On Saturday, during the Sabeel conference, I joined an excursion to the Negev. Three coach-loads of conference participants travelled from Jerusalem to visit Bedouin villages in the semi-arid southern part of Israel.
After a brief stop at a service station on the way, the coach that I was on stopped first at a village – or rather the remains of a village – north of Be’er Sheva, which is one of the largest towns/cities in Israel, now almost exclusively Jewish. The village, Al Arakib, was home to 573 Bedouin villagers when it was first destroyed in 2010. The village was “unrecognised”, so was not provided with water supply or electricity by the Israeli authorities. In spite of this, the houses of these semi-nomadic people had both water and electricity. And everyone had work.
In 1999 and again a couple of years later the whole area around Al Arakib was sprayed at night with defoliant, causing serious damage to olive trees and other crops. In 2010 the 63 houses in the village were demolished and 4,000 olive trees uprooted. Where several hundred Bedouin villagers had been practising sustainable agriculture, the Jewish National Fund has planted thousands of trees, including eucalyptus, which require much more water than is provided by the scanty winter rainfall. Israel is mining the aquifers of Palestine for water.
After the destruction of their village in 2010, the Bedouin rebuilt it as best they could. But then it was demolished again – and rebuilt again and demolished again, until now it has been demolished more than 60 times. Some villagers have sought refuge in nearby towns. They are mostly unemployed. A few remain with their animals in tents beside the cemetery.
The sheik, the head of the village, who is now 65 years old, has recently been arrested for building illegally. When he appeared in court, the judge was using his mobile phone throughout the proceedings.
Our next stop was Alsra, a village to the east of Be’er Sheva on the way to Arad, a small town near the southern end of the Dead Sea. In 1948 around 11,000 Bedouin were transferred to a roughly triangular area between Be’er Sheva, Arad, and Dimona to the south. They were all that were left of a total Bedouin population of 90,000. The rest became refugees.
There are now 70,000 Bedouin living in unrecognised villages in this area. They face being displaced once again, this time to two towns and five recognised villages.
Many of the 500 villagers in Alsra are already unemployed, because much of their grazing land has been confiscated. We could see a large military base which was constructed in 1982. Some villagers still herd animals. Some commute to work further afield.
We were welcomed at the entrance to the village by Khalil and his delightful four-year-old daughter. Khalil pointed out a mosque and told us that there are two day care centres for younger children in the village. Older children go to a school in a recognised village 15km away.
Khalil showed us some solar panels which he has been installing since 2003 to replace noisy and costly generators. He keeps 15 chicken to provide eggs. And he uses waste water to irrigate a few olive trees. One of the trees beside his house turned out to be a mulberry tree.
We sat around tables on the veranda at the front of the house and were treated to a delicious and substantial lunch.
Our coach then took us back past the growing town of Hura to Rahat, a large Bedouin town north of Be’er Sheva. We were joined by the other two coachloads of people to listen to a Jewish volunteer with the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages telling us about the Prawer Plan which is now being debated in the Knesset. If the Plan is approved, 30,000 Bedouin living in 35 unrecognised villages will be transferred to two towns and five recognised villages. Their claims to the land that was allocated to them in 1948 will be terminated. Jewish settlements are already being built in the area.
We were all encouraged to write to our MPs or representatives in Congress and to the Israeli Ambassadors in our home countries to call for cancellation of the Prawer Plan.