Bedouin town under threat, lawmakers powwow to stave off bulldozers

After court decision to allow demolition of Atir-Um Hiran, Joint (Arab) List MKs discuss making fight international and catalyzing street to battle plan

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Members of the Joint (Arab) List in the Knesset, January 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Members of the Joint (Arab) List in the Knesset, January 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The impending demolition of an unrecognized Bedouin village and its replacement with a Jewish town is spurring lawmakers, activists and residents of the area under threat to make a run at heading off the plan.

Arab members of Knesset, Bedouin Negev residents and civil society representatives met on Tuesday at the Israeli parliament to strategize on opposing a recent Supreme Court decision allowing for the demolition.

On May 5, the Israeli Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by residents of Atir-Um Hiran — a Bedouin community of 1,400 located northeast of Beersheba — against the State’s decision to demolish the village and replace it with a Jewish community named Hiran.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint (Arab) List, said at the start of the meeting Tuesday that demolition of Um Hiran would be a game-changer in Arab-Israeli relations.

“Since Majdal-Askalan in 1953, the state has never demolished an entire [Arab] village,” Odeh noted, referring to a village that once stood where the city of Ashkelon is now. “This would be a historic turning point.”

The main focus of Arab opposition to the Court’s decision, Odeh argued, should be on the street rather than in parliament. “We should rely mostly on popular struggle,” he said, calling for protests and demonstrations.

Um Hiran’s history goes back to the early 1950s, when the Israeli military governor moved the Qawa’in tribe eastward twice, allowing them to settle in Yatir Forest just south of the West Bank.

Israel approved the establishment of Um Hiran in 1956, but never recognized the settlement in its official records. Since the authorization of the Israeli village of Hiran in 2002, authorities have tried to relocate the residents of Um Hiran to the nearby Bedouin village of Hura, offering each family a plot of land a fifth of an acre large.

Many residents refused the deal, opting instead to fight the demolition orders pending against their homes.

An unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, April 1, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, April 1, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Over the past several years, Israel has tried to implement a policy of moving Bedouin off state lands and into recognized villages, but has been met with fierce opposition, including violent protests that broke out over a year ago against the so-called Prawer plan, which has since been shelved.

Participants at the meeting said “internationalization” of the issue would be key to fighting the order.

MKs Jamal Zahalka and Youssef Jabareen of the Joint List volunteered to contact Western embassies and lobby for Um al-Hiran, using English fact sheets prepared by the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, an Israeli non-profit representing the 36 unrecognized Bedouin communities.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International demanded Israel cancel the demolition orders and officially recognize all unrecognized Bedouin villages.

The organization claimed that house demolitions contradicts the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which Israel is a signatory to.

Arab Joint List MK, Aida Touma-Sliman seen at a meeting at the Knesset, June 3, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Arab Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman seen at a Knesset meeting, June 3, 2015 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Participants at the meeting were split on whether to mount a personal attack on Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who has been tasked with the Bedouin portfolio by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of his Jewish Home party’s coalition demands.

The minister has been meeting with Bedouin regional council heads recently, convincing them to absorb the residents of Um al-Hiran in return for financial benefits, local residents reported at the meeting.

“The man works quietly, professionally and without the media,” one participant said. “That’s what makes him so dangerous.”

MK Aida Touma-Sliman, the newly-appointed head of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, claimed that “the establishment has always tried to negotiate with leaders who don’t represent the population.”

“We must create an atmosphere where every time [a community leader] wants to collaborate, he will think twice,” she added.

Touma-Sliman suggested busing in residents of Um al-Hiran to speak personally with Knesset members. “A person whose home is about to be demolished is the best lobbyist,” she argued. “Let’s bring half of Um al-Hiran to the Knesset.”

MK Abdul Hakim Hajj Yahya, a member of the Islamic movement and former mayor of Taibeh, suggested officially requesting the replacement of Ariel with Aryeh Deri of Shas, who serves as Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee as well as Economy Minister.

“It’s possible that with Deri it will be easier to prepare a work plan,” he said.

Uri Ariel (Flash90)
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Flash90)

MK Dov Khenin, the sole Jewish member of the Joint List, said that the best way to fight the demolition of Um al-Hiran was educating the Israeli public about the issue.

“I bet that 90% of people in Tel Aviv, as well as here in the Knesset, don’t even know what we’re talking about,” he said.

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