Bedouin youngsters with tear-gas canisters.
Bedouin youngsters with tear-gas canisters. 'The children are frightened. They saw their parents being beaten are arrested,' said one teacher.
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Eliyahu Hershkovitz
'My children now think the state is their No. 1 enemy,' says Ayish Abu Habak. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At around 7 A.M. this Monday, the children of Fatma Alkaskar, from the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj in the northern Negev, were waiting to be bused to the elementary school at the far end of the village. The younger children were at home - meaning, in this case, three minimally furnished tin huts. Alkaskar went to a neighbor's place, about 100 meters away, for a few minutes. When she returned, she discovered a group of policemen in her house, with the children locked in one of the rooms.

"One of the policemen kicked me in the leg and threw me against the wall," she says. "The neighbor ran over to find out what was going on and tried to help, and he was also hit. They threw tear gas into the children's room."

The Alkaskar residence was just one of the Bir Hadaj homes visited this week by the police, as part of an operation they describe as "enforcement activity related to illegal construction." However, the locals speak of "deliberate provocation, intended to frighten the Bedouin from opposing the government's plans." Tires were burned and stones thrown along the village's only street.

The security forces, numbering about 100 policemen, arrested 19 people, including six minors, on suspicion of assaulting policemen, disorderly conduct, endangering life, causing damage, and other charges. Some of the detainees were released a day or two later.

Police provocation?

A number of those detained, as well as many of the villagers, say the police used brutal violence, including breaking into homes. One minor arrested on Monday was hit by what he and others say was a rubber bullet (the police say no such ammunition was used, only "sponge bullets" ), but did not receive medical treatment. As a result, the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court ordered him released and criticized the police for infringing on the youth's basic rights.

A few days later, he recalled the events: "The police entered the house and started to hit me. My cousin, who was also there, was tasered in the shoulder for about two minutes. From one meter away, or maybe a meter and a half, I took a rubber bullet in the stomach. Then they took us to a police van and we were both hit on the head. We were taken to a police station and waited for four hours in handcuffs. I didn't see a doctor until Tuesday afternoon."

The boy's father is a 20-year veteran in the Israel Defense Forces. "I never imagined that this is how the police behave," the father said. "They seem to have forgotten that we are citizens, who live in conditions that not even animals live in."

According to some villagers, the police violence was not only physical but also took the form of obscene gestures and curses, aimed particularly at women. The locals added that security men disguised as Arabs also tried to inflame the tensions. The police refused to provide information about the forces that operated in the village.

The main confrontation between security forces and Bedouin actually occurred at the elementary school at 8 A.M., when there were dozens of children present. The school consists of a series of one-story structures surrounding a large courtyard. Videos uploaded to YouTube show grenades landing in the inner yard as small children, schoolbags on their backs, flee in panic.

According to the police, "The activity took place hundreds of meters from the school grounds." However, when the videos were mentioned, one police spokesman added, "Maybe the wind carried the tear gas into the school grounds."

"We tried to gather the children into one of the back classrooms, but there was tremendous panic and we were only able to get to some of them," a schoolteacher recalls. "We wanted to take the children who inhaled tear gas to the clinic. The doctors could not enter the village because the police had blocked the road. In the end, we took them in private cars, between the police and the burning tires, to the highway, and from there they were taken in ambulances to the hospital in Be'er Sheva."

Twenty-nine children were rushed to the city's Soroka Medical Center after complaining about a stinging sensation in their eyes and respiratory tract irritation. They were released during the day. Next to the school, the children show off their new toys: empty tear-gas canisters.

On Tuesday, the schools remained shut while the children stayed home. Only a few showed up the next day. According to one of the teachers, "The children are frightened and feel humiliated. They saw their parents being beaten and arrested. We are letting them vent their feelings. We tell them that the future will be better, that there are also good Jews, and that we are part of this country and are not going anywhere."

The home of Ayish Abu Habak is at the entrance to the village. When the police arrived, he told his children not to go outside. A few minutes later, he recalls, "I was informed that the school was being attacked. I went to see if I could help. On the way I was informed that my wife and daughter were wounded and that the police wanted to arrest my son. They were in my brother's house, which is next to ours, and were shot at with tear gas. I was in the army for 15 years. I am at a loss to understand how you can hit 8-year-old children like that. My children now think the state is their No.1 enemy."

