The bigger picture of the Negev’s Um al-Hiran

By Nadim Nashif and Dalal Hilou, published by the Huffington Post

For the past 60 years, Arab Palestinian Bedouin populations in the Negev desert in southern Israel have struggled to simply stay on their land in the face of discrimination and the threat of displacement. For residents of Umm al-Hiran in the southern Naqab — the Arabic term for the Negev — time is running out on a 12-year legal battle against demolition.

The fate of Umm al-Hiran matters to us at Baladna-Association of Arab Youth, just as it matters for the rest of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. We account for 20 percent of Israel’s population, yet our ability to build and live on our land is just one of the many rights being violated by successive Israeli governments, as documented by many human rights organizations, such as Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

The inhabitants of present-day Umm al-Hiran were moved there by the Israeli military in 1956, eight years after the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, during which 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their lands. Towards the end of the 1960s, Israel adopted a policy of relocating Bedouins into seven towns established by the Israeli government, and 11 recognized villages, in order to clear the way for the development of Jewish-only communities and the infrastructure to support them. Several Bedouin communities, like Umm al-Hiran, refused to accept Israeli offers of land in the established townships designed for them. Umm al-Hiran’s government-issued lease to the land formed a basis for legal contestation against eviction and demolition orders issued in 2003 and 2004. The only move the villagers are willing to make is back to their ancestral lands to live next to the kibbutz since established there.

Umm al-Hiran is not alone in its struggle. Dozens of the Bedouin villages in the Negev are unrecognized by the state of Israel. For decades, these unrecognized villages have struggled on a day-to-day basis as well as within the court system for basic entitlements like electricity, water, enrollment at nearby schools, and for the construction of amenities such as playgrounds, parks and cemeteries. Arab Bedouin villages are collectively the poorest communities in Israel. There are few elementary schools and no high schools in the villages, access to health services is very difficult, and most villages are not accessible by paved roads. Even one of the largest villages, Wadi al-Na’am, does not have public transport, emergency services, or a high school despite its more than 10,000 inhabitants.

On May 5, 2015, Umm al-Hiran reached the end of the appeals process when the Israeli court system condemned the village to destruction. A Jewish-Israeli settlement named Hiran will be built in its place, and national-religious families wishing to live there will be provided with government subsidies.

Nearby Al-Araqib village has engaged in another form of non-violent resistance by rebuilding after demolition. Umm al-Hiran has a unique legal status among Bedouin villages in the Negev, but for villages like Al-Araqib, rebuilding is the only means they have to remain on their land: Al-Araqib villagers have faced intentional destruction of meager infrastructure and their entire community of homes around 83 times in five years. Yet they have rebuilt each time. Then in early May, the Israeli State sued Al-Araqib for $500,000 to cover Israel’s demolition costs. The persecution is relentless.

What is happening in Umm al-Hiran and Al-Araqib is also happening in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in Arab towns in Israel, such as Dahmash and Kafr Kana. In a striking parallel, the West Bank village of Khirbet Susiya in Area C could be destroyed at any time, rendering its inhabitants homeless and making way for a Jewish settlement. Like many other unrecognized villages in Area C of the West Bank, its structures have already been demolished several times.

The State of Israel’s systematic policies have for decades perpetuated a pattern of displacement and discrimination that squeezes the Palestinian population into smaller and smaller confines of land. In other words, the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba lives on to this day.

The resettlement strategy for the Negev met a setback in 2013 when the infamous Prawer Plan was shelved, due in part to widespread protests and international criticism. The proposed bill aimed to forcibly evict tens of thousands of Bedouins and demolish dozens of villages. Young people organized demonstrations across the Palestinian territories and human rights groups coordinated international solidarity actions to put a stop to the plan. Yet, although it was put aside, the intentions of the Plan are still being carried out on a smaller and more discreet scale through home demolitions.

Although legal avenues of resistance have been exhausted by Umm al-Hiran, protest marches have already begun. If these are to succeed, their demands must be echoed in the world’s capitals, by governments and the international solidarity movement. Home demolitions, forcible displacement and dispossession are forms of ongoing ethnic cleansing. They continue to be among the most pressing Palestinian issues today and must be stopped.

Nadim Nashif is a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and Director of Baladna: The Association for Arab Youth. Dalal Hillou is a Palestinian-American with a passion for law and social justice, and is currently interning at Baladna: The Association for Arab Youth

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