A clothesline hangs between heaps of twisted metal and cracked slabs of concrete, while a handful of olive trees lay haphazardly, their roots exposed, under the scorching Naqab desert sun.
Less than a week ago, this was where approximately 600 Israeli police officers were deployed to demolish 18 structures, including 10 homes, and uproot 600 trees in the “unrecognized” Palestinian Bedouin village of Atir-Umm al-Hieran, just 30 minutes from the major city of Bir al-Saba (Beersheva).
Residents reported seeing approximately thirty flatbed trucks haul away most of the rubble, while Israeli police set up a dozen roadblocks in both directions along the main road, preventing residents from trying to stop the bulldozers. Only a few destroyed buildings were left behind and broken toys, notebooks and other personal effects remained scattered across the sand.
“It’s the worst thing that can happen,” said Khader Abu al-Qian, a village elder, from the shade of a makeshift tent across the street from the scene of the destruction.
The Israeli authorities demolished two homes in Atir once before, in 2007. But police and agents with the Israel Land Administration regularly come to the village to take photographs of buildings, Abu al-Qian explained. They even once asked him if he would rather demolish the village himself, or wait for them to do it.
Despite this experience, Abu al-Qian said that last week’s demolition — in an area of the village home to fifty persons, including over two dozen children — was something completely different.
“They have become more extreme in everything,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t imagine they could ‘clean’ the area like this.”
Abu al-Qian’s 18-year-old son Nour echoed this sentiment.
“This time, they destroyed everything,” Nour, who witnessed the demolition from beginning to end, told The Electronic Intifada. He said residents had no time to take their belongings out of their homes before the demolitions were carried out.
Nour now sleeps in a makeshift tent with four of his siblings; inside the tent, thin mats and blankets were piled on cinderblocks, gathering dust as the wind swept through the village. “It’s very difficult. But we will rebuild the houses. We will remain here,” he said.
Some 200,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel live in the country’s southern Naqab (Negev) desert region. Though they constitute approximately 30 percent of the area’s total population, the Bedouin live on just five percent of the land. Many have legal claims to their lands pending before Israeli courts.
Lack of services
Approximately half of the Bedouin community lives in government-planned townships, which suffer from high unemployment and poverty, and a widespread lack of services. The other half live in three dozen unrecognized villages, like Atir-Umm al-Hieran.
Israel does not provide these unrecognized villages with basic services, including water, electricity, schools, or health facilities, and regularly demolishes homes and other structures.
Israel has pursued a policy of Bedouin urbanization for decades, in an effort to contain the Bedouin population on as little land as possible. In 2008, Israel appointed former high court judge Eliezer Goldberg to look into “Bedouin settlement” issues in the Naqab.
Shortly afterwards, a new committee was formed to implement Goldberg’s findings under Ehud Prawer, director of planning policy in the prime minister’s office.
The Prawer Plan, as it became known, suggested forcibly evicting 40 percent of the Bedouin community — between 30,000 and 40,000 people — from their homes, and moving them into urban townships. The Israeli cabinet approved the Prawer Plan in its original form in September 2011.
After Benny Begin, then a minister, made very minor changes to the plan, an updated version was approved in January of this year, and lauded by the government as a generous proposal that will help modernize the Bedouin community.
“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the plan was finalized (“Cabinet approves Minister Benny Begin’s recommendations on formalizing the status of Bedouin settlement in the Negev,” Prime Minister’s Office, 27 January 2013).
“This brave decision will facilitate the continued development and prosperity of the Negev, for the benefit of all its residents.”
Affront to basic rights
But both local and international human rights bodies, including Amnesty International and the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, among others, have criticized the plan as an affront to the Bedouin’s basic human rights.
“Forcibly evicting tens of thousands of Bedouin from communities where they have lived for generations cannot be justified in the name of economic development or any other reason,” said Ann Harrison, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“What the proposed law does is send the Bedouin communities into a human rights desert by stripping already vulnerable citizens of legal safeguards against house demolitions and forced evictions. This blatantly violates international law,” Harrison added (“Israel: New government must scrap plans to forcibly evict Bedouin,” 20 April 2013).
According to many local activists, last week’s demolition in Atir-Umm al-Hieran was the largest display of Israeli force in demolishing a Bedouin village so far this year, and has drawn comparisons to the first demolition of another unrecognized village, al-Araqib.
In July 2010, more than 1,200 Israeli police destroyed 46 structures, including 30 homes, in al-Araqib and made all 300 village residents homeless overnight.
But it wasn’t the first time the Israeli authorities have aimed to displace Bedouin families in Atir-Umm al-Hieran.
After some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly evicted from their homes following the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, the villagers were moved from their community in Khirbet Zubaleh, which today is a Jewish-Israeli community called Kibbutz Shuval.
After being transferred a handful of other times, the Israeli government finally resettled the residents to the Wadi Atory area in 1956, on an order from the Israeli military governor in the Naqab at the time. This is where they built the community of Atir-Umm al-Hieran that exists today.
Approximately 1,000 residents — all members of the Abu al-Qian Bedouin tribe — live in Atir-Umm al-Hieran. A single, pothole-ridden road leads to and from the village, which sits just northwest of the recognized Bedouin township of Hura.
In Atir, the Israeli government aims to build a forest in the exact spot residents now live, while in place of Umm al-Hieran, the state plans to build a Jewish-only town, named Hiran. If these plans go ahead, all 1,000 Bedouin living in the area will be evicted against their will.
“They will start in villages [where] there are no land claims. The people of Umm al-Hieran and Atir and Wadi al-Naam [the largest unrecognized Bedouin village in the Naqab] are people who were already displaced once, twice or three times. They are not sitting on their ancestral lands, so they will start with them,” said Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, head of the Naqab office of Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel.
Abu Ras told The Electronic Intifada that Israel is not only trying to evict Bedouin citizens, but also erase all traces of Arab presence in the Naqab or Negev desert.
“It’s amazing how the government is trying to uproot the people and their history in the same place. They were uprooting all the trees that are associated with the Arabs,” he said. “I think the government is intensifying its efforts to implement Prawer before even the law is passed.”
The Prawer Plan will be brought to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for a first reading in the process of becoming a law next Monday (27 May).
Meanwhile, small demonstrations have been held in Bedouin communities throughout the Negev against the plan over the past week, and a protest is planned for Monday in front of the Knesset as well.
“There are lots of tensions in the field. There is a lot of mobilization. Young people now are more involved in this, but until now, we didn’t succeed to bring all the tribes to work together. But it can happen,” Abu Ras said.
“People are insisting on staying in their lands. They can demolish their houses, but they will stay on the land.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at jkdamours.com.