Authorities level 47 illegal homes in Bedouin village, leaving hundreds homeless

Government yet to start construction on alternative housing, and residents object to moving to new neighborhood due to threats from rival families

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Police accompany Real Estate Enforcement Division tractors as they bulldoze the Wadi al-Khalil neighborhood in the southern Bedouin village of Umm Batin, May 8, 2024. (Israel Police)
Police accompany Real Estate Enforcement Division tractors as they bulldoze the Wadi al-Khalil neighborhood in the southern Bedouin village of Umm Batin, May 8, 2024. (Israel Police)

Authorities on Wednesday demolished dozens of buildings and structures built without permits, including 47 homes in the unrecognized southern Bedouin village of Wadi al-Khalil, to clear the way for an extension of the Route 6 Highway.

Residents said the homes housed some 350 people, all from the extended Abu Assa family.

In one of the largest recent enforcement operations, hundreds of police officers accompanied Real Estate Enforcement Division tractors to demolish the buildings, enforcing an order handed down by the High Court of Justice.

Police said hundreds rallied in protest of the measure, adding that there were no incidents of violence during the demonstration.

Unrecognized Bedouin villages are regularly served with demolition orders as they were built without permits. However, many have existed on the same plots of land for generations, sometimes after being evicted by Israeli authorities from other areas. Securing building permits for Bedouin communities is nearly impossible and their leadership regularly accuses the state of discriminatory practices and neglect.

Some residents decided to burn down their homes ahead of the operation. “I prefer to see my home burn. It is better than to see it destroyed by tractors,” resident Ali Abu Assa told the Haaretz daily.

Rasmia Abu Assa, whose nephew Osama Abu Assa was murdered by terrorists during the October 7 Hamas massacre, watched her home get demolished in a scene that sounded “like another horror movie or scene from a battlefield,” according to a post by the Lawyers for Social Justice organization.

The group accused far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, whose ministry last month gained responsibility for the enforcement division, of “looking to ignite the Negev in order to earn more political points.”

The government has plans to set aside housing for the residents in a new neighborhood in the nearby village of Umm Batin.

But residents have refused to move there and argued that that it would endanger them, citing threats from other families that intend to live there. The Abu Assa family petitioned the High Court stating they were instead willing to move to another city, Tel Sheva.

The High Court recently decided unanimously that the government had done all it could to accommodate the residents, and that construction of alternative housing in Tel Sheva would delay work on Route 6 for two years.

However, work on the new homes in Umm Batin has not even begun yet, the Local Council for Unrecognized Villages, an organization advocating for Bedouins living in unrecognized communities, said in a statement.

The council added that the residents were not willing to shift to the neighborhood because of “a real danger of bloodshed, due to threats from individual violent elements who are among two large families who need the neighborhood to settle their residents.”

“The purpose of the demolitions is to ignite the Negev in order to deepen racist discrimination,” it added.

Ben Gvir hailed the demolition of the homes as an important step to “restoring governance,” reiterating a campaign pledge to combat illegal construction and restore order in southern Israel.

“As I promised on my first day on the job, there is a notable increase in the demolition of illegal homes in the Negev. I am proud to lead this policy,” he wrote on X, praising authorities for their work.

MK Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, blasted the move, stating that the government “excels in demolishing the houses of its citizens.”

“All the promises to address the problems of Bedouins in the Negev are being fulfilled with demolitions and the expulsion of families from their land without a fair solution,” he wrote on X.

“Ben Gvir is proud of the number of home demolitions and satisfied with the number of people murdered in crime in the Arab community: 247 in 2023,” he said, noting the spiraling rate of crime in the community since Ben Gvir took office.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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