The tragedy of the Al-Ukbi tribe began in the fall of 1951. A few months earlier, Al-Ukbi's father came under pressure to leave the place, as the army said it needed the territory for a period of six months to carry out a major military exercise.
"I was a child at the time," says Al-Ukbi, "and I remember the command cars that came here shooting in the air and killing a donkey and dogs on the opposite hill, all to scare us. After that they used to say to my father: 'Sheikh, the governor wants you at the [military] administration,' the one next to Kibbutz Shoval, and Father used to gallop there on the horse. Then he told me: 'I sat with one man smoking a pipe who introduced himself as the governor, and he didn't know Arabic and used to shout at me: "Sheikh, you have to leave."' And then he would come back home, barely manage to wash his hands and face and to eat, and then the police would come and say: 'The governor wants to see you in Be'er Sheva.' In the afternoon Father would go to the governor in Be'er Sheva, and the same man with the pipe would say to him: 'Sheikh, you have to leave.' On November 13, 1951 army trucks arrived here and began to evacuate us to the Hura region, 20 kilometers east of here."
The evacuation scheme was well planned. Officers of the Military Administration (MA) prepared an area near Hura, plowed it in advance and told the members of the tribe to begin to sow their crops there. "They gave my father and several other tribal leaders a note signed by Avraham Shamash, the head of the MA, containing the names of all the landowners in Hura who were presumably out of the country, and it said: 'These lands are given to the Al-Ukbi tribe until the tribe is returned to its land.' In fact, it turned out that they had beaten the peasants who owned these lands, expelled them from there and plowed their land. We understood that during the planting. People used to come there, point to their plots and say: 'That's ours.' And my father would say: 'Your lands, even if they give us coffee - the most highly prized thing for the Bedouin - we don't want them.' And thus we have remained without land until now and without a livelihood: unfortunate, unemployed people who can't even build houses because the government wants to put us into the concentration towns it has built especially for the Bedouin, like Rahat, Hura and Tel Sheva, and to restrict their living area even more."
What's wrong with living in an organized urban area rather than in a tent or a tin shanty without water and electricity?
Al-Ukbi: "Living in a city goes against our character. We want a rural agricultural community on our lands. In 1952 my father went to the governor and told him: 'Half a year has passed, we want to return to our lands,' and then the governor said: 'You're making trouble? Sit at home, you're no longer a sheikh.'
Since then, the members of the Al-Ukbi tribe, like many Bedouin in the Negev, have been waiting. After all, the half-year passed long ago and Israeli governments, one after the other, have become entangled in the issue of the Bedouin and their land, and to be on the safe side have decided to do nothing, or to establish a committee, which is the same thing.
Life on the kibbutz
In 1958 young Al-Ukbi was sent by his father to live in Kibbutz Evron in the north. Baruch Hakim of Kibbutz Shoval arranged it.
"During the 1950s I was active in the Arab department of the Mapam party," recalls Hakim, 80, "and I was a friend of Suleiman, Nuri's father. We had something very practical in common: We were fighting against the MA. They did not like his father; they said he was very left-wing. He had his own ideas and he didn't want to be an informer. One day Suleiman told me: 'Take this boy to one of the kibbutzim, so he'll learn something,' and that is how things started."
Al-Ukbi's memories of the education on the kibbutzim of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement (after Evron he also lived on Shoval and Lahav) bring a smile to his face. "I studied all the theoretical subjects there - history, math, English, and I also read a lot - and I really felt wonderful. I had a housemother there named Shoshana. She was like a mother. I remember that one day I had the flu, and she said: 'You aren't going to class or to the dining room, I'll take care of you.' And then she opened the door with a tray with a meal for me on it, and I sat up and put my bare feet on the floor, like a Bedouin, and she shouted: 'Oh, no, don't put your feet on the floor, only on the rug, you're sick."
After a year on the kibbutz he decided to study automotive mechanics at Kibbutz Shoval with Hakim and afterward worked as a mechanic on Kibbutz Lahav. "Baruch took very good care of me in the kibbutz. There were guys in the work brigade there who harassed me. One day I was standing on the edge of the swimming pool and one of them ran to me and pushed me into the water. And then Baruch ran to him and shouted, and I remember his words until today: 'That's our son, and if you come near him again, you'll be thrown out of here.'"
