Today we take the long drive south to the Naqab (Negev) to tour with Thabet Abu Ras of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, www.adalah.org, to meet with Arab Bedouin communities facing displacement.
I am always learning from the landscape and I am familiar with the renaming of everything Palestinian that has happened since 1948, but today I learn a new twist to this linguistic erasure. Along the highway, we see signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. It turns out that the Arabic names are actually transliterated from the Hebrew, thus engineering a process to create a different word in Arabic, deArabizing the names of historic places. Thus Jerusalem in Hebrew is Yerushalayim and in Arabic a transliteration of Yerushalayim, rather than Al Quds which is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. If you think about this, the messaging is that not only are Palestinians invisible, but they are actually immigrants who were not really here before the State of Israel got around to naming everything.
We meet up with Thabet, a political geologist and director for the southern office of Adalah, waiting along the highway with two interns. The land is fairly flat, bone dry, and clearly desert. We turn off the modern highway to the unmarked, unrecognized village of al-Araqib, bumping over an unpaved road of rocks, packed sand and deep potholes, past rows of recently planted eucalyptus trees on one side and a cemetery and cluster of Bedouin tents and shanties on the other. We stop at a large, flat topped tent made of wide sheets of plastic and wooden supporting planks and sit down on the ground on the oblong created by long rugs and pillows. We are introduced to the Sheikh and to Haia Noach, the executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (www.dukium.org) . The Sheikh is wearing a long black robe, Arab headdress and when his cellphone rings, it is a familiar tango jingle.
As we are served bitter coffee prepared in a pit in the center of the floor, the Sheikh explains to us in vivid detail, the many “crimes against humanity” that have been committed against his village which has been demolished 52 times and rebuilt 52 times. In 1999, the Israelis started crop dusting his fields with poisonous chemicals, and repeated the process five times. The chemicals affected the fields, animals died, and there was an increase in miscarriages. “Where was the UN protecting human rights?” he asks. We are invited to download a video of the village before and after the crop dusting from a computer that is plugged into an electrical socket tacked to a supporting beam. He suggests that it is the racism in the Israeli medical system that has hindered any research into this medical catastrophe.
On June 2, 2010, Israeli forces arrived assisted by helicopters, dogs, and horses, and leveled the village. He calls this, “A Nazi crime.” His thick brown hands gesture as he speaks. He describes the demolition where houses were leveled, and food, milk, medicine destroyed, 4,500 fruit and olive trees and grape vines were uprooted. “We are people. We have zero unemployment. We live from the fields.” He says it is amazing that the Israelis want to change them from independent farmers living in the desert to poverty stricken factory workers controlled by Jewish bosses in reservation towns. Another round of coffee and tea. Six months after the village was demolished, 40 trucks arrived and removed all the rubble and the court ordered the Bedouins to move into their cemetery. The Israelis killed 100 sheep and 16 Arabic horses. Currently the only secure place for the families to live is the cemetery we passed on arriving, and they live there without water or electricity. “The dead protects the living.” The Israelis then planted the Bedouin land with rows of eucalyptus trees, the Ambassador Forest, and foreign ambassadors are encouraged to plant trees here in the name of their countries. The Sheikh was visited by the South African ambassador who condemned these policies and refused to plant a tree. With bitter irony, a large water tanker arrives and starts watering these fledgling trees, but there is no water for the people; in fact, Jews and Arabs are forbidden to provide water to the Bedouin. The Bedouins were fined by the courts for police costs involved in the attack. Another water tanker arrives.
The Sheikh states he has documentation to prove the Jewish National Fund is responsible for this tree planting on their historic lands. Having lost their lands, he asks, “Where do we live? How do we eat?” They also have no roads or schools. The children have to travel to a distant town of Rahat, “a failed refugee city,” and the families continue to dig wells in search of water. He questions, “Would Israel do this to a Jewish citizen?” In fact, individual religious Jews have been acquiring farms in the area and the government provides them with full support. “Israel treats us like we are a security threat like Iran.” The Sheikh states there are currently 58 cases in the Israeli courts against him, all for the crime of sitting on his own land. He urges, “We want to live with Jews, the criminals are the government and the police.” Many Israeli NGOs support the struggles of the Bedouin. For instance, Adalah petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to stop the crop dusting; the material used was Round Up, made in the USA.
The Sheikh’s son, Azziz, explains that the village of al-Araqib was first demolished in 1948, but the people stayed and asked for recognition. They were mostly ignored until 2010 when efforts to totally demolish the village got serious. He describes the soldiers arriving at 4:00 am, demolishing 65 homes, 4,500 olive trees, leveling the village. Before that there were 573 persons. “Before we were employed, working cultivating the land, wheat in the winter, olive oil, cheese, milk, all organic.” Every family had small side jobs; he and his wife had 400 chickens and sold eggs, bringing in 600-700 shekels per week. Now the Bedouins have been changed to slaves, working 12 hour days, missing their wives and children. The Prawer Plan which was designed to regulate the settlement of the Bedouins in the Negev and ignores concepts in International Law such as transitional justice, semi-nomadic property rights, and native rights, “Means to kill us. We shall not be moved. There is no option. If we leave, we will die.” The police are threatening to destroy the cemetery which was built in 1914.
We are introduced to Haia Noach who talks about advocacy and awareness campaigns. She has been arrested a number of times for protecting the Bedouin. She states most Israelis do not want to know, deny the occupation and racism in their society. The Prawer Plan is a new frontier for a conflicted area: taking control of large tracts of land by planting trees through the JNF, creating industrial zones and army bases on expropriated land. The discussion of the morality of forestation projects is now at a standstill and hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted. There is even an evangelical group that is planting one million saplings with the JNF to hasten the apocalypse. She reminds us that that the land laws that allow confiscation if land is not occupied for a certain period of time were unknown to the indigenous population, that Bedouins often lack titles, or only have traditional titles that are conveniently ignored, and the courts are snarled with cases and counterclaims. She is hoping for a legal breakthrough as there is a growing awareness about the rights of indigenous peoples. Quietly I think to myself, “Insha’allah.”