How Israel forces Bedouins to live in a graveyard

Women gather in the cemetery of al-Araqib as Israeli police raid the village in June.

Keren Manor ActiveStills

There is no exit sign off Route 40 for the unpaved road leading to the village of al-Araqib.

Located in the Naqab (Negev) region of present-day Israel, al-Araqib is older than the state itself: its cemetery dates back to 1914. Yet that is not considered significant by the authorities.

Home to a Palestinian Bedouin community, al-Araqib is deemed an “unrecognized village” by Israel.

That gives the authorities an excuse to deprive it and many other Bedouin villages of essential services such as electricity and water.

Acute deprivation

The deprivation is especially acute in al-Araqib. Because their homes have been demolished more than seventy times since 2010, the local Bedouins are forced to live within the confines of the cemetery. Rubble from their old houses has been removed by the authorities but remnants of kitchen and bathroom tiles still litter the ground.

Today, the Bedouins have to rely on a well dug in 1913 for water. “Before, we had electricity and water piped to the houses, but the government destroyed the infrastructure,” said resident Sheikh Sayah al-Turi. “We just want tap water like everyone else.”

By contrast, water is abundant across the road in the Jewish-only settlement of Givot Bar. Lawns are green in this settlement — even though it is located in the desert.

Givot Bar was established ten years ago by the Or Movement.

Along with its partner organization, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Zionist group is building a network of towns exclusively for Jews. The Or Movement has set the ambitious goal of bringing 600,000 Jews to the Naqab and Galilee regions of present-day Israel by 2020.

Decades of dispossession

To achieve this goal, the two organizations are furthering the decades-old project of dispossessing Palestinians.

The JNF portrays itself as an environmental group dedicated to afforestation. In reality, it is trying to purge Palestine of the trees and crops best suited to its arid landscapes, at the same time ridding the land of its indigenous communities and their agriculture-based economy.

To make way for a eucalyptus plantation it is developing, around 4,500 citrus, fig and olive trees have been uprooted in al-Araqib.

Water for the recently planted eucalyptus trees is taken to the area in tanker trucks. Yet the Israeli authorities have forbidden Bedouins from trucking water in to al-Araqib. Tankers and trucks for carrying water have been confiscated during the demolitions of the village.

“The government says it is illegal to bring water here, but at the same time, they won’t connect us,” al-Turi said.

Discriminatory pricing

Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, implements the official policy of cutting off the water supply to Bedouin communities.

Mekorot recently came under fire from a committee headed by Ram Belinkov, a former Israeli interior ministry director general. Belinkov’s committee found that Mekorot was inflating its costs.

The Israeli business press has reported that while Mekorot has repeatedly called for rate hikes, the company was actually raking in “excessively high profits.”

Mekorot was also among the state-owned companies included in a $4 billion privatization plan approved by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government earlier this month.

A price list issued by the Israeli Water Authority in 2012 showed that “individual users” who bought water directly from Mekorot rather than through a local administration were subjected to a 67 percent rate hike. Most of these “individual users” lived in Palestinian villages that Israel has refused to recognize.

“Driving us from our land”

“There is a troika of Israeli entities working to drive us from our land: the state, Mekorot and the Jewish National Fund,” said al-Turi.

Mekorot’s involvement in the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine has not prevented it from striking international deals. It has, for example, signed a cooperation agreement with Acea, Italy’s largest water company, in which the City of Rome has a 51 percent stake.

This writer recently visited al-Araqib — as well as Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank — with an Italian delegation of activists organizing against water privatization. The intention of the trip, sponsored by the Beyond Walls project, was to gain first-hand knowledge of Mekorot’s activities in order to assist the campaign against its agreement with Acea.

The villagers of al-Araqib deeply impressed us with their defiance of Israeli apartheid.

They have refused to sell one centimeter of land to the Israeli authorities. They have also rebuilt their village after each demolition.

And some of the olive trees that were cut rather than completely uprooted are sprouting new growth.

“This is very symbolic for us,” said Aziz al-Turi, the son of Sheikh Sayah al-Turi.

Even though it is a quasi-governmental Israeli agency, the Jewish National Fund is registered as a charity in many countries. Donations to it are therefore tax-deductible.

Aziz al-Turi, a father of five, underscored the hypocrisy of that status when he told The Electronic Intifada that “supporting the JNF is killing me and my family.”

Israel plans to present itself as an innovative and environmentally progressive country by celebrating its “water conservation” projects at the Expo 2015 in Milan.

The criminal behavior of Israel and its allies in al-Araqib prove that it is anything but progressive.

Editor’s note: due to an editing error, Ram Belinkov was identified in an earlier version of this story as former interior minister when he should have been identified as former interior ministry director general. The story has now been corrected.

Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published by Common Dreams, Counterpunch, The Electronic Intifada, In These Times and Z Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @stephinrome.