In 1964 Al-Ukbi moved to Lod and opened a garage. He took a course offered by the Transportation Ministry and the Israel Garage Association, and received certification. In 1967 he married a cousin and had eight children, five boys and three girls, from whom he has 11 grandchildren. One of his sons works as a printer; one is replacing him in the garage at the moment; one daughter studied education at the Ramat Gan College and works as a teacher; and another daughter studied philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed her degree at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "I wanted someone to study law, but it didn't work out," he says.
In the late 1970s Al-Ukbi established the Association for Support and Protection of Bedouin Rights, and since then most of his time has been devoted to that cause. The Bedouin have been living in the Negev and working the land for generations, long before the Sayeret Yeruka was established. "The Bedouin say: 'Property under which the wind passes is not property,'" says Al-Ukbi. "That means animals. Property is land."
The bureaucratic history of the Bedouin lands affair began with the Turks, who also understood that property is land, and from the middle of the 19th century started to register land as an asset.
"In 1858 the Turks passed the lands law, which eventually was called the Ottoman Lands Law," explains consultant Atzmon. "The Turks declared that there were various types of land: private land, sacred assets, state land, public assets and neglected land that has never been cultivated, which they defined as including all the area up to the place reached by the voice of the muezzin who called people to prayer. The British ordered the arrangements clerk to examine the rights and enabled people to revive these lands. They told the Bedouin: 'Work the land for three years, show the clerk that it has been cultivated, and then you can register it in your name.' But because that involved payment of taxes, and the idea of registering assets in someone's name is a concept that is foreign to the Bedouin - because the real owner of all property is Allah - they didn't hurry to register the land. In any case, most of the Bedouin paid taxes to the British through the sheikhs."
Al-Ukbi claims that his family paid taxes on its lands both to the British and to the State of Israel. "We have papers, for example from September 22, 1937, where it is written that my grandfather paid taxes as the owner of this land. At the beginning of the State of Israel, too, on October 20, 1950, my father paid 113 liras and 139 mils in taxes to the military governor for planting summer crops. That was worth 20 camels at the time. They expelled us from our land by stealth, under the sponsorship of the MA. That's theft. We have been citizens of the State of Israel for generations, inhabitants of this land, so what is this registration worth?"
The state meanwhile changed most of the laws from Turkish times to suit its own needs. The same is true of the laws from the British Mandatory era. Nobody paid attention to the problem of the Bedouin lands, and a legal morass was created that is yet to be untangled. In the 1970s the state encouraged the Bedouin to file official claims for their lands with the arrangements office. The members of the Al-Ukbi tribe, like others, filed their claims, which since then have been gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.
"The state did not know how to deal with this legally," Atzmon continues, "and in 1975 it established a team that included Plia Albeck, a representative of the State Prosecutor's Office, a representative of the advisor on Arab affairs, a representative of the ILA and the arrangements clerk from the Justice Ministry. They were a type of committee of experts that made recommendations to the government. Albeck promoted the idea that the lands in the Negev were neglected."
But the British have already left the country.
Atzmon: "It's convenient for us to use these laws in order to justify the theft. At the same time, the state offered the Bedouin compensation, which is not required by law: 20 percent in land and 80 percent in money, at very low prices for a dunam of land. Most of the Bedouin did not accept this arrangement."
Rejected again and again
In the late 1990s it seemed for a moment that the problem of the Al-Ukbi tribe was going to have a happy end. Pini Badash, head of the Omer Regional Council, asked that the Tarabin al-Sana Bedouin tribe be removed from within his area of jurisdiction. And when the council head of a well-to-do community like Omer demands a solution, the problem is solved by government decision.
Atzmon: "Omer expanded its area of jurisdiction, the Tarabin [community] reached right up to the boundary fence, and residents didn't like that, so we found an alternative location for the Tarabin and established a rural Bedouin community south of Rahat and west of the Lehavim junction."
