My glasses (somewhat symbolically) have broken; perhaps my brain does not want to see any more, but there is so much to witness.
Even with my eyes closed I can hear the military jets overhead as we drive towards the unrecognized Bedouin village of Alsira in the Naqab (Negev). My old emergency glasses leave me with a headache, double vision, and a sense that the world I am experiencing is intensely out of focus, which in reality it is.
Khalil al-Amour greets us and invites us up to his shaded patio for water and juice. He has a sun-browned, open face with laughing eyes and a quirky sense of humor. He points to the demolition order glued on his door, dated September 2006. It is addressed, “To the house owner,” has no checks next to the list of grievances, and is signed by some official who clearly cannot distinguish one Bedouin from another. The form is a photocopy. Khalil is a math and computer teacher and just received his law degree. He works with Adalah, a legal group that advocates for Bedouin rights in Israel, and he is leaving soon for Geneva for a UN conference on the rights of indigenous peoples. He is busy preparing for his son’s wedding and for the upcoming month of Ramadan. Have I challenged any of your preconceptions yet?
Clothespins clip a map of the Naqab onto the grating over a front window where rows of socks are also drying. Khalil explains that Bedouins used to live in the entire Naqab, thirteen million dunams (approximately three and a quarter million acres). They had no major problems during four hundred years of Ottoman control and thirty years of the British mandate and then came 1948.
Ninety thousand were expelled, most fleeing to the Egyptian Sinai desert, some went to Jordan, and eleven thousand remained. The Israelis “relocated” them to an area called the Siyag, a fenced in reservation and closed military zone. The Bedouin were traumatized by the massive expulsion and by the confiscation of 90% of their land. The Israelis kept shrinking the land available to the Bedouin and expanding the southern city of Be’ersheba. They took eighty thousand dunams to build a huge military airport nearby.
I start counting the number of planes roaring overhead. More Jewish cities were built in the area, but the Bedouin stayed and married and made babies, so now there are more than two hundred thousand. “We are a big surprise.” The Prawer Plan (a plan to dispossess the remaining Bedouin and transfer them to townships) is currently frozen, but it will undoubtedly resurface in that bastion of justice, the Knesset, and squeeze the population, which represents 30% of the Naqab, into 2% of the land. Dimona, the Israeli nuclear reactor (the one that Israel has officially denied for decades) is located in the southeast area of the proposed relocations. (Health hazards anyone?)
Khalil remarks in a disconcertingly cheerful manner, “It really drives me crazy sometimes. Most Israelis are very stupid, listen to the media, the lies. How do we have these smart people, Jewish people are not stupid, [but] their behavior towards Bedouin and minorities is very strange. I expect more understanding with the Holocaust? And it is worse and worse.”
Bedouin have repeatedly rejected efforts to push them into poverty- stricken, crime-ridden townships. “We are not good friends with cities!” Khalil explains, “I am half Polish and half Bedouin!” His daughter interrupts for his iPhone. He explains that he was studying in Be’ersheba at the teacher’s college and sleeping in the park. A gas station offered him a part-time job, but it was not enough money for rent as his family was very poor. He laughs and says this Polish couple who had lost their own child, adopted him and took care of him for three years. As they got older, Khalil took care of them until they died and then he returned to his village.
His son is a physiotherapist, studied in Jordan, works in Be’ersheba, but returns home every day. Another son is studying medicine in Moldova, but he will also return. “We love the desert, this is our life.” He explains that not only does he have a demolition order on his house, but also on his animal bins and his generator.
The orders are created from an aerial map and he is #67. He remarks ironically that being #67 reminds him of the Holocaust.
“Nazi is a behavior. They created this regime.” Khalil has good Jewish friends who also get very angry.
He explains that there are forty-five unrecognized villages; every one of them is named; some are new, some are old. The Israelis took the fertile lands; Ariel Sharon had a large ranch in the Naqab.
The Bedouin have limited access to water, pay very high rates, have no electricity, no nearby schools or clinics. We drove into the town partly on the road to the airport. “We paved the road, connected to the water system, made solar energy, established two daycares for the children. We take care of ourselves.”
In the townships, they are offered high mortgages and a small plot of land (remember this is a traditional agricultural society with goats, cows, and sheep to herd). He says this township life is particularly hard for the women. They can’t make cheese, can’t do their traditional farming, can’t weave rugs. “They have no value.” They are given a microwave and washing machine (Israelis talk of modernization and improved living standards) and are “humiliated, no respect.”
