Umm al-Hiran, Israel – With a sudden whoosh, a cloud of dust blew through the courtyard outside Raed Abu al-Qian’s home in Umm al-Hiran.
“This has been happening for three months now, since the digging started,” he told Al Jazeera.
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Together, the Israeli state and the KKL-JNF – an NGO that works closely with the government and owns around 13 percent of the land in Israel – are building the new town of Hiran here in the Negev desert. As part of the town’s master plan, the “unrecognised” Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran will be demolished to make way for up to 10,000 Jewish Israelis.
Late last month, police arrived in Umm al-Hiran with a tractor and team of surveyors to build a fence next to the village. Five people were arrested as villagers protested against the police presence.
Excavations have gathered speed this summer, with the KKL-JNF’s spokesman, Dan Weinstein, noting that the organisation was involved in helping to build the future town.
“It’s ongoing. It’s the process of building a town – general groundwork, preparing the ground for the construction of the town,” he told Al Jazeera. “Hiran is built on … state land.”
Development has accelerated since Israel’s Supreme Court in May 2015 rejected an appeal by Umm al-Hiran residents against their eviction orders. Since that ruling, which posited that the village was built on state land, they have continued to live in the village under the constant threat of evictions and home demolitions.
“I am angry that as an Israeli citizen, they want to uproot me and bring a Jewish citizen instead of me,” Abu al-Qian told Al Jazeera. “And in such a progressive era, in a state that acts as a democracy, that is proud of being a democracy – if the law says that you can uproot a Bedouin and destroy his home and do whatever you want, then what kind of democracy is that?”
Established in 1956, the village of Um al-Hiran has never been recognised by the state, and has not received any basic municipal services such as water, health or education facilities. The state has offered to move the village’s 400 residents about eight kilometres to the southwestern urban township of Hura, which is one of seven state-planned towns specifically built to relocate Bedouin from rural villages.
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“They give me only one choice, to move to Hura, which doesn’t meet my needs. We’ve seen the seven towns established by the state … and they’re not suitable for Bedouin life,” Abu al-Qian said. “Hura is the worst. The violence there is bad. There are no employment opportunities, and unemployment leads to crime and violence.”
Around 25km northwest of Umm al-Hiran, another unrecognised village is facing a renewed threat to its existence. Over the past six years, the village of Araqib has been demolished by Israeli police 101 times under the pretext that the land is state-owned, while the KKL-JNF has planted a vast forest on much of the land that the villagers claim as their own. The residents of Araqib are involved in an ongoing court case against the state regarding ownership of the land.
Haia Noach, chief executive of the Israeli human rights group Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, told Al Jazeera that the court last year recommended that the KKL-JNF refrain from planting any additional trees on the contested land until a final decision was reached.
But as recently as July 17, the organisation established a new work camp close to the village and began work on the contested land, villagers said. Over the following week, six bulldozers carried out works in preparation for new forestation, likely to take place this coming winter.
“It’s something they did before in 2013,” said Noach. “First of all, they are creating dams – when there is a small wadi or a small creek, they will create some dams in order to drain the rain. Along the hills, they are making these small dams along the high line, where you drain the water to this small beach. It’s the same system whereby Bedouin collected rain water.”
In the village itself, a dozen residents sipped coffee in the shade of one of their few remaining trees as KKL-JNF bulldozers sat idle at the nearby work camp. Aziz al-Turi, who was arrested and released earlier that week as residents protested the cultivation work, said that planting on this land was an attempt to erase signs of Bedouin presence.
“The KKL-JNF has deleted our history here on this piece of land. They uprooted Arab trees – our olive trees, grape trees, fig trees and cactus. If you see these trees, in your mind, you think it is an Arab area. The KKL-JNF uprooted these kinds of trees and is planting KKL-JNF trees, like eucalyptus and palm trees,” Turi told Al Jazeera.
“The problem will be in the future,” he added. “After 10 years, it will be a big forest. When you travel in this forest and you want to find any [sign] that Arabs were here, you won’t find anything.”
Weinstein, however, maintained that the KKL-JNF carried out planting work, but not on contested lands. “It was planting and cultivation, regular work that KKL does from time to time in state lands or on its privately owned lands. It’s all done according to law,” he said, noting that the KKL-JNF is effectively a sub-contractor for the Israel Land Authority (ILA), a government agency that manages and leases public land in Israel.
Noach maintained that Israel has been driving a policy of dispossession in the Negev.
“It’s a tool of the state that is doing things on the ground, and so they confront the people on the ground,” Noach said. “The problem is the policy of dispossessing people with more and more manoeuvres – to relocate them, to grab their land.”