Unrecognized Bedouin village gets its first-ever rocket shelter, as war rages

Umm al-Hiran, like many vulnerable Negev communities, lacks infrastructure – including critical protection from missiles – and is at risk of displacement

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Bedouin volunteers paint a concrete rocket shelter installed the day before in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Khiran, southern Israel, on December 7, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
Bedouin volunteers paint a concrete rocket shelter installed the day before in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Khiran, southern Israel, on December 7, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

A bulky concrete box with walls 30 centimeters (1 foot) thick was placed at the entrance of Umm al-Hiran last week, the first public rocket shelter provided to this desert hamlet of 200 people.

Until now, residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village, located next to Hura, east of the Negev’s capital Beersheba, had no adequate protection against rocket fire from Gaza.

The village is located about 50 kilometers inland from the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. It was founded in 1956, when the newly established State of Israel resettled two Bedouin families to make space for the construction of a Jewish community, Kibbutz Shoval.

In the early 1960s, these Bedouin residents moved from their traditional tents into shacks, and then over the years constructed semi-permanent housing.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, authorities have sought to relocate its largely pastoralist Bedouin citizens to seven recognized towns in an attempt to urbanize them. But many Bedouins insist on their right to remain where they are, and around 120,000 – out of an overall Bedouin population in the Negev of 300,000 – live in dozens of unrecognized villages scattered across the desert region.

Much of the construction in these villages is illegal, as the towns do not exist in the eyes of the law. While authorities rarely conduct mass expulsions, they do regularly demolish illegal homes and other structures in the villages.

Volunteers walk down an unpaved road in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Valentin Schmid)

Residents also live without access to the national water and electricity supplies, and state authorities do not pave access roads, do not provide garbage disposal and do not build schools and clinics inside these settlements.

Since 2003, 11 previously illegal Bedouin communities have been retroactively authorized by the state, while 35 are still awaiting recognition, according to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

The village of Umm al-Hiran was initially included among the villages slated for recognition, but the decision was reversed in 2004 by the Land Management Authority, which issued demolition orders for houses there.

The community has been embroiled in a legal battle at the District Court in Beersheba and the Supreme Court, as it has fought to uphold the government’s decision of 1956. In the meantime, construction for a new religious Jewish community known as Dror has been going on the outskirts of the village since 2016, which threatens to accelerate the evacuation and demolition of Umm al-Hiran.

Construction works for the Jewish town of Dror in the Negev, abutting the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, December 7, 2023. (Valentin Schmid)

The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the state must provide a plan for the rehousing of the residents of Umm al-Hiran, but it has failed to do so until now. Residents claim they have so far submitted six distinct project proposals, none of which has been discussed. A local activist asserted that the only interlocutors for residents in recent years have not been government officials, but rather the police.

“We are a self-sufficient community that built itself over the years,” said Raad Abu Alkeean, head of the local council. “We are resilient and self-reliant people. Most of the residents here work or study, both women and men. Nobody is unemployed. We are not waiting for state authorities to come and solve our problems. We just want our rights to be respected.”

While the case is being fought in the courts, house demolitions have continued. In January 2017, local resident Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police when officers arrived to oversee the demolition of his home. The 47-year-old father of 12 had packed a few belongings into his SUV and driven away, saying he could not bear to watch his home being razed. Soon afterward, he was shot by police.

After being shot, he apparently lost control of his car, which accelerated downhill and rammed into a group of officers, killing one of them, Erez Levi. Police and politicians initially claimed Abu al-Qia’an had intentionally tried to hit police in a terror attack, but later retracted the claims, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to the family.

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

In the face of government inaction, civil society steps in

One of the main issues affecting unrecognized Bedouin villages in wartime is that they are not covered by the Iron Dome system, which only intercepts rockets directed at urban areas registered on maps, but is not activated when the launch is aimed at “open areas.”

Umm al-Hiran, as well as other unrecognized Bedouin villages, is therefore completely exposed to incoming rockets. “Sometimes the Iron Dome works here, sometimes it doesn’t,” a local volunteer said. Houses are not built according to current Israeli building regulations, meaning that they do not have a safe room.

