages in the Negev and in the Galilee are considered “illegal”, 90,000 Bedouin Israelis who live in those villages do not enjoy basic services — schools, water, electricity, sewage treatment, garbage disposal.

Taleb e-Sana is a Bedouin legislator in the Israeli Knesset. He’s come from his nearby village to inspect the situation before the police are back again — as they’ve pledged: “Two decades ago, the government absorbed a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But being a Bedouin — not a Jew – – it seems is a crime.

“Yet,” he tells IPS, “Appalling as the situation is here, it offers an opportunity: this village could become the spearhead of our struggle for the recognition of our overall rights.”

Several busloads of people arrive – Israeli Jews and Arabs, activists in civil society organisations. They’ve come in solidarity. Hosts and visitors gathered under a big shed.

Three days later, even the flimsy remains of the village that was are again removed. For the fifth time, Israeli police returned, destroying once more what they had already done, and flattening the makeshift structures that the villagers had set up following the previous police actions.

The Israeli government seems intent on making sure that Al-Araqib does not rise again. Government officials say they plan to plant a forest on the site. The villagers, however, are equally adamant.

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