Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Israel's internal ethnic cleansing of bedouins continues

'The area where you live is known as a military area that
was acquired by the state in 1980 and is earmarked for the
construction of a military base.'

According to the story passed from generation to
generation in the Bedouin village of Al-Sira, the village
was founded during the Ottoman period following a conflict
in the early 20th century among the families of the tribe,
al-Nasasra and al-Amour, and the neighboring al-Hassouni
clan. The argument revolved around several hundred dunams
that the al-Nasasra and al-Amour families had purchased
southeast of Be'er Sheva. The sheikhs of the two tribes
went all the way to Jerusalem to ask the Ottoman court to
decide. The court ruled in their favor, and the lands of
Al-Sira were registered in their names in the Turkish land

"Our families have been living peacefully in this village
for almost 100 years, without bothering anyone and without
anyone bothering them," says Halil al-Amour, a member of
the village residents' committee and a teacher of
mathematics and computers in the high school in Keseifa,
the adjacent town.

The lands of Al-Sira, which over 100 years ago lay in the
middle of the desert, are today located in a bustling
region: they border on the north with the highway
connecting Arad with the Shoket junction, on the south
with the Israel Air Force base in Nevatim, and on the east
with the road connecting the base and the highway.

Only few of the Bedouin tribes who lived for years in the
region have survived the changes in government as they
have, without having to leave their lands. The British,
who arrived a few years after that legal proceeding in
Jerusalem, honored their ownership of the land and even
built a clinic, a school and a flour mill for them in
nearby Tel Malhata. The Israeli government, which replaced
the British 30 years later, did the same.

The residents of Al-Sira received citizenship in the new
state and were allowed to remain on their land. The
village did not receive official recognition (and
therefore has yet to be linked up to the electricity and
telephone grids) but its residents remained in place. The
clinic, the school and the flour mill continued to
operate, now under Israeli administration.

The residents of Al-Sira stayed put even in the early
1980s, when the evacuation of Sinai in the context of the
peace treaty with Egypt led to the construction of the
airport in Nevatim and a law that transferred all the
lands of Tel Malhata and its environs to state ownership.

About 5,000 Bedouin were forced at the time to evacuate
the villages surrounding Al-Sira and move to Keseifa,
Arara and Segev Shalom, three of the towns where the State
of Israel has been trying since then to concentrate the
majority of its Bedouin citizens. The residents of Al-Sira
claim that nobody bothered to tell them, for over 25
years, that according to the map accompanying the law,
their village also lies in the expropriated area.

During all those years they avoided asking questions about
their good fortune, they lived their lives and maintained
good relations with their Israel Airforce neighbors. Every
new base commander is invited to a festive meal in the
village, and the soldiers and village residents often give
each other lifts. A relatively recent local legend tells
how a soldier on a navigational exercise fell into a
village cistern, and his life was saved thanks to the
resourcefulness of a village elder.

Planes and helicopters take off and land over the heads of
the residents almost 24 hours a day, but they don't
complain. "We've become used to the noise," they explain,
"and we no longer hear it." This, taken with the fact that
no government official has ever intervened in village
affairs, led them to conclude that in spite of the absence
of official recognition, the state had decided to treat
their little village of about 350 souls as a permanent
fact. "When they built the IAF base, most of our families
still lived in tents," says Ahmed al-Nasasra. "During the
1980s we slowly began to move into huts, and during the
past 15 years everyone has built stone houses. We knew
that we weren't a recognized village, but we made sure not
to exceed our land boundaries by even a meter." Al-Nasasra
was born in the village 47 years ago, and claims that
"from the day I was born until last May not a single
representative of the state ever told us that these lands
are not ours and that we were not allowed to build on

Last May government representatives suddenly informed them
that they intended to destroy seven of the village homes;
early in September they announced that they planned to
destroy all 45 remaining houses.

At about 9 A.M. on May 10, several Interior Ministry
supervisors entered the village, accompanied by dozens of
policemen armed with rifles and bludgeons. "Without
speaking to anyone and without explaining anything," says
Amour, "they posted warning notices on the doors of seven
houses prior to issuing the demolition orders and left."

The residents reacted quickly: That same day they met and
elected a committee to handle the problem. Halil al-Amour
and Ahmed al-Nasasra, who were chosen to head it,
immediately turned to the Interior Ministry and asked to
meet with David Cohen, in charge of the Southern district.

The letter they sent to Cohen clearly demonstrates that
they were convinced that the authorities would weigh their
arguments practically. "In the absence of approved
construction plans for the village, the residents are
forced to build without a permit," they explained, asking
to meet with Cohen "in order to find a solution to the

Cohen refused their request. He sent them to Ilan Sagi, in
charge of construction supervision in the district. Sagi
promised them to freeze the demolition orders for three
months, on condition that they would begin negotiations
with the Bedouin Administration about abandoning the
village and moving to another community. This condition
made the bitter reality clear to them: the Interior
Ministry was not interested in enforcing the construction
laws in the village, but in erasing it entirely.

A letter from David Cohen also informed them for the first
time of what nobody had told them until then: "The area
where you live is known as a military area that was
acquired by the state in 1980 and is earmarked for the
construction of a military base."

After consulting with the village residents the committee
decided nevertheless to turn to the Bedouin Administration
to find out exactly where the State of Israel planned to
transfer them.

Yaakov Katz, the administration director, refused to meet
them, and sent them to Eli Yifrah, "director of the
Keseifa region in the administration." Yifrah offered them
two problematic solutions: moving to a neighborhood that
is slated to be built in the future in the city of Rahat,
and whose planning has yet to begin, or moving to Marit, a
Bedouin community that does not yet exist and whose future
is uncertain. When Amour and Nasasra asked Yifrah about
the amount of financial compensation they would receive
from the state, Yifrah sent them to the Israel Lands
Administration Web site.

"We understood from Yifrah that the state has nothing to
offer us, and that it simply wants to expel us from our
land without proposing any alternative," says Amour.

Moving to Rahat, he adds, is unthinkable. "Rahat, like all
the towns built by the state in order to concentrate the
Bedouin in them, long ago became a hotbed of unemployment,
with a poor quality of life," says Nasasra. "There's no
education, there are no services, there's no law, there's
nothing there. Under no circumstances will we agree to
move to Rahat."

They turned once again to Katz, who this time agreed to
receive them. They told him that they would be prepared to
leave the family lands, but they wanted government
assistance for building an agricultural village in another
area. Amour says Katz dismissed this idea, saying, "You
don't know anything about agriculture."

After this disdainful and insulting reply, they once again
asked to meet with the district director in the Interior
Ministry. He refused, and instructed the ministry legal
advisers to turn to the Be'er Sheva Magistrates' Court
with a request for demolition orders for the seven houses
on which the warnings had been posted. Judge Yisrael
Axelrod acceeded to the request in the presence of only
one party, i.e. without hearing the villagers' viewpoint
at all.

Early in September the Interior Ministry supervisors once
again visited the village, again accompanied by a large
contingent of police. This time that had come to post
demolition notices on all the other 45 buildings.

Implementation of the orders has been frozen for now,
because attorney Suhad Bashara from Adalah (The Legal
Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel), which is now
representing the residents, turned to the court with a
request to abolish the orders issued in the presence of
only one party, but the story is far from over.

Amour and Nasasra wonder what caused the government to
initiate the evacuation of the village now of all times,
after refraining from such expropriation for 26 years? How
can a judge order a wholesale demolition of houses without
examining the circumstances of their construction, and
even without knowing who lives in them? Is the state
really in need of this land, or does it simply want to
take it away in order to promote a policy of pushing the
Negev Bedouin into a corner?

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