Monday's police operation was the second of its kind within a month. In reaction to the previous demonstration, the police fired live rounds into the air. "The shooting event is known and being examined," the police said in a statement.

Absurd situation

Bir Hadaj is one of the Bedouin communities within the Abu Basma Regional Council. About 5,000 people live in the village, eking out a living from shepherding and basic agriculture. The master plan for Bir Hadaj was approved in 2003, and detailed plans were drawn up for part of the village. However, in the years since, the Interior Ministry, Israel Lands Administration and the Housing Ministry's unit for the settlement of the Bedouin Negev have not completed all the procedures required for construction permits to be issued.

"We are in an absurd situation: On the one hand, the state insists on demolishing our homes; on the other, it does not let us build. They cannot just leave me to live under the open skies," says Suleiman Abu Hamid, chairman of the village committee. "It seems we are not entitled to any rights: not for our children to be protected in school, not to build a home and not to be a farming community."

According to Abu Hamid, the reason for the government's decade-long foot-dragging is the objection of the various planning authorities to the original (approved ) plan, under which Bir Hadaj would become a farming community and the Bedouin would be able to go on making a living as in the past. That plan translates into a plot of up to five dunams (1.25 acres ) per family.

"The Housing Ministry unit revoked the master plan, and the Interior Ministry is demolishing houses in order to pressure us into accepting the new proposals," Abu Hamid says. "They do not want to divide the plots as was planned but want us to become a municipal community [in which each family receives a far smaller plot of land]. If that happens, most of the people here will end up as beggars in Be'er Sheva, and poverty abets crime. Afterward, they will say we are criminals."

According to Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, who heads the Negev branch of Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the reason for the change in the state's approach can be found in the plan to implement the recommendations of a Prime Minister's Office team led by Ehud Prawer. The plan includes the relocation of other Bedouin in the Negev to the Bir Hadaj area. In other words, the land in question will have to support a far larger population. "The Negev is big enough to allow for all government plans, but the Bedouin too are entitled to territorial justice," Abu Ras says.

Suspicions about government policy were heightened by the fact that the Interior Ministry decided, about a month ago, to split up the Abu Basma Regional Council, which has been controlled by an appointed committee headed by Jews since its creation in 2003. In wake of this, the election for council head - the first of its kind - scheduled for December 4 was postponed. In response to a petition submitted by Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the High Court of Justice ruled a year and a half ago that elections were to be held in Abu Basma.

"The postponement of the elections to an unknown date is an infringement of the basic right to vote and to be elected," says ACRI attorney Rawia Abu Rabia. "The splitting of the council and the continued management by Jews will make it easier for the government to implement the Prawer Report than would be the case if Bedouin headed the council. The government's policy, including home demolitions and the use of large police forces, is intended to send a message to the Bedouin population: either accept the Prawer committee report or we will make your lives miserable. It is a policy aimed at pushing the Bedouin to behave violently. It will be easier to implement the report when they are shown to be people who disrespect the law,."

The Housing Ministry's spokesman for Bedouin settlement in the Negev stated in response: "The allegation of decreasing the size of the plots in Bir Hadaj is groundless. The plan referred to remains valid. The authority, together with the residents, will continue to try to advance housing arrangements in the form of permanent solutions. All that is needed is for the residents to display a degree of seriousness, readiness and responsibility, and to join the process."

The Israel Police said: "The large number of police that took part in the activity this week is due to serious riots and disturbances, which include physical violence against the police and civilians, attacks on police vehicles, burning of tires, vandalism, property damage and stone throwing at passing vehicles by Bir Hadaj residents. Mass-dispersal methods were used according to the existing procedures and classification, to repulse the rioters."

The police statement added, "The rioters, most of whom were masked, threw stones at passing vehicles on Route 222 and set fire to structures belonging to Kibbutz Revivim. This is not the first time that lawbreakers have vented their anger against innocent civilians and their property. Those lawbreakers will be treated with determination and zero tolerance."

The Interior Ministry stated in response: "Pursuant to a professional opinion, the decision was made to split the Abu Basma council into two regional councils. The reduction of the number of communities and the decrease in the geographical area of each council will aid the local authority to further the settlement of the permanent Bedouin communities. The decision was made in accordance with the interim report submitted by a committee headed by Prof. Eran Razin, and in accordance with the opinion of the professional units in the Interior Ministry. After it is determined that the new councils are ready for municipal elections, special elections will be declared in them."