In July 2007, I witnessed one of the saddest events of my life. Hundreds of security force personnel descended upon the Bedouin village of Um Al-Hiran in order to evict the residents and demolish their houses. The police removed cradles carrying babies from the houses while bulldozers razed the buildings and uprooted olive trees from the yards. Dozens of youth (sporting orange t-shirts) hired by the demolition contractor loaded the residents’ personal belongings into containers which were then transported from the area. When everything was packed up they began dancing in front of the stunned residents chanting, “this is the new Zionism.”
Eight years and many court hearings have passed, but the danger of demolition and eviction still lingers over the residents’ heads. This time, the danger is more tangible than ever because the Supreme Court recently rejected the court appeal of the 1,000 residents. This now allows the government to proceed with its plans to forcibly move the residents to the neighboring village of Hura and establish on the same site, the Jewish village of Hiran. It didn’t help when the mayor of the Hura local council stated that there is no room in the village for the evicted residents. Nor did it help when the residents explained that it was the Military Governor, speaking in the name of the government who had ordered them to move to this location in 1956 after they had been removed from the area of Wadi Zubaleh, near Kibbutz Shuval.
Just a few kilometers from the village, at the head of the road leading to the Yatir forest, 25 Jewish families from the Hiran garin (nucleus) are living in a temporary camp, awaiting the “final authorization for them to settle on the land in Hiran,” as reported on the website of the Or settlement movement. The site also states “the intention is to build a settlement designated for the national religious community in the northern Negev desert as part of establishing a continuity of Jewish settlements in the area.” These descriptions regarding the character of the settlement group are in complete contradiction to the state’s claim to the Supreme Court that the new settlement will be a “general” settlement without unique characteristics and will not be closed to any resident. Thus, based on an act of partial blindness, another story of a national-ethnic struggle over land and settlement in Israel has come into being.
In a minority opinion, Supreme Court Judge Dafna Barak-Erez writes: “The state did not take into consideration at all an additional important and even critical point, that the petitioners had been authorized to live on this land for tens of years. In this case, the state based its position on false information according to which the petitioners were trespassers. Even worse: the state did not reconsider its decisions when the true facts came to light. Moreover, it did not at all take into consideration the attachment the authorized residents had developed for the place in which they were living. .. or the depth of the affront to them after the many years of their living on that site.
The Supreme Court is arguably the most important institution in the State of Israel and its decisions must be honored. However, the question that must be critically examined is whether there is any chance for the Negev Arab-Bedouin to win legal battles regarding land rights within the Israeli legal system: a system that completely disregarded the Bedouins’ traditional methods of bequeathal that continued during the periods of both the Ottoman and the British Empires; a system which expropriated the lands from which the Bedouins had been evicted in 1951 through passing the “Land Purchase Law” in 1953; a system that by-passed the Bedouin villages when it passed the “Building and Planning Law” in 1965 and continued to abuse them with eviction notices, ongoing demolitions and insulting offers of compensation.
As things look today, within a few years the struggle over Um Al-Hiran will become embedded in the collective memory as the “Tel Chai” myth of the Negev Arab-Bedouin: the few against the many, struggling over a piece of land in an isolated area while being unjustly attacked by forces more powerful than them. While it is true that there is a large gap between the myth of Tel Chai and the actual historical story, that is the nature of myths. To tell a story that will justify larger perceptions.
But there is another possibility. When I visited Umm Al-Hiran again last week, the village Sheikh was speaking to the residents. In an interesting step he called for building a joint community with Jews who are interested in living in the place. It now remains to be seen if Um Al-Hiran will become yet another national myth of the land struggle between Arabs and Jews in this country or alternately, a new model for cooperation between Arabs and Jews that will turn a great crises into a new opportunity and cause optimism for the future of the Negev.
Founded in 1998, AJEEC-NISPED (the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development) is an Arab-Jewish nonprofit organization based in Israel’s Negev, dedicated to strengthening active citizenship through education and economic empowerment. AJEEC-NISPED works towards creating equal, inclusive and flourishing societies. Their programming includes an array of strategies including economic development through formation of cooperatives and social enterprises, volunteerism, quality early childhood education, health promotion, and Jewish-Arab partnership.