Rahat, Israel – Those passing by Al Araqib may call it a shanty town, but to Sheikh Siah Altori it is a home he says he is prepared to die for. After a reported 62 separate demolitions by state authorities, the remains of the Bedouin community, off the road from Rahat to Be’er Sheva, consists of several portable buildings, and a clutch of shacks and animal pens clinging to a hillside in the north of Israel’s Negev Desert.
Portions of the village’s lands have been designated to be planted with a state-sponsored forest. Al Araqib is one of the Bedouin communities known as an “unrecognised village”, which receive no state services such as electricity, water or sanitation. As many as 200,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, an area comprising 60 percent of Israel’s territory. Under a government proposal known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, $340m has been allocated for land and monetary compensation to move up to 40,000 of the Bedouin into state-sponsored townships.
On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in more than 30 cilties – in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as well as in other countries – to protest the Prawer-Begin Plan.
At Hura, a town in the northern Negev, more than 500 protesters gathered peacefully until youth began throwing stones and police used water cannon, horses and stun grenades to disperse the demonstration. Clashes continued throughout the night as the highway from Be’er Sheva to the Dead Sea was blocked with burning barricades and scores of young people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.
Earlier, Bedouin were joined by busloads of supporters to voice opposition to the Begin-Prawer Plan. While the Israeli government maintains that the policy will ensure its Bedouin population receive access to basic services and economic opportunities, critics see the plan as an attempt to displace and threaten an indigenous way of life.
Refusing to leave
Although many people have left Al Araqib over the years due to the demolitions, those remaining are adamant on staying.
Sheikh Siah, along with family and supporters, has maintained the protest tent since his release from prison on Thursday. He was arrested after rebuilding his tent following its demolition on November 20, and was released on condition that he would not return to Al Araqib.
“My grandfather was born in Al Araqib, my father was born there and I was born there – and so were my children,” the now-elderly sheikh said from his protest tent outside the Rahat police station. “I am staying in Al Araqib – alive or dead. It is better to live with dignity than to leave. We are Arabs, Palestinians, Bedouins and Israeli citizens. If the State of Israel likes it or not, we are going to stay.”
I don't believe this government gives justice.
A court will rule on his case in early December and if unsuccessful, Sheikh Siah said he would pursue other legal actions. “I believe in the justice of the courts – if not in Israel than in international courts – but I don’t believe this government gives justice,” he said.“We need a normal village at Al Araqib and to have agricultural opportunities.”
In July, Navi Pillay, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern that the Prawer-Begin plan might threaten Bedouin culture. “If this bill becomes law, it will accelerate the demolition of entire Bedouin communities, forcing them to give up their homes, denying them their rights to land ownership, and decimating their traditional cultural and social life in the name of development,” she said at the time.
Amos Gvirtz, one of the many Jewish Israelis supporting the Bedouin at Hura’s demonstration, described the plans as “racist” and said the majority of Israelis did not understand the issues facing the Negev’s Bedouins. “It’s like a wall we have to break through,” he said.“A lot of people don’t even know about the Bedouins’ issues.Removing people from their villages is removing their human rights and we are legalising the theft of their land.”
Khalil Alamour, a Bedouin from Al Sira, whose community is subject to demolition orders, said he hoped his village would receive official state recognition. “We want recognition and to stay in our village in order to maintain our culture, lifestyle and the link with our land,” he said.“Seven generations of our family have lived in the same place since the Ottoman times, and it is only the Israeli government that is narrowing the space we have.”
One the protest organisers, Amir Abokweder, said he was proud at the mobilisation of supporters across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “It gives a sense of justification to receive this support and confidence for us to continue the struggle to halt the process,” he said.
Abokweder, from the unrecognised village of Al Zarnoug, added that violent acts at the demonstration was a result of people feeling disenfranchised. “People behaved in this way because they feel like nobody is listening to them,” he said.
Ami Tesler, deputy head of the Headquarters of the Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin, the Israeli government office responsible for implementing the Prawer-Begin Plan, said in one month the government would present a map recognising 17 of the unrecognised villages and reveal the sites for at least 10 new villages.
The new villages will be planned with the Bedouin and will have places for sheep and access to agriculture but with roads, electricity and water.
“What we are trying to do – as quickly as possible – is build two or three successful villages to be a model for success,” he said. “The new villages will be planned with the Bedouin and will have places for sheep and access to agriculture but with roads, electricity and water.”
Economic development is the major focus of the policy, according to Tesler. “The goal of all of it is to bring the Bedouin, in 20-30 years from now, to a better future,” he said.“Education is the most important part of it and will enable them to find work and live a modern life.”
He recognised that mistakes had been made in the past when planning Bedouin villages, but he expressed confidence that the new plan would balance the needs of the communities and the state. “If they are large concentrations we realise we can’t move them, so we will make them normal villages,” he added.“The idea is to give fair compensation in land and money.”
Following Saturday’s protests, which included additional clashes in Haifa and Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying the government would not tolerate such disturbances.
“Attempts by a loud and violent minority to deny a better future to a large and broad population are grave,” the statement read. “We will continue to advance the law for a better future for all residents of the Negev.”