Hardly two hours in to my first day at Shatil, I was already on the road, taken out “in to the field” to see one small piece of the vast amount of work that takes place outside of the Jerusalem office. It is a testament to how active and involved Shatil and its staff are that in the two weeks since I’ve started, I’ve been out of the office a handful of times, and not once to the same city. One such trip was a trip I took to a Bedouin village in the Negev named Umm al-Hiran. The piece below is something that resulted from that experience:
Nestled between low desert hills, Umm al-Hiran lies just to the northeast of Be’er Sheva. Reached by a bumpy hole-filled road that branches off of one of the main highways, Umm al-Hiran is charming at sunset, stone houses bathed in purple light. At the forefront of the village, a large awning is set up, shading a circle of white plastic chairs from the setting sun. Local Bedouin residents mill about, greeting each other and the various guests who have just arrived.
Umm al-Hiran, now a village of around 700 people, was settled in 1957 by the Abu al-Kiyan clan. Forced to leave their land – now the location of Kibbutz Shoval – in 1948, they eventually approached the Israeli military administration, which resettled them on their current land, an area that has now become two villages, Umm al-Hiran and Atir.
Local residents and guests from various NGOs take their seats beneath the awning and a teenaged boy makes his way around the circle, serving everyone coffee, dark, pungent and cardamom-infused. A resident stands up and begins to talk about the history of the community and of its struggle.
One of numerous unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, Umm al-Hiran is thus considered illegal by the Israeli government. Even in the seclusion of the desert one feels the effect of government zoning, and a building built without permission – a building built in an unrecognized village – is subject to demolition. Umm al-Hiran, refused recognition by the Israeli government, has been the site of a number of house demolitions over the past decade. Stones crumble and the residents go on.
After everyone has been served their coffee and a cool desert breeze begins to blow, the same young man makes his way around the circle a second time, methodically, quietly, but this time he serves tea, cups filled to the brim, overflowing with sweetness.
As an unrecognized village, Umm al-Hiran has had to fight many battles, not limited to the issue of house demolitions. The village does not receive electricity, water or infrastructure, and gaining access to healthcare and education is difficult. A solar panel is perched defiantly by the entrance to the village and a community member explains that they get water from a nearby town. Three years ago, all these issues were compounded by a government announcement that they planned to demolish the entire village and to build a Jewish town, Hiran, in its place.
Sitting under the awning, one can look out over dusty desert hills, shrub-speckled, and reaching out to where sky and sand meet. There are villages in the distance, but, tree-less, the desert seems vast – and largely unpopulated.
Yet the plan approved by the National Planning and Building Council calls for a Jewish settlement exactly where Umm al-Hiran currently stands. In response to the demolition and evacuation orders, several families of the Abu al-Kiyan clan brought a claim against the state in November 2013. On appeal this spring, the Supreme Court ruled on the issue, deciding that the land belongs to the state and that the Bedouins have no legal claims to it, despite agreeing that the Bedouins are technically not squatters. “This is not expulsion and not appropriation,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein.
In the circle, various people get up to speak, and a row of young boys sit near the awning’s edge, listening intently, impersonating adults. Halil, a local resident, stands up and announces, ein tzedek, ein din, v’ein dayan. “There is no justice, no law, and no judge.”
Residents have been offered 800 square foot plots in the nearby village of Hura as compensation, but they argue that Umm al-Hiran is their home. They refuse to be unjustly uprooted and relocated again.
Another community member, Ra’id, stands up and explained the three resolutions they would accept: The new town of Hiran to be built outside the existing borders of Umm al-Hiran, a shared settlement in Umm al-Hiran for both the current Bedouin residents and for Jews, and, only if the first two options are not accepted, a return to their original land.
The government has claimed that the residents of Umm al-Hiran could choose to live in the new town of Hiran, although their homes would still be demolished and they would receive smaller plots of land.
After the coffee, still steaming, makes its way around the circle a second time, MK Dov Khenin gets up from where he has been quietly listening, and begins to speak. He talks about the importance of this issue, and the need to bring a joint Arab-Jewish voice on it to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Our job, he says, is to stimulate the masses. The Negev cannot be built on the destruction of its local Arab communities.
Khenin pauses, throws out his arm, and says, “Look!” Beyond his fingertips, the desert extends for miles. Look at all the empty space, he says. Hiran doesn’t need to be built here. It doesn’t need to be built where people already live.