Israeli security forces entered the embattled Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev on June 12 to evict a handful of families who had sought sanctuary in the community’s graveyard.
Bulldozers tore down an improvised mosque, caravan and several shacks that had been set up in the cemetery by 30 residents after the rest of the village had been destroyed dozens of times over the past four years.
"Hundreds of security forces stormed the cemetery, a place where my father and grandfather are buried," Awad Abu Freih, a village leader, told Al Jazeera. "Israel has no shame. It has violated our sacred land."
Thabet Abu Ras, an expert on Israeli land policy at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, said the invasion of the cemetery was a "dangerous escalation" by the government. "It will provoke a severe reaction. The government has only one policy towards the Bedouin: force and more force."
Al-Araqib, which is located a few kilometres north of the Negev’s main city, Beersheva, has become a symbol of the struggle by tens of thousands of Bedouin to win recognition for dozens of communities the government claims are illegally built on state land.
Abu Ras said Israel considered al-Araqib a test of its determination to move the Bedouin off their tribal lands and into "townships" built specially for them decades ago.
"The government fears al-Araqib. Other Bedouin look to it for inspiration," he told Al-Jazeera. "They see the villagers are refusing to leave their land despite the now 70 demolitions."
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Eviction orders, issued last month and posted on the mosque, included the names of two Bedouins buried in the cemetery. This prompted fears that the Israeli authorities might also be planning to demolish the graveyard.
Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said several structures had been removed, but the graves would not be destroyed.
Israeli police had been regularly visiting the cemetery since March, taking photographs and measurements, said Haia Noach, director of Dukium, an Israeli organisation campaigning for equal rights for the Negev’s Bedouin.
Rabbis for Human Rights had described the earlier intrusions as a "desecration of sacred ground".
Dozens of Bedouins, including two members of the Israeli parliament, backed by solidarity activists, had joined the families on June 11, in preparation for the eviction orders taking effect the next day.
The villagers of al-Araqib began burying their dead in the cemetery exactly a century ago. Abu Freih said: "It is the clearest proof that, contrary to the state’s claims, our ancestors were settled here well before Israel’s creation in 1948."
Land claims by 35 Bedouin villages, relating to nearly 1,000sq km of the Negev, are yet to be settled by Israel’s highest court, despite years of legal battles.
But al-Araqib’s families received a tentative fillip this month when the Supreme Court appeared reluctant to back the government’s argument that the Bedouin were "trespassers".
It recommended instead that officials engage in a "fair" mediation process over Al-Araqib’s lands, possibly establishing a precedent for other villages in the same situation.
The government has said it will respond to the court’s proposal in the next few weeks. Abu Freih said the evictions from the cemetery were intended to "pre-empt" the court’s decision.
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At the time of the village’s first demolition in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warned that the rapid growth of the country’s Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of the population, posed a "palpable threat" to the state’s Jewishness.
The Bedouin have one of the country’s highest birth rates and now number 200,000, more than a quarter of the Negev’s total population despite waves of state-sponsored Jewish migration.
Netanyahu told his cabinet a possible consequence might be that "different elements will demand national rights within Israel, for example, in the Negev, if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority".
The Negev constitutes nearly two-thirds of Israel’s recognised territory, and much of it is reserved for military purposes, including Israel’s nuclear reactor and its secret nuclear weapons programme.
In 2011, Netanyahu’s government approved a plan by a senior security official, Ehud Prawer, to forcibly remove up to 70,000 Bedouin from their villages and urbanise them in seven Bedouin townships built in the 1970s and 1980s. The townships, including the largest, Rahat, languish at the bottom of all Israeli social and economic tables, according to figures compiled by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Abu Freih said the goal was to empty the Negev of Bedouins so that Jews could settle in their place. "The state wants us out, but we will continue to rebuild. We are not leaving."
Following widescale protests by the Bedouin, Israel officially shelved legislation to implement Prawer’s recommendations late last year. However, Yair Shamir, the agriculture minister, has been charged with reintroducing the plan.
"There is a lot of frustration in the government that it did not succeed in passing the Prawer Bill," said Abu Ras. "My suspicion is that they are now planning to implement it on the ground without legislation. For them al-Araqib is a ‘hot spot’ - a village they need to make an example of."
In a possible sign of the internal disputes within the government, Doron Almog, Netanyahu’s senior official dealing with Bedouin affairs, resigned his post last weekend. He declined to state his reasons.
Before the wave of demolitions began in summer 2010, al-Araqib was home to more than 300 Bedouin. The few families that remained had hoped the cemetery would offer them protection.
The state wants us out, but we will continue to rebuild. We are not leaving.
The residents of al-Araqib have been struggling to be allowed to return to their village since they were forcibly relocated in 1951, during a lengthy period of military rule in the Negev. Their land, along with that of many other Bedouin communities, was reclassified as belonging to the state.
The villagers were eventually resettled in Rahat, only a short distance from al-Araqib. But faced with severe overcrowding there, as well as a lack of infrastructure and jobs, many families began moving back to al-Araqib in the late 1990s and tried to revive their pastoral way of life.
Yusuf Abu Zaid, a resident of al-Araqib now living in Rahat, said many families had found it too difficult to endure four years of demolitions and had moved back to the township. "But we keep our connection by returning at the weekends and in the evenings," he said.
Only about half the Negev’s 200,000 Bedouin have agreed to live in the townships.
In the region’s master plan, much of al-Araqib’s land has been designated for two large forestation programmes. One honours the international community’s ambassadors to Israel, while the other has been paid for by a Christian evangelical TV station called GOD-TV.
Abu Freih said other parts of the village’s lands had been secretly settled by Jews in 2004. In a night-time operation the government and an international Zionist charity, the Jewish National Fund, set up caravans that subsequently became an exclusively Jewish community known as Givot Bar.
In 2002 Israel began a policy of annually spraying herbicide on al-Araqib’s crops, in an attempt to move the villagers off the land. The practise was stopped in 2007 after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal.
In a test case currently before Israel’s Supreme Court, a former resident of al-Araqib, Nuri al-Uqbi, has been presenting documents and expert testimony to show that his ancestors owned and lived on the village’s lands many decades before Israel’s establishment in 1948.
In 2010, a Beersheva judge rejected al-Uqbi’s case, backing the government’s argument that his tribe had no ownership claim on the land.
This month, however, three Supreme Court justices sided with al-Uqbi’s lawyer, agreeing that government should enter a six-month mediation process to reach a "fair solution".
Oren Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben Gurion University, said the case was the first time the Supreme Court had examined historical documents relating to Bedouin land claims.
He added: "Sixty years of Bedouin dispossession in general - and the Uqbis’ dispossession in particular - were based on a judicial and historical falsehood".