Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
August 25, 2010 - 12:00am

The two women crouched on the floor of a tent in this windblown Bedouin encampment in the Negev Desert, hurriedly preparing the evening meal as dusk approached.

They had been fasting since sunrise in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Now they were cooking furiously, spicing okra in tomato sauce and stuffing hollowed-out zucchini, against a backdrop of piles of rubble, the remains of their homes recently demolished by the Israeli authorities.

For years, the women — Naifa and Aali, the wives of the village elder, Sheik Sayah Abu Mudegem al-Tori — and about 300 other residents of Al Araqib, many of them children, lived in relative obscurity on these beige slopes, situated between the Bedouin town of Rahat and the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

Then the bulldozers arrived at dawn on July 27, accompanied by more than 1,000 armed police officers carrying out a court order. They tore down about 40 unlicensed concrete-block homes, shacks and other structures and uprooted hundreds of trees.

Within hours, the villagers and volunteers put up flimsy tents and a few shacks, for shelter from the scorching sun and to stake the Bedouins’ claim to the land. In a test of wills, the Israelis have already been back to destroy the structures three more times.

The tug of war has suddenly turned Al Araqib into a symbol of a much larger land dispute between the Bedouins and the Israeli authorities that has been simmering since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

“With God’s help, we will stay on our land,” said Sheik Sayah, wearing a tweed jacket over his cotton thobe, a white headdress and aviator sunglasses.

“Anyone who thinks of throwing us out will first have to throw the dead out of the cemetery,” he said, referring to the old Tori tribe graveyard next door to the encampment. The sheik was living in the cemetery because the courts had ordered him to stay away from Al Araqib for two weeks.

Sheik Sayah is well aware of the Israeli court rulings stating that his people are trespassers on what the authorities claim as state land. But, he argues, “there was negligence in the case.”

The contest over this small patch of desert reflects a clash of cultures, of modern and traditional lifestyles and laws of ownership and increasingly, for many Bedouin, of loyalties and faith.

Part of Israel’s Arab minority, the southern Bedouin, who now number more than 170,000 and make up a quarter of the population of the Negev, established good relations with the young Israeli state. Unlike most Arab and Muslim citizens of Israel, many have volunteered to serve in the Israeli military.

But none of that has eased the tensions over the land in the Negev. The area lies in Israel proper, not in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which the Palestinians want as part of a separate state.

Originally nomads, the Negev Bedouin had settled into a largely sedentary lifestyle by the time the Israeli state was founded. Israel did not recognize their land claims, and about a third to half the Bedouin of the Negev now live in dozens of unrecognized villages, mostly filled with shanties like those in Al Araqib, without basic services like running water or electricity.

The villagers of Al Araqib say that after Israelis took over the area in the 1948 war with Arab states, the Israelis told them that they needed to use their territory for military training and asked them to leave temporarily.

The villagers moved a short distance away, to a valley just beyond the boundary of their village, they said. Graves in the cemetery suggest that the Tori tribe has been living in the area since the 19th century.

In the early 1950s the state declared the area of the village to be state land, giving title to the Israel Land Administration. The residents say they were never officially notified.

They describe various attempts to move back, and they insist that even when they lived elsewhere — some moved to the government-established Bedouin town of Rahat — they continued to farm and graze their herds on their ancestral land.

Then in the late 1990s, the villagers built homes in Al Araqib when it became clear that the Jewish National Fund was about to plant a forest there.

Ortal Tzabar, the spokeswoman for the Israel Land Administration, contends that there is no question about the ownership. The villagers, Ms. Tzabar said, have lost repeatedly in the Israeli courts, including the Supreme Court, and have no right to build anything in Al Araqib.

Some of the villagers are now pursuing cases in the Beersheba district court to prove their original ownership.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel, a member of the geography department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has appeared as an expert witness in another Bedouin land case. He said that the Bedouin had traditional documents of purchase showing that the Toris bought land here from the Ukbi tribe in 1907 and 1926.

“In pure legal terms, the state has a point,” said Professor Yiftachel, an advocate for Bedouin rights. “But it is a very technical point, brushing aside tradition and the legal occupation of the land until the 1950s.”

Government officials say that they cannot provide services to every far-flung group of shacks and tents. They add that housing solutions for the people of Al Araqib lie in Rahat, one of seven government-established towns where the state has encouraged the Bedouin to relocate.

Some villagers have houses there. But the towns have become centers of poverty and hopelessness, with high unemployment and a population alienated from its roots.

“They took our freedom, our culture, our life,” said Khalil al-Amour, a Bedouin high school teacher from a nearby unrecognized village, Al Sira, which is also scheduled for demolition. “They put us within four walls with a washing machine and a microwave and said, ‘Now you are civilized.’ ”

“We want to progress,” Mr. Amour continued, “but not in the way the state wants.”

The villagers may have satellite television and cellphones, but they also want to farm and raise their livestock, and to sleep under the stars.

The destruction of Al Araqib has brought together a strange coalition of supporters, including left-wing Jewish activists from the Negev and politicians and volunteers from the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a social and political organization that also has religious aims.

As the sheik’s wives ate with the other women and children in their tent one recent evening, the Bedouin men were at the cemetery, breaking their fast with local leaders of the Islamic Movement.

Early the next morning, the police came and pulled down the tents for the fourth time, the villagers said.

Amos Oz, the celebrated Israeli author who lives in the Negev town of Arad, also came by. The state, he said, was treating the Bedouin like “stepchildren.”

The next night, another feast was held at the cemetery, attended by several Arab and leftist dignitaries, senior Muslim and Christian clergymen from Jerusalem and activists from Rabbis for Human Rights and other coexistence advocacy groups.

And on Saturday, Jewish and Arab poets from around Israel gathered for a joint reading in Al Araqib in solidarity with the villagers’ battle against the authorities.

“When a neighbor is in trouble,” Mr. Oz said of his visit, “I come to express my sympathy and see what can be done.”


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