Bedouin town slated for destruction is true test for Israelis

The Negev comprises two thirds of Israel’s territory, but only 10 percent of citizens lives there. It is thus no coincidence that the Jewish settlement of Hiran is being planned directly atop the ruins of the Bedouin village Umm al-Hiran. This is  a test for all Israelis, and I really hope we do not fail.

By Michal Rotem

Children in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Um al Hiran, Negev, Israel, January 18, 2014. (photo: Yotam Ronen/
Children in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Um al Hiran, Negev, Israel, January 18, 2014. (photo: Yotam Ronen/

On January 17, Israel’s Supreme Court judges decided not to hold an additional hearing on the future of the Bedouin villages Atir and Umm al-Hiran. Legally speaking, this means that the court’s May decision, according to which there is no barrier to evacuating the residents to the town of Hura and destroying their villages, remained in tact. As far as the reality in the Negev, it means that there is nothing stopping the government from destroying one Bedouin village in order to build a Jewish town in its place, and there is nothing stopping the government from destroying a second Bedouin village in order to expand the Yatir forest on its ruins.

We can get into a deep legal discussion on the matter, but I don’t think it’s that interesting. The fact that the court ruled this way doesn’t mean we should accept it. Rather, this is a breaking point that should be seized in order to launch a public struggle that refuses to accept the ruling.

Before we go off the rails

It is in fact most critical for people who don’t live in Atir and Umm al Hiran to join the struggle and push it forward. For its Bedouin residents, this is a battle over their homes, their land and future. But for all other citizens of Israel, this is the final step before this place goes off the rails completely. As far as Israel’s Jewish citizens, this is a struggle against the state’s ability to stomp all over Palestinian citizens of Israel, to humiliate them and destroy their homes in order to build Jewish ones in their stead.

And just to refute a few counter claims that some readers may be thinking: Yes, Hiran is a town designated for “the general population.” But there aren’t actually any towns in the Negev that serve the “general population.” The reality on the ground is, the more separation between Bedouin and Jews, the better. Moreover, the core group of founders of Hiran are a national-religious community from the Eli settlement in the West Bank, and the goal of their relocation, in their own words is to “build a faithful community dedicated to strengthening the northern Negev, and contributing meaningfully to the demographic balance, out of a Zionist vision of settlement.” (Taken directly from official government website, in Hebrew). “Contributing meaningfully to the demographic balance?” So maybe they this place isn’t actually catering to the general population after all.

You may also be thinking: But the Bedouin are the ones who refuse to live among Jews. Wrong. Big time. The residents of Umm al-Hiran want to stay where they are, as part of the new Hiran town. As far as they are concerned, they can exist as an independent neighborhood or an integral part of the new town. If you visited the village, you probably heard Ra’ad Abu al-Qi’an, one of the leaders of the village’s struggle, expressing his longing for Rani and Roni, Mussa and Moshe to all grow up together in a cooperative Arab-Jewish town. So who is sabotaging this possibility? The Israeli government and its various local bodies.

What can be done

So how are the settlers from Eli connected to all this? The truth is I don’t know, but there are some settler groups who have begun “settling” the Negev. What I do know is that the Negev comprises two thirds of Israel’s territory, and less than 10 percent of the country’s citizens live there. This means there is a lot of space in the Negev, or in the words of Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, formerly the director of Adalah’s Negev office: “There is room for everyone in the Negev.” It is therefore no coincidence that a Jewish town is being planned directly on top of the ruins of a Bedouin village. This is a test for all of us, and I really hope we do not fail.

If you feel that the Negev in particular and Israel in general should belong to all its citizens, regardless of ethnic affiliation, this is the time to join the struggle. The residents of Atir and Umm al-Hiran are holding a protest march on Thursday in Be’er Sheva. For more information on the campaign, click here.

Michal Rotem works for the Negev Forum for Coexistence and is based in Be’er Sheva. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.