|Institut für Palästinakunde|
- IPK -
„Palestinians are a among the very few indigenous peoples facing settler colonialism who have managed to remain a living, defiant political subject. This is not a struggle over the bits and pieces of what remains to an indigenous people. It is still about its future, and making a different future for both peoples here possible. …”
This is one of those emails that I try not to send. Some of you have been following our work against the dispossession of the Bedouins within the Green Line (there is another huge project aimed at evicting Bedouins living in the West Bank, many of them refugees of the 1948 War and most of them living in the Jordan Valley where dispossessed Bedouins, including many children, work for next to nothing in settlers’ plantations using Palestinian water.) But for the past four years we (www.tarabut.info) have focused on working with Bedouins who are Israeli citizens, the most impoverished and discriminated against group within Israel.
We have supported one particular community in the Negev, just a few miles north of the city of Beer Sheva: Al-Arakib. They were evicted in 1951–1952, managed to stay not far from their ancestral lands, and were gradually able to return to it due to the Israeli agricultural settlements’ loss of interest in their lands. The Israeli state was powerful enough to expel, evict and to expropriate – at least on paper — but not to colonize the southern parts of the country.
By the year 2000, successive Israeli government began a war of attrition, with the help of the Jewish National Fund, against the Bedouins. Formerly considered “good Arabs”, loyal and acquiescent, they turned into “the enemy within,” giving birth to “too many children,” criminalized and described as “encroachers” on “state land” (which as a rule is expropriated Bedouin land). The Jewish National Fund served as the vanguard in these campaigns, planting barren trees on Bedouin land to mark unilateral ownership claims and make entire areas unusable for Bedouin agriculture.
The people of the village in question, al-Arakib, enjoyed two advantages when reclaiming their land rights: Some of them were evicted to a location just a few kilometers north of their lands, and they could re-assemble around their cemetery, founded in 1914, which remained intact.
There began a war of attrition: aerial herbicide spraying, with long-term damage to people’s health (2002-2003), destruction of their crops, repeated house demolitions, etc. I won’t recount it here (an older text from 2010, which badly needs updating as I have learned so much from conversations with the old people and from the archives, can be found here). In July 2010 the whole village was demolished; some 350-400 people lost their homes. A demolition on this scale has been unheard of since 1949. Since 2010, the shacks rebuilt by the inhabitants were demolished almost 70 times. In January-February 2011, the authorities attempted to push for a solution through a series of daily attacks on the remaining families: Tear gas, beatings, sponge bullets, detention (see this). Most families with small children left the area; a few remained and had to seek refuge in the Muslim cemetery compound.
The legal battle is still ongoing. It is almost impossible for Bedouins to win in courts. Before assuming state power, Zionists had recognized Bedouin land rights and purchased land from them. Now it is next to impossible for Bedouins to prove that they owned land, but even if they do, almost all remaining lands were confiscated dozens of years ago under the stipulations of the notorious Land Acquisition Law (1953).
Since 2010, thanks to its stubborn resistance, Al-Arakib turned into the first case where Bedouins have waged a serious legal battle over their land rights. They have reached the Supreme Court three times, and the cases are still pending. In other words, we haven’t lost yet, and the state cannot claim automatic registration of their confiscated lands as “state lands” (the battle, I must add, is waged over a tiny area, but the implications are far-reaching for all Bedouin communities).
This may be one reasons for why the state authorities have recently moved into a new phase in their attempt to literally wipe the village off the face of the earth, and to drive the families into the nearby Bedouin township, which was constructed for Bedouins in the 1970s as part of a project of severing their connection to their lands and forced proletarization. The other, perhaps more weighty consideration, is that in 2005-2006 Israel launched a massive colonization project for its southern half, the Negev desert. This plan required “solving the Bedouin issue”, that is, establishing on the ground the clean slate needed in order to draw investors and settlers. This project assumed several names over the years. Its latest incarnation as “Prawer Plan” called for the eviction of an estimated 30,000-40,000 Bedouins in the Negev and the forced settlement of their land claims. Al-Arakib became the symbol of Bedouin resistance. The plan had to be revoked following massive protest in 2013. State policy in relation to the Bedouins shifted again, this time from a massive project to a day-to-day war of attrition. In this war, Al-Arakib remains a major target.
