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Bedouins fight a new catastrophe in the Negev

They were first uprooted in the 1950s. And now for a second time, those who lived for centuries in the Negev desert are facing an Israeli plan to expell them from the land their ancestors cultivated. Vita Bekker reports from Umm Al Hieran

Shahdi Abu Al Qian shows an aerial view of the homes he had shared with his three wives and 32 children in Atir.
Shahdi Abu Al Qian shows an aerial view of the homes he had shared with his three wives and 32 children in Atir.

UMM Al HIERAN, Israel // Eight years after the 1948 war that created Israel, Amna Al Qian was a 24-year-old Bedouin newlywed expelled along with 200 members of her tribe from the land their ancestors had cultivated for centuries in Israel's Negev desert.

Six decades later, a controversial Israeli government plan that many Bedouins are blasting as a second Nakba - a reference to the displacement of about 700,000 Arabs after the 1948 war - may spur Ms Al Qian's eviction again.

The so-called Prawer plan would relocate as many as 70,000 Bedouins from 35 Negev villages that Israel does not recognise to state-planned townships that Bedouins charge are overcrowded, impoverished and too urbanised for their traditional agricultural lifestyles.

The plan is especially contentious in Umm Al Hieran, the hilly, olive tree-lined village in which Ms Al Qian's tribe resettled after the 1948 war. For the past decade, the village has been locked in a legal battle against Israel's aim to evict its residents, demolish their homes and build a Jewish town on the land the tribe claims it had been ordered to inhabit by the Israeli military in the 1950s.

Clad in a long white flowery gown, black cardigan and green Islamic headscarf and sitting barefoot on a bed to which she is mostly confined, Ms Al Qian says with a firmness that contrasts with her frailty: "I am not leaving this time. Israel gave me this land and now it's kicking me out? No way."

Such resolve reflects escalating anger among the Negev's Bedouins ahead of the Prawer plan's possible implementation.

Last week, protests against the plan by thousands of Bedouins across Israel turned violent.

Adalah, a legal aid group for Israeli Arabs, charged that police used excessive force, with officers mounted on horses trampling several protestors, firing tear gas and stun grenades into the crowds, and beating some of the 34 Bedouins who were arrested.

Kaid Abu Latif, a 30-year-old artist from the Negev town of Rahat who took part in the protests, said he and nine other young Bedouins have joined forces to lobby against the Prawer plan on websites such as Facebook and Twitter. They have also drawn the ire of veteran Bedouin leaders by voicing louder opposition to the plan during demonstrations they view as having been too tame until now.

Mr Abu Latif said: "We want to fight because we have a right to this land. The Prawer plan will create a new ghetto for the Bedouins. In the Nakba they expelled Arabs from their homes and now they want to do it again."

Anger has long been simmering among the Negev Bedouins, Israeli citizens and descendants of about 11,000 Arabs who remained in Israel's southern desert after the 1948 war.

About 70,000 Bedouins live in villages that either predate Israel's creation or were established by Israeli military orders in the 1950s, according to Adalah.

Israel today does not officially recognise those villages, whose land it had long registered as state-owned despite ownership claims by the Bedouins. It has deleted them from official maps and deprived them of services such as running water, electricity, health care, paved roads, sewage and schools.

The aim of the Prawer plan, which was approved by the government in 2011 and passed its first parliamentary reading last month, is to confine the Bedouins to a single area in the north-eastern Negev to free up the most fertile lands for Jewish agricultural settlement, Adalah says. Bedouins oppose the plan because they do not want "to be urbanised" and removed to communities with some of Israel's highest jobless and poverty rates, said Thabet Abu Ras, director of Adalah's Negev office. Those moving also risk violence from other tribes claiming ownership over territory on which the state-planned towns are located, he added.

Israel has brushed off criticism about the Prawer plan. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, told The National that it was a "project of affirmative action to improve the standards of living and quality of life of Israel's Bedouins."

In the meantime, Bedouins are increasingly facing home demolitions and the break-up of their families.

Last week, Shahdi Abu Al Qian sat on a wooden picnic table surrounded by the ruins of the two dozen homes he had shared with his three wives and 32 children in Atir, a site neighbouring Umm Al Hieran where part of the Al Qian tribe lives.

Pointing to a photocopy of an aerial view of the houses and tin shacks that he had mostly built himself, the 73-year-old said they were destroyed in two early-morning demolitions since mid-May, using tractors backed by hundreds pf police with a helicopter flying overhead.

Donning a white keffiyeh fastened with a black cord around his head, Mr Abu Al Qian said the demolitions aimed to "pressure me to leave" and that they had already spurred one of his wives to move away. A former forester, he lamented the Israeli forces' uprooting of hundreds of olive trees he had planted himself and cared for over three decades around his family's homes.

Activists say olive trees - a main staple of Arab agriculture in Israel - are often razed during home demolitions for symbolic reasons, to intimidate Bedouins from rebuilding houses. At the same time, any nearby eucalyptus trees - symbolically associated with Jewish Zionists - are left untouched.

Five kilometres away, in a pine and cypress tree forest, 30 Jewish families with links to Israel's West Bank settlement movement are living in a temporary gated community of red-roofed houses and caravans as they wait to build a new town on the anticipated ruins of Atir and Umm Al Hieran. The community, called Hiran by its residents, was built with the quiet consent of authorities, Adalah says.

Essa Abu Al Qian, a law student from Umm Al Hieran, last week visited Hiran and warily inspected the paved walkways, street lights, kindergarten and the black graffiti writing on one wall saying: "With joy and courage, Hiran, a life, a way, a faith."

The 23-year-old said the planned evictions have been a "trauma" for his village. He added: "What logic is there to replace us with Jews and provide them with all the basic services we didn't get? My relatives live in fear of returning from their jobs just to find a demolished home."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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