Al-Araqib, Israel – Hakmeh Abu Mdeighem sat quietly on a cement cinderblock last Wednesday, looking out across a small valley at where, moments earlier, Israeli police bulldozers had turned a handful of tents and shacks into piles of sandy rubble.
The 49th demolition of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib had just ended, and Abu Mdeighe, a mother of nine, spoke unflinchingly.
“One feels that one doesn’t live in one’s own country anymore. One feels that a continuous war is going on between him and Israel. This is a war that Israel wages against us everything month,” she said. “What can we do when the state comes and fights you inside your own house, on your own ground, when it destroys your house on the heads of your sons?”
Abu Mdeighem, her husband and her children, live inside the village’s century-old Islamic cemetery. The burial ground is the only place in Al-Araqib that has never been demolished. It is here that the handful of families who remain now call home.
“They threatened to destroy the cemetery before this,” Abu Mdeighem said. “It is really painful… what they are doing. Painful, very painful. When a person does not scream, and just lets others see his tears, it is painful.”
Originally home to about 300 residents, all Israeli citizens, Al-Araqib is located just north of Be’er Sheva in Israel’s Negev desert. The village is one of dozens that has never been recognised by the state, and doesn’t feature on any official maps. Its residents are denied access to water, electricity, paved roads, hospitals, schools and other basic services.
Hundreds of Israeli police officers and soldiers first demolished dozens of homes and animal pens and uprooted thousands of olive trees in Al-Araqib in July 2010. The Israeli authorities have regularly returned to demolish tents and basic structures that residents have erected there ever since.
|Israeli bulldozers are removed from Al-Araqib after the
village’s demolition [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]
In place of Al-Araqib, the Israeli government aims to build a forest – under the direction of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israel Land Authority (ILA), two bodies that oversee public land use in Israel and control some 93 percent of the nation’s land.
“Israel cannot tolerate callous lawbreakers whose behaviour is harmful to the law-abiding community. It is the state’s duty to evict squatters and restore the land to the citizens who leased it,” the ILA wrote on its website [PDF].
According to the ILA, the state has filed 170 counter-claims against Bedouin land ownership claims in the Negev, “and in every case where a ruling has been handed down by the court, it has ordered the land to be registered as state owned”.
Despite ongoing legal battles over land ownership in Al-Araqib, row upon row of young trees are already growing on village lands, and more planting is expected.
Planting over destroyed villages
An estimated 200,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel live in the country’s Negev desert.
About half the Bedouin population lives in government-planned townships, which suffer from high unemployment levels and a widespread lack of services, and regularly register among the lowest socioeconomic indicators in the country.
The other half live across 35 “unrecognised villages” and, like Al-Araqib, face a near-constant threat of demolitions and displacement.
Furthermore, Al-Araqib isn’t the only village to be threatened by Israeli forestation. On March 1, two groups petitioned against the approval of Israel’s plan to build the “Yatir Forest” over the Bedouin village of Atir-Umm Al Hieran, home to 1,000 people.
“The plan clears the way for the state to forcibly move the residents from their land, where the village’s residents were born and raised, a place where they raised their families, and where they established family and social life,” Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, stated.
|The scene in Al-Araqib after the bulldozers left
[Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]
Founded as a charity in 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is responsible for forests and national parks in Israel. The JNF currently owns approximately 13 percent of the land in Israel – which, according to its mandate, it reserves exclusively for Jews. It also has significant influence over the ILA, which in turn owns about 80 percent of the land.
According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the JNF has built national parks – made up primarily of European-style conifers, instead of trees indigenous to the area – over destroyed Palestinian villages since the creation of Israel in 1948.
“Wherever almond and fig trees, olive groves or clusters of cactuses are found, there once stood a Palestinian village: still blossoming afresh each year, these trees are all that remain. Near the now-uncultivated terraces, and under the swings and picnic tables, and the European pine forests, there lie buried the houses and fields of the Palestinians whom Israeli troops expelled in 1948,” Pappe wrote in the book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The Byria forest, for instance, which spans 2,000 hectares in the Safad region, was built over the land of six Palestinian villages – Dishon, Alma, Qaddita, Amqa, Aynal-Zaytunor and Biriyya – while, at the centre of Ramat Menashe Park, just south of Byria, lie the remnants of the destroyed village of Daliyat al-Rawha.
In 1967, the JNF decided to plant one million trees on the western slopes of Jerusalem. Known as the “Jerusalem Forest”, the trees were planted over a handful of depopulated Palestinian villages, including Ayn Karim, Beit Mazmil, Zuba, Sataf, Jura, Beit Umm Al-Meis, and Deir Yassin – the tiny village where pre-state Zionist militia massacred more than 100 Palestinian civilians in April 1948.
In the Negev, the destruction of Al-Araqib is part of a larger Israeli government plan to move Bedouin residents of the unrecognised villages and into Bedouin townships. Known as the Prawer Plan, the proposal would necessitate the forced displacement of at least 30,000 people.
Israeli leaders justify the plan as a way to “modernise” the Bedouin community and provide it with better services and resources.
“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when the Prawer Plan was finalised in January 2013. The plan is expected to advance to the Israeli parliament later this year for final approval.
“This brave decision will facilitate the continued development and prosperity of the Negev, for the benefit of all its residents,” Netanyahu said.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Israel to abandon the Prawer plan – calling it “racist” – in March 2012. Local human rights groups have also condemned the government for pursuing a policy that discriminates against the Bedouin.
“Home demolitions are taking place on a weekly basis. They are becoming more often and more brutal. Of course, once [Israel] will have a law, it will have the legal basis to even further enhance these policies,” said Rawia Abu Rabia, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
“If the government wants an equal and feasible solution, first it should recognise the 35 villages and put in a mechanism to investigate the [Bedouin] land ownership claims. This is the only way. Other than that, it will mean a direct clash with the Bedouin community,” Abu Rabia told Al Jazeera.
Hakmeh Abu Mdeighem in Al-Araqib agreed that the destruction of her village was being repeated throughout the Negev.
“All this is not new,” she said. “Everything has been destruction and more destruction, humiliating human beings, displacing people. They are not doing this only in Al-Araqib. They want to expel all the Bedouins out of Israel.”
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