This brings me to the last week’s events. For the past three years, since the violent attacks of the first months of 2011, the remaining families, with their small children, have made camp in the cemetery compound. Since May 2014, signs have multiplied that the authorities are about to cross a red line, to attack the families in the cemetery compound and demolish their improvised homes. The people of Al-Arakib have managed to hold on for four years since the complete demolition of their village, and 12 years since the first attacks by state authorities. Al-Arakib, according to the authorities, must vanish.
The eviction orders for the homes in the cemetery compound were void; they referred to other shacks that had been demolished in the past. Never mind that: Judges were reluctant to discuss maps, to withstand pressure by the state, and one of them, a settler, went well beyond the duties of his office and authorized the complete demolition of shacks in the compound in the presence of state attorneys alone, in other words in the absence of the inhabitants’ lawyer (June 12, 2014). Within minutes, police, special police squads, bulldozers and trucks entered the compound. The inhabitants were forced into the mosque and surrounded. Among them, one young mother with her 40 day old baby, another with a baby just 8 months old, and several very old women and men. We – some 20 activists, most of us Tarabut members – were with them. I can summarize the events here, but I’m still too overwhelmed to narrate what happened. I am therefore enclosing a few pictures.
The inhabitants watched as everything they have managed to build over years of struggle is crushed into pieces, ground to dust. Some homes were set on fire. Water containers were emptied, and then confiscated. The lawyer, startled by the unilateral authorization of the eviction, appealed to the district court. The Israel Land Administration refused to stop demolition and wait for the results of the appeal. They ordered the demolition teams to pick up the pace of destruction. When a judge finally issued an injunction to delay the demolition, 95% of the structured had been demolished. By the late afternoon it became clear to us, surrounded on all sides in the mosque – more like an open-sided shelter with a little minaret – that given the huge investment of resources in this operation, executed as a coordinated military attack with major administrative backing, this day is not likely to end without some violence and detention. Special squads invaded the improvised mosque, cleared it with violence, destroyed the minaret and detained 7 people – five inhabitants of Al-Arakib, among them two minors, and two Jewish activists, one younger activist from Tel Aviv and Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights.
People have been camping there since Thursday. The next day, Friday, two kids were kidnapped (I have no other term for it) by special police squads and detained for “trespassing”, that is, for being there. On Sunday morning, all the improvised shacks were demolished again, and all water containers brought to the place since Friday were confiscated. Our activists were there, but beyond solidarity and mere presence there at the worst moments, there is very little material support we can offer. Unless we find judges truly willing to listen, the eviction order for the cemetery would remain in force until July 12th. Until then, we expect repeated demolitions, constant harassments, and perhaps an attempt by the authorities to redesign the whole area – to erect a fence around the tombs and to declare that the rest of the area is not truly a cemetery, and can therefore be dealt with ruthlessly as they have with the rest of the area.
This is a difficult moment not in Al-Arakib alone. As the farce of endless “peace talks” is over and Netanyahu’s foreign policy is facing a debacle, Palestinians within Israel and in the Occupied Territories are to pay the price. The demolition of al-Arakib forms part of a larger campaign: The eviction of Iqrit (a tiny Palestinian village in the North whose inhabitants have sought to return to were their village ever since their eviction in 1951); the decision to opt for a hard-line vis-à-vis the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, including forced feeding; the eviction plan for Bedouins in the West Bank and a new government committee to deal with Bedouin affairs, controlled by the extreme right of the extreme right.
I should not conclude in this vein. The story of Al-Arakib is also a story of courage, of daily sacrifice, of women carrying the burden of this struggle for years. You can see their faces in some of these pictures. It is truly unbelievable that of all the Palestinians within Israel, so often forgotten – because Palestinians are assumed to exist only in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or as refugees – it is the Bedouins, not always taken into consideration even in attempts to write Palestinian history – who have put up such a fight in the face of superior forces. Yes, I have often been reminded of Hobsbawm’s paper on peasant land occupations of 1974 and of my friend Gavin Smith’s wonderful work on Peru. At the same time, Palestinians are a among the very few indigenous peoples facing settler colonialism who have managed to remain a living, defiant political subject. This is not a struggle over the bits and pieces of what remains to an indigenous people. It is still about its future, and making a different future for both peoples here possible.