The bomb shelter delivered on Wednesday, the first of three that are slated to be installed in the village, was provided by international aid organization IsraAID in cooperation with Ajeec, an Arab-Jewish shared society organization in the Negev.

Since the start of the war, the two groups have provided 31 rocket shelters to 20 unrecognized villages, and plan to deliver 11 more, in addition to 10 destined for kindergartens that have so far remained closed because of the lack of protection from rockets.

Activists say that civil society organizations will provide 200 such shelters in total, but this is a drop in the ocean given that the overall shortage is estimated to stand at 11,000.

Kher Albaz, chair of shared society NGO Ajeec-Nisped, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Kher Albaz is currently the sole chairperson of Ajeec. Until a few years ago, the organization was co-chaired by Vivian Silver, a Canadian-born resident of Kibbutz Be’eri near Gaza and a lifelong peace activist who was murdered on October 7 in her home by Hamas terrorists, thousands of whom burst into southern Israel from Gaza that day and and rampaged viciously through communities and a massive outdoor music festival, committing acts of horrific brutality. In all, 1,200 people were killed and a further 140 were seized as hostages and taken to Gaza.

In response, Israel launched a widespread military operation, vowing to topping the Hamas terror regime and secure the return of the hostages.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Albaz spoke of the impact of the ongoing conflict on Bedouin communities, besides the safety aspect. “Most Bedouins lost their jobs on October 8, since they tend to work in agriculture and small factories in the area, or as drivers, and economic activities in the region have all but stopped. Entire families found themselves with no income.

“In addition, most of the schools have been shut. Before the war, over 40,000 Bedouin kids from a low socioeconomic background were eating a hot meal in the schools — the only one for many of them. Now they are not getting it. Suddenly the number of families in need increased tremendously, and it’s getting worse,” he said.

“We need to find a way to support these families. Giving them a basket of food every now and then is not enough,” Albaz said. He noted that authorities have recently gotten involved and started distributing food stamps.

IsraAID has also stepped in, delivering meal kits to Bedouin families in partnership with the Washington-based organization World Central Kitchen.

Molly Bernstein, regional program manager for IsraAID, said that the organization has been working intensively for the past two months to support Bedouins amid the ongoing war, as they are considered to be one of the most vulnerable communities in Israel, with a disproportionately high number of victims in the current conflict.

Uncollected garbage on the sides of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Ilan Amit, co-CEO of Ajeec, said the war was a critical time to prepare the ground for a better partnership between Jewish and Arab society in Israel, and cooperate together for the “day after.”

The activist highlighted how in certain respects it makes no difference whether a Bedouin settlement is recognized or not, since even legal recognition would apply solely to the land, not to the buildings, and would give “an almost automatic status of illegal structure to all the houses in a village” because the construction does not conform to Israeli building regulations — such as those relating to fire prevention, safe rooms and sewage.

“What usually happens after receiving an official status for the land is that residents attempt to have their houses retroactively recognized by the Planning Administration, by providing evidence of their decade-long presence on the land, mostly through aerial photographs,” he added.

In rare cases, the government agrees, but what happens most often is that it issues demolition orders, Amit said.

“In addition, recognized villages are not automatically connected to the electricity mains and water supply system – each house has its own water tanks, cesspool, solar panels and generators. Garbage collection is also not guaranteed, nor are health services,” Amit added.

Nasser Hadduba, a resident of the Bedouin town of Abu Talul, during a guided tour of the village of Umm al-Hiran, southern Israel, December 7, 2023. (Valentin Schimd)

Nasser Hadduba, a father of 11 living in Abu Talul, a Bedouin township of 2,000 officially recognized in 2014, said that the only positive developments after recognition have been a paved road and the opening of two schools.

The government still does not grant building permits, and demolitions have not halted, Hadduba said. The local regional council has not provided mobile shelters, and children have been under heavy stress from constant rocket alarms.

Hadduba said that his 10-year-old daughter has had sleeping problems since the start of the war. He has turned to public health services for help but to no avail, since there are no social workers available to take care of her.

“Unfortunately, nobody has addressed our concerns yet.”

Most Popular
read more: