Defend Rights as Well as Sites

While the media and the public went wild over the vandalization of Avdat, hardly a word was said about evicting over 1,000 Bedouin

At the beginning of October, the media were flooded with reports about the vandalization of the ancient Nabatean site of Avdat, an act attributed to two suspects from the "Bedouin dispersion." According to some of the reports, the primary motive was revenge for the destruction of Bedouin homes in the Negev.

Some 50 kilometers north of Avdat is an unrecognized Bedouin village by the name of Attir-umm el-Hiran. The village was established in 1956 - not only with the agreement of the government, to which the Arab citizens of Israel were at that time subject, but also by specific instruction from the body. The villagers, all of them members of the Bedouin tribe of Abu Alkiyan, moved there after the government instructed them to vacate lands in the vicinity of Wadi Zubale - where they'd lived until the establishment of the state. Since then, those lands have belonged to Kibbutz Shoval.

Today the village numbers some 1,000 residents who have no home other than Attir-umm el-Hiran.

At the beginning of 2004, the state began taking steps to evict these villagers. They received letters demanding that they evacuate their homes, while the state requested demolition orders. In the petitions sent to the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court, the state described the Bedouins as "intruders" and "trespassers." The state, however, refrained from indicating any public interest behind its demand for eviction.

Court rulings and appeals

About three months ago, the court accepted two of the state's eviction claims and ordered that two families residing in the village be evicted from their homes - a ruling which, in effect, opens the way for dozens of other claims submitted against other residents to be accepted. In this sense, the evacuation of Attir-umm el-Hiran and the clearing out of its residents has effectively begun.

Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, appealed the ruling in the Be'er Sheva District Court on October 21, presenting numerous claims. The central claim in their appeal was that the court should have rejected the eviction orders when it was established that the villagers were not invaders, but had in fact been living there with permission. Since the state did not point to any public interest that justified the termination of the residents' right to live in the village, other considerations should have been brought to bear, which can be summed up in one word: justice. These include the fact that the villagers have resided in Attir-umm el-Hiran for more than 50 years, that some tribe members were forced to wander around, and that they've made an investment in the village over many years. These and other reasons should have led to the rejection of the state's claims.

During the hearings in the magistrate's court it transpired that the state wants to evict the residents of Attir-umm el-Hiran because of its desire to set up a new Jewish community on their lands, by the name of Hiran. The residents of the unrecognized village wondered - if the aim of the eviction is to set up a residential community on the lands, why not allow them to stay there and have their village included in the master plan? The eviction of the residents also violates the report filed by the Goldberg Committee, which examined the issue of Bedouin settlements and recommended that the unrecognized villages in the Negev be authorized.

Absurd phenomenon

It is not possible in such a brief article to go into all the legal aspects of the eviction orders, but this is an opportunity to shed light on the absurd phenomenon revealed in the two events described here. While the media and general public went wild over the vandalizing of the archeological site at Avdat, and spokesmen did not spare words to describe their feelings - how their "heart was broken," for example - the destruction by the state of an entire village made up of more than 1,000 citizens is accepted without any qualms.

The mention of the fact that the suspects belonged to "Bedouin dispersion" only added fuel to the flames. It helped to strengthen the distinction between "us," the society that sanctifies historical values, culture, archeology and study, and "them," the members of the dispersion who violate the law. The state's destruction of Bedouin homes, however, was played down to such an extent that it was not even mentioned.

No one disagrees as to how important it is to safeguard cultural values, including those at archeological sites. And this is certainly not an attempt to justify acts of vandalism, wherever they may be. At the same time, we should all be aware that the destruction of an entire village established 50 years ago - on instructions from the state and with its approval - merely in order to set up a Jewish community in its stead, is no less grave than the destruction at Avdat.

The apathy on the part of the public and the media regarding the state's treatment of its Bedouin citizens, which finds expression in the eviction from Attir-umm el-Hiran, reveals the hypocritical face of the public. On the one hand it defends ancient archeological sites and demonstrates the importance of cultural values, but on the other hand it destroys an entire village and evicts 1,000 residents. The public must, to the same extent that it defends historical and cultural values, also know how to safeguard the present and future of its citizens. A step of this kind, by its very nature, would also further cultural values.

The writer is an attorney at Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.