How Israel Is Transplanting the Bedouins of Hiran

'It’s important for us that Israeli citizens understand the magnitude of the injustice,' says resident of Umm al-Hiran, who faces eviction in face of new construction.

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Last week saw another round in the dispute between the Garin, settling community, slated to move to Hiran and the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran. The former have lived in the midst of the pastoral green forest for the past three years, eagerly awaiting their final resettlement. The latter have lived in endless sand dunes among acacia trees since the 1950s. Now both groups await a Supreme Court decision that will rule whether the Bedouins may continue living on the land they received from the government or be transplanted from the site in order to serve the ideology of others.

Since 2008, the Hiran Garin has been seeking to settle in the Negev and held contacts with the Ministry for Development of the Negev and the Galilee. “The common denominator among all the settling communities is a search for meaningful Zionist action,” says Shmuel Bezek, one of the garin. The garin grew by word of mouth and through the distribution of pamphlets in synagogues, common practice in groups of this type. Still, the government told the group that no land was found to allocate to them.

But it turns out that already in 2001 the Ministry of National Infrastructure, at the time headed by Avigdor Leiberman, and later by Efi Eitam of the Mafdal, presented a document outlining land allocated to a settlement named Hiran. The report was submitted to Uzi Keren, who served for nine years as the Prime Minister’s settlement advisor and chairman of the Inter-Ministry Committee for New Settlements in the Prime Minister’s office. Keren worked under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and during Eitam's tenure as housing minister.

According to the document, the planning permit was issued in 1997, outlining 2,500 dunams of land, where some 2,000 housing units could be built. Towards the end of the document detailing the town, under the header “special problems,” three clauses were listed: the first dealt with environmental damage to the desert, but the document drafters claimed that the JNF approved of the plan. The second problem was the slowing down of planning due to the demands of the National Council of Planning and Building to examine the development of the whole Yatir region. The third clause consisted of the words: “There are Bedouins on the land.”

Salim Abu Alkian of Umm al-Hiran laughs when he is told of this clause. “That’s how it is,” he says, “for the state we’re a problem.” When his clan heard that a town was to be built in place of their village, they submitted an objection to the regional planning council. The council did not accept the objection but deferred the decision to the National Council of Planning and Building.

In 2012, the National Council approved the outline plan for Hiran, the latest in a series of decisions by the state. Despite being approved, work on the town was delayed following an appeal by Bedouin residents. “One of the reasons for submitting objections was to gain time,” one of the residents admits. “It’s important for us that Israeli citizens understand the magnitude of the injustice. We’re not invaders or criminals, What the state is doing to us is illegal.”

The fact that no bulldozers were seen in the area doesn’t seem to calm the fears of Umm al-Hiran residents. Ever since 2002, when the National Council approved the construction of Hiran, they face endless suits and evacuation orders, which are often carried out despite court injunctions in their favor.

In 2007, several construction sites in the village were demolished despite the residents presenting court injunctions in their defense. “I was always told I was naïve,” Abu Alkian said. “But at the demonstration this week I understood who we’re dealing with.” He was referring to the demonstration that took place in the entrance to Sde Boker, on a commemorative morning when the cabinet held a special session at the kibbutz honoring 40 years since the death of David Ben Gurion. The Bedouin activists weren’t allowed to enter the kibbutz, and several of them were violently arrested by police.

“The state says there aren’t enough places to settle in the Negev,” Abu Alkian says. “But it’s all down to government decisions. One can decide that a certain place is fit for Jewish settlement, and one can recognize existing Bedouin villages. The state adopts the most racist decision possible.”

Umm al-Hiran. The government has decided to raze the Bedouin village in the Negev to make way for a new Jewish community.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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