Israel’s war on its Bedouin citizens
The tiny village of al-Arakib has been torn down by the Israeli authorities 18 times in seven months, but each time the Bedouin rebuild their homes
Harriet Sherwood, 1 March 2011
See also: Amit Ramon, The war against the Bedouin, 20 January 2011
Oren Yiftachel writes about the horrific demolitions at Araqib, 4 August 2010
The rutted track to al-Arakib leaves the desert highway at a sharp right angle through an unmarked gap in the roadside barrier. It’s easy to miss, to be swept past with the stream of traffic heading through the sun-hardened and windswept landscape of the Negev.About a kilometre from the main road, you come first to the village cemetery, where the oldest grave dates from 1914, and a corrugated iron barn that serves as the mosque and now a communal kitchen and shelter. Then, across a trough in the land, you see the remnants of the Bedouin village: four simple wooden frames whose tarpaulin covers are continually thrashed by the relentless wind. This is all that’s left of a once-thriving community after a seven-month war of attrition that has pitted the Bedouin villagers against the Israeli army, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and a Christian evangelical television channel called God TV. And the struggle is not over.
Since 27 July, the village has been demolished at least 18 times, most recently last Thursday. Each time the bulldozers and soldiers come at dawn to tear down the makeshift structures that have replaced the 40 concrete buildings that used to house the villagers, the men of al-Arakib rebuild them. Each time their footprint gets a little smaller.
Although the villagers say they have deeds to the land proving ownership since 1906, al-Arakib is “unrecognised” – meaning the state of Israel regards its very existence as illegitimate. Israel declared the land state property shortly after the 1948 war, and in recent years has accelerated efforts to drive the Bedouin into designated townships.
The villagers stand in the way of a government-backed JNF project to encourage Jewish settlement in the sparsely populated Negev and create a forest by planting half a million trees paid for by God TV. Launched in the UK in 1995 but now broadcasting globally from Jerusalem, God TV is part of a Christian Zionist movement that believes the Jews must return to the Holy Land as a pre-requisite of the Second Coming of Christ. In videos posted on its website, founder Rory Alec speaks of an “instruction from God” to “prepare the land for return of my Son”. He takes supporters to the Negev to plant saplings and urges others to make donations to fund the trees the TV channel has pledged to supply.
Afforestation has become a tool of the Judaisation of the Negev, says Oren Yiftachel, professor of political geography at the nearby Ben-Gurion University. The authorities have uprooted thousands of olive trees to replace them with “Jewish trees”. It’s only our trees that matter, he says wryly.
The new saplings, struggling to take root in the arid soil, are visible from the tent where Aziz Sayah Abu Mdagem sips sweet tea brewed in a blackened kettle over a kindling fire. This is our land, he says; we will not give it up. He describes the first demolition as a scene from a battlefield: hundreds of soldiers dragging screaming women and children from their homes before the bulldozers crushed the buildings. Special forces troops on horseback and on motorbikes surrounded the area as helicopters clattered overhead.
A shed housing the village’s chickens was flattened, killing all the birds inside. Trees – olive, citrus and almond – were uprooted. He shows us a collection of rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and spent stun grenades collected from successive demolitions.
Some of the traumatised children have been unable to speak since, he says. They wet their beds, they call out in their sleep. He shows a picture from an album of a pile of rubble. This, he says, is the children’s playground now. Later, he points to fresh furrows ploughed in the baked ground in preparation for tree-planting. “Every day they dig the land closer,” he says.
The JNF says its afforestation plan in the Negev is for the benefit of all inhabitants, but Abu Mdagem finds it hard to see how the destruction of their homes is a positive move for the Bedouin villagers. The JNF acknowledges the donation of trees from God TV but is reluctant to discuss the partnership.
God TV did not respond to a request for comment, but recently posted a message on its website, saying that claims that the evangelical channel is responsible for the displacement of the Bedouin people are false. It says its tree-planting endeavours, which are an “apostolic, prophetic act”, are simply part of “an effort to restore the desert places to the lush green land it once was, preparing the Holy Land for the return of the King of Kings”.
The struggle to save the village has won support from Jewish activists and intellectuals, including the celebrated Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Al-Arakib was, he said, a ticking time-bomb.
In the now near-deserted village, Abu Mdagem shows us the mosque, where mattresses are piled against one wall and cooking utensils line another. This is where the women and children of the village sleep at night, he says. He weaves through the stone-covered mounds in the adjacent cemetery to take us to the oldest grave, which, he says, proves their connection with the land.
During demolitions, the villagers seek refuge among the dead, believing the soldiers will not pursue them on to sacred ground. But recently even that has not proved safe, with shots and tear gas being fired into the cemetery.
“This is our life now,” Abu Mdagem says, threading prayer beads through his fingers. “We live together with the dead people in the cemetery.”