“We have lived marginalized and neglected, no problem, we can live the next sixty years. They won’t even let us do that. Let the Bedouin live.” He takes us on an extraordinary tour of his property and at every stop he smiles and explains how much he loves his solar panels, loves his chickens, loves his mulberries, olives, sage, fresh eggs, the man is deeply in love with the land he lives with and he is deeply happy. His friends thought he was crazy, but he researched on the internet and learned how to set up solar panels; his friends were finally convinced when they noticed his refrigerator was working twenty-four hours per day. He traveled to Canada and the United States (even went to Las Vegas and is happy he does not smoke, gamble, or drink) to learn about solar energy.
Every year he would make fifty liters of olive oil from his trees, but he noticed they were dying from lack of water. Back to the internet and YouTube and he developed an ingenious system for collecting grey water with pipes, collecting tanks, pumps, and filters, providing drip irrigation to his rejuvenated trees. He is beaming as he shows us the lush clusters of happy olives. “I am not a genius, I am regular.” But he loves his chickens and scoops up three eggs; he eats two fresh eggs every morning and assures us that he only feeds the birds natural grains. We look across the brown rolling desert to the huge military area where he used to go to school and where his people used to bury their dead. He recently visited for the first time in thirty-two years with a group that went to maintain the cemetery.
And then he is back picking white mulberries for us (the taste is a cross between blackberries and strawberries). He remarks that he traveled to the United States with the Tree of Life Conference and laughs, “I was almost converted to Christianity!” He was hosted by Christians and Jews. We look up at the antennae for his phone and internet and the router attached to the corner of his house. He jokes that a bird sometimes nests there and so he also has Twitter. As we leave his house he points to a large collection of ants and he assures us (cheerfully) that he never kills them. “They were here before me.” Apparently they are coexisting quite successfully.
We wander through the dry dusty neighborhood, women are cleaning, cooking, children scatter about; there are manually rotating solar panels, a “white house” for community gatherings and celebrations, other homes of varying sturdiness. The village put up an ironic sign denoting the location of the town. In Arabic it says “Alsira,” the English is misspelled as “Alsra,” and in Hebrew it says, “Established in the Ottoman Empire.” Like I said, the guy has a sense of humor. Below the sign is a triangular warning sign, again tongue in cheek, with a house and a bulldozer, warning the hapless visitor that they are now entering a demolition zone. Such dangerous, uneducated, unimaginative people these Bedouins!
This village has no sheikh, but rather a local committee of five people that provides leadership. There are two big clans and five family groups representing seventy individual families and over one hundred children. There is also a Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages. There are no women in leadership, but two that are very active. Khalil reminds us that this is a conservative community, there is some polygamy, but “I am an open minded guy.” Nowadays girls do not get married before eighteen.
Last year, our delegation visited the village of Al Araqib, north of Be’ersheba. Khalil explains this village has “the saddest story,” which includes expulsion in 1948, repeated land confiscations, returning to the village, Israeli military spraying fields and animals with Round Up, multiple legal cases, repeated demolitions. (See my blog posts from 2013.) Last year, the villagers were living in the cemetery, “First time in history the dead people protect the live ones,” and the Jewish National Fund had planted the Ambassador Forest on their agricultural land, rows of water hungry eucalyptus trees. Last week, the Israeli forces demolished everything in the cemetery, approximately the 70th demolition. Now the villagers are under the trees, using blankets for cover, they are “upset and nervous,” and the sheikh, who was “warm and happy,” is feeling “angry.” Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights was arrested at the cemetery site and the demolitions have attracted attention from international NGOs and the UN.
Khalil asserts, “Our voice will be heard.” In the past, a delegation of Native Americans came and wrote an urgent letter to the Israelis. “I am optimistic. We don’t have the privilege to give up.
This is racism.”
The twelfth military plane screeches overhead, breaking the desert silence.
As we drive back to Ramallah passing near Hebron, we see Israeli forces marching with flags in some kind of military formation; we see a group of soldiers breaking into a house, our eyes burn from tear gas wafting from the city. Later we learn that Palestinians have been killed in Nablus, Hebron, and Ramallah where an Israeli sniper shot an unarmed man watching from a rooftop. Later that night the Israeli Defense Forces conduct an incursion into Ramallah (remember Area A under control by the Palestinian Authority???) in front of the Palestinian Authority (PA) police station; the PA does nothing to protect its people (it is in obvious collusion with the IDF), and when the IDF leaves, the enraged crowd attacks the police station and the PA attacks the crowd.
The media and the streets are filled with stories about the missing boys (Yeshiva students? Armed right-wing settlers? Paramilitary? Everyone has a theory) and Netanyahu’s blind rage. The entire Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza is under attack because three young men are missing, because Hamas and Fatah are talking, because the farce of the peace process has been laid bare, because, well because they are here and they are Palestinian. And that, it seems, is a crime in itself.