In the early morning hours of January 18, hundreds of policemen entered the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev Desert as part of an operation to demolish 12 illegal homes. In the raid, one officer was killed, and so was the man who killed him.
Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, 47, a teacher and father of 12, rammed his SUV into a group of officers, killing 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, a father of two from Yavneh, as the group of Border Police officers was overseeing the demolitions. He was shot and killed by other officers, and an investigation is underway to determine whether he had intended an attack or had been struck by a police bullet before his car accelerated and swerved.
Just several hours earlier, the government and the villagers were still negotiating to prevent the demolitions. The lawyer who negotiated on behalf of Umm al-Hiran and a state official both confirmed to The Times of Israel that a deal was nearly within reach and close to being signed.
So what went wrong?
In March 2016, Arab Israeli leaders descended on Umm al-Hiran for a Land Day event to highlight what they said were discriminatory policies of Israel against the Bedouin inhabitants of the Negev and to protest plans by the state to demolish the village and replace it with a new Jewish one named Hiran.
The Supreme Court approved the Bedouin village’s removal, having ruled in 2015 that it was built on state land and its residents had no legal rights to it. The court noted in November that the villagers had been told they would receive plots in nearby Hura, a town built by the government in 1989 to absorb Bedouin from the surrounding unrecognized villages and tent encampments.
When demolition day came, Joint (Arab) List head MK Ayman Odeh blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said had spiked the negotiations and ordered the demolitions in order to score political points. Just a month earlier, Netanyahu had pledged to crack down on illegal construction in the Arab community as he sought to soothe tempers over the state’s plans to demolish homes at the unrecognized Jewish settlement outpost of Amona.
Yair Maayan, head of the authority for Bedouin resettlement in the Negev, told The Times of Israel the negotiations failed because the villagers suddenly made “unreasonable” demands and tried to “cheat” the state. In fact, the official argued, the state was under no legal obligation at all to talk with the villagers.
Maayan said that on the final night of negotiations there was an agreement in principle, agreed on by everyone. According to the official, the deal was as follows: Men 24 years old and older, or as young as 18 years old if they were married, would be given a free 800-meter plot of land in the nearby town of Hura. They could also buy a second plot at a subsidized price. Each family would also be given compensation, though he would not specify how much. He also said the state threw in an extra plot for all the children of the village and “a few more plots for the entire group.”
Umm al-Hiran lawyer Avi Ayash, however, argued that the state suddenly reneged on some of its promises, and instead offered the villagers an ultimatum hours before the demolition.The state did not come to negotiate that night, he alleged, but instead tried to impose an unacceptable deal while security forces readied themselves to storm the village.
Ayash said compensation offered to villagers stood at about NIS 50,000 ($13,200) each for the move in order to buy a temporary home, as well as compensation for the homes they were leaving, estimated at NIS 1,000-NIS 1,800 per square meter.
Maayan told Israeli newspaper Haaretz the compensation for 60-70 families would total NIS 20 million-NIS 25 million ($5.2 million-$6.6 million). He valued each plot of land in Hura at NIS 200,000.
The main dispute between the state and the villagers was over how many men would be eligible for a plot of land in Hura. The state had a list of 60 men who qualified for a free plot the night the contract was supposed to be signed. The villagers argued that anyone who would turn 24 years old or gets married before they actually move to Hura should also be eligible for a plot.
“What did they want? They wanted to steal,” said Maayan. “They wanted to quickly have 20 men get married. We didn’t agree to let them cheat the state.”
Ayash maintained they simply didn’t know how many would eventually be added to the list of those eligible because they didn’t know how long it would take the state to prepare the plots in Hura.
Another dispute was how much time the state would give the villagers to evacuate Umm al-Hiran. Ayash said they were given “30 days to pack up 60 years in order to move to plots that weren’t ready and build a temporary home.” Maayan said the villagers were given until the end of March to move to Hura, by which time the plots were supposed to be ready.
When asked why the state didn’t agree to extend the negotiations and avoid the painful, costly and ultimately lethal demolitions, Maayan responded: “We didn’t agree to the extension because their requests weren’t reasonable. No one could agree to them.”
“During the deal, they got telephone calls from outside, and they decided they weren’t going to sign,” he said.
Maayan said the new requests included 1,500 dunams of land for agriculture for each family, 15 fields for sheep, fields for commerce and NIS 400,000 per person as compensation for aggravation.
“All these things, which they brought up in the final hour, weren’t relevant. Negotiations must move forward, not backward,” he said.
Ultimately, Maayan argued, the state had no obligation at all to negotiate with the village.
“There was a [court] demolition order. Why would we have to give them anything? It was extra,” he said of the negotiations, adding, “Someone who has a demolition order on his home cannot make requests.”
Ayash insisted that rather than the villagers making new requests, it was the state that reneged on verbal agreements that had been made.
“Two or three days before the negotiations collapsed, my clients got a one-and-a-half page draft of the deal. A very general outline. We had a few adjustments and within a few hours we sent a counteroffer. That same day, there were discussions between the families and representatives of the authority, in which the adjustments were more or less accepted,” he said, adding all that remained was to “tie up loose ends and sign.”
However, Ayash said, during the final meeting, the state presented the original draft of the deal without any of the agreed-upon adjustments and gave the villagers an ultimatum.
“This is the document you sign. If you don’t sign, we won’t do business,” Ayash said he was told.
The lawyer sought to extend negotiations for a week, then a few days, and then just 24 hours, but the state representatives didn’t agree, he said.
“There were many things unclear with the draft agreement. Everything was open, unfocused and unspecific. There was no logic,” he added.
Ayash said he went home that night thinking it wasn’t the end of negotiations. “We thought that naturally the negotiations had just started. It was the first time the Bedouins had united and had a lawyer representing them,” he said.
Ayash said he was hired just 10 days before the negotiations collapsed.
But, he concluded, the state never really wanted to negotiate the night of January 17. Ayash said the state representatives present at the final meeting said they were not authorized to change the draft of the deal.
“It appears that during the four hours of negotiations, the [police] forces were already getting ready, their finger on the trigger. For appearances’ sake, they came to say there were negotiations. But there was no real negotiations,” he said. “We just needed a few more days.”
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