The Tarabin did not like the location of the new community, and the project became bogged down. When the Al-Ukbi tribe heard about this, its representatives wrote a letter to then prime minister Ehud Barak and asked for his help in transferring the members of their tribe to the new location that had been rejected by the Tarabin. A swift and optimistic reply was received from Barak's office, by attorney Nissan Kochai: "I welcome the willingness of the [Al-Ukbi] committee to reach an agreement regarding permanent settlement for members of the tribe, for their benefit and welfare. Your letter has been given to professionals in the ILA in order to examine the feasibility of the idea you have raised."
Unfortunately for the Al-Ukbi tribe, the Barak government did not last, and Ariel Sharon, despite the fact that he was a friend and a neighbor, had other plans.
"On January 14, 2004, Israel Radio correspondent Nissim Keinan contacted me and told me that at night they had placed mobile homes on site of the village we were requesting," recalls Al-Ukbi. "I came here and met [then minister of housing and construction] Effi Eitam. He had senior police officers with him and there was a long and festive table. I approached them and the minister said, 'Please.' I said: 'Please what? What are you talking about? You're behaving like a gang leader, like a thief in the night, how can the state do such a thing?' The police officers heard and remained silent because they knew this was something that should not be done. He looked at me and didn't say a word, turned around and left. And then we went to the Supreme Court."
What Al-Ukbi did not know was that three years earlier the issue of the rural Bedouin community had been removed from the agenda of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, because the District Committee on Planning and Construction in the southern region decided to change the designation of that community to a Jewish one. That suited the government's intention to "make the desert bloom" with a chain of Jewish communities. The name chosen for the Jewish community was Mishmar Hanegev Bet, which eventually became Givot Bar.
When Al-Ukbi discovered the change of designation, he submitted an appeal to the district committee through attorney Bilha Berg, who at the time ran the legal clinic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The appeal was overruled. As was the appeal before the same instance, as well as the one submitted to the National Council for Planning and Construction together with the Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights association, in spite of the criticism by the chair of the national council, attorney Dalit Dror, in her ruling regarding the ongoing policy of shortchanging the Bedouin in the Negev.
Attorney Bana Shagri-Badarna of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) submitted an appeal of this decision to the Supreme Court, and it was also rejected. The matter was returned to the Be'er Sheva administrative court, which rejected it in June 2004. "Regarding a fait accompli there is no choice but to reject the appeal, even if it is ostensibly correct," wrote Judge Yehonatan Adiel this past January.
Arrest or the grave
Opposite Al-Ukbi's barren hill there is now a Zionist hill with a flag, a yellow iron gate and a Bedouin guard in a hut - a donation from Canadian Jews for the residents of Givot Bar. But the toys scattered in the yards of the houses, and even the laundry fluttering in the desert wind, are not convincing proof this is a permanent community that will actually make the desert bloom.
The sight only strengthens Al-Ukbi's decision not to leave this place. "I swore that I would live here all my life until an agricultural village is established for the members of my tribe," he declares. "And if not? Then I'll either be under arrest or I'll be under the ground. We don't want to be unfortunate and unemployed, nor do we want to be criminals. We have a right to live in a rural agricultural community adjacent to Givot Bar. And I am asking the Jewish community in Canada not to help allow racism to overcome this country."
Liat Nidam, the spokeswoman of the Negev district of the Israel Police, says in reply: "The police do not do anything until they are asked. Anyone who turns to the police and asks for help in evacuating a person, claiming a recent incursion (from the moment they noticed the incident and up to 30 days, the police can evacuate without a court order), receives assistance. The request to evacuate Al-Ukbi came from the ILA and the Sayeret Yeruka, and whenever they turn to us, we'll do it."
Ortal Tsabar, the ILA spokeswoman, easily solved the problems of the controversial lands in the Negev: "Al-Ukbi has squatted on state lands, and he is being treated according to the procedure for dealing with squatters. The fact that he is a serial squatter who does it as a protest is not a reason to treat him differently from other squatters. In the context of dealing with him, a complaint is filed with the police, the equipment he uses is confiscated and he is evacuated."
"These lands have not yet been declared state lands," comments Atzmon. "These are lands to which there are claims of ownership and there is a long discussion that has not yet ended."