Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Beersheba’s government offices Thursday to demonstrate against the impending demolition of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran and its replacement with a Jewish town.
The protest came on the heels of last month’s Supreme Court ruling that allows for the village to be razed and for the Jewish town of Hiran to be built in its stead.
Attended by Joint (Arab) List MKs Ahmad Tibi, Hanin Zoabi and Taleb Abu Arar, Thursday’s protest was a part of a larger effort opposing the government’s controversial initiative to resettle Bedouin communities.
Demonstrators carrying signs reading “No to demolition, yes to recognition,” and “Home demolitions are crimes against civilians,” marched from Beersheba’s open-air Bedouin market to the city’s government buildings.
“Every week our homes are demolished,” one of the protest organizers, Moufid Absoilim, told the Hebrew-language website NRG.
Absoilim said that the back-and-forth court battles over the legality of Bedouin resettlement policies hasn’t stopped a specialized police force from demolishing homes in unrecognized Bedouin villages on a regular basis.
“People have stopped believing the government,” he said.
Fadi Masmara, the CEO of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages said that Thursday’s demonstration was just the “opening shot.”
“Its a warning to the government. We are facing large-scale displacement, and this is the crossing of a red line against the Arab residents of the Negev,” he told NRG.
Earlier this week, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh warned that the demolition of Umm al-Hiran would be a game-changer in Arab-Israeli relations, at a meeting of lawmakers and activists to come up with a battle plan for stopping the move.
Last month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by village residents and ruled that the village was built on state land and its Bedouin inhabitants had no legal rights to it.
According to Abu Arar, the Joint List is willing to negotiate with Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel, although, he said, they were not willing to concede on the issue of state recognition of Bedouin villages.
Abu Arar said that while the party hadn’t discussed the issue of Umm al-Hiran with Ariel specifically, his party members were skeptical of the minister because of his track record on Bedouin housing rights while serving as construction minister in the previous government.
“We saw what he [Ariel] did when he approved the building of several new Jewish towns along Highway 40, instead of Bedouin ones,” he said, according to a report in Haaretz Thursday.
“We will only negotiate on the basis of full recognition of Bedouin land. We will not compromise on a single village,” he said.
Umm al-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 Umm al-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 Umm al-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.
Home to nearly 500 residents, the village has not been hooked up to water or electricity and has never been included in an official governmental zoning plan. New construction is forbidden at the site.
The planned Jewish city of Hiran is set to include 2,500 housing units and its future population is expected to be mostly religious.
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.
The government argued that the growing population required planning and urbanization, while Arab activists insisted the plan amounted to a land grab driven by anti-Arab prejudice.
Last month, representatives of the Joint List walked from an unrecognized Bedouin village to Jerusalem on a four-day protest march demanding more equitable planning for the 260,000 residents living in 36 villages in Israel’s south.
Many live in extreme poverty and more than half reside in unrecognized villages with no access to electricity or running water.
Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.