March 11, 2011

Hiding in the cemetery where her parents are buried, Hakma al-Turi, an Israeli citizen, has watched bulldozers demolish her village -- al-Araqib -- more than 20 times. The Israel Land Administration first demolished the 45 structures on this patch of land in the Negev desert eight months ago. When the 300 Israeli Bedouin who lived here defiantly rebuilt tarp-covered shacks, the Israel Land Administration demolished them again and again, the last time on March 7.

But the Land Administration inspectors and the police officers escorting them have so far been reluctant to enter the cemetery adjacent to the village, where the extended al-Turi family has been burying family members since 1907. So Hakma, a mother of nine, devised a plan to protect her most fragile possessions: she put her family photographs, children's medicines, and a small refrigerator full of milk in an improvised wheeled cart. When the bulldozers came, her husband would tie it to their car and drag it from their house and into the cemetery.

But on January 17, as the tenth demolition took place, Hakma's family was too slow. Police officers caught them on the way to the cemetery, commandeered their car, forced in five other "illegal" residents, and drove it at what Hakma thinks was a deliberately reckless speed over unpaved roads to the police station. "They broke the cart and most of what was in it flew out; they confiscated the rest," Hakma told me.

The extended al-Turi family lived in al-Araqib from Ottoman times until 1952, when the Israeli army commander told them to leave for six months for military training, according to a government report citing village elders' testimony. Israeli authorities never allowed them to return, refuse to recognize Bedouin ownership claims, and consider the village illegal.

Al-Araqib is, or was, one of 36 "unrecognized" Bedouin villages -- home to at least 50,000 people -- that, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2008 report, Israel refuses to connect to basic services or infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewage treatment, and garbage disposal. Israeli officials encouraged the Bedouin to relocate to the seven state-built new towns -- among the poorest communities in Israel. Many al-Araqib residents own homes in one such nearby town, Rahat.

"Those of us who could afford it bought homes in Rahat, because we wanted water and electricity," said Dr. Awad Abu Freih, chairman of the biotechnology department at a nearby college and al-Araqib's unofficial spokesman. "Does that justify evicting me and destroying the village where I was born?"

Hakma's family also settled in Rahat, but moved back to al-Araqib 12 years ago after hearing that the Israel Land Administration intended to plant a forest there, which would be a de facto revocation of their claims to the land. Indeed, according to the plans the Jewish National Fund is carrying out on behalf of the Land Administration, the village is a "recreational area" designated for "forestation."

But the government's professed plans seem to be more about politics than forestation. In March 2010, Israel's then-agriculture minister told the parliament that the Jewish National Fund was planting forests around al-Araqib "in order to safeguard national lands." In January 2011, the Israel Land Administration's development director said to Israeli news media that the agency "has begun preparing the ground for planting to guard the land." When it first demolished al-Araqib in July 2010, the Israeli government uprooted 850 of the villagers' olive trees, an administration spokeswoman told Human Rights Watch. All the while, Israel could easily plant forests in vast areas of the Negev where Bedouins have no land claims without erasing Bedouin links to their land.

Indeed, the day before the government first demolished al-Araqib, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at the real motive, warning in a government meeting that "if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority" in the Negev, that would pose "a palpable threat" to Israel.

As Netanyahu's comment suggests, Israel's attitude to Negev land rights is different when it comes to Jewish citizens. Bedouin constitute 25 percent of the population of the northern Negev, but occupy less than two percent of its land. Over the past decade, Israeli authorities have allocated public funds and large tracts of the Negev to create 59 private ranches and farms, of which only one is Bedouin-owned. These farms stretch over 20,000 acres of land, greater than the total land area of the seven Bedouin towns built to house 85,000 people. Israeli authorities have never produced a justification for this difference in treatment.

The government's discriminatory practices in the Negev sometimes resemble its settlement policies in the West Bank, where Israel limits Palestinians' ability to build while encouraging Jewish settlement expansion, as Human Rights Watch documented in a recent report. In a nighttime operation in January 2004, the then-housing minister had ten mobile homes constructed on land adjacent to al-Araqib for settlement by a Jewish community and promptly connected them to electricity and water. The land, previously promised to Bedouin, is now the Jewish town of Gvaot Bar.

While international entities almost uniformly oppose the construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank, however, many of the same actors appear unaware of the simultaneous land grab happening in the Negev. In December 2005 diplomats from 49 countries, including Germany and Spain attended the inauguration of the "Ambassador's Forest," which villagers and an Israeli NGO, Dukium, says is on al-Araqib's land.

Meanwhile, Hakma's family has one remaining asset: a minivan parked in the graveyard. I looked inside and saw the family's clothes, and the younger children's schoolbags hanging neatly on nails. "We used to have a nice house," Hakma told me, searching for photographs to show me. Then she remembered that the police had confiscated them.

Noga Malkin is a Jerusalem-based research assistant for Human Rights Watch