Wearing black, she emerges from her tent, a beautiful, smiling woman whose face is etched with the lines of life’s ordeals. Raba Abu al-Kiyan, the widow of Yakub – the teacher who was shot to death on January 18 by the Israel Police, who in a snap decision concluded that he was trying to run them over – lives in a tent next to the ruins of her home in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev.
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When we visited here a few days after the incident, Raba repeatedly circled the rubble, mutely. Her nephew Akram, a medical student in Moldova, told us at the time that she was reconstructing her last moments with Yakub. This week she stood at the entrance to the large tent that is her home and that of her 10 children and one grandchild, and, in the late-summer heat, bottle of water in hand, agreed to talk.
For eight months – through winter, spring, summer and now with the onset of autumn – the bereaved family has called this tent home. The heaps of rubble nearby have lain untouched since that fateful, early January morning, the morning of the killing and destruction in Umm al-Hiran. The ruins of the parents’ house, the children’s house, the animal pen – all are just as they were. People don’t clear away the rubble in Umm al-Hiran, because they understand that in any event they’re living on borrowed time here.
On July 18, the bulldozers returned and started to prepare the ground for the religious-Jewish community of Hiran, which is to be built on the ruins of the Bedouin village. The work is going on just steps away from the tent where Raba and her children live. They probably won’t be able to stay here much longer.
Her father called her Raba ("four," because she was the fourth child) and her mother called her Najah, which means “success.” Raba-Najah was born 46 years ago on this now rubble-strewn soil. Her husband Yakub’s second wife, Amal, had gone to visit her parents the day we visited. Amal is the widow of his deceased brother; Yakub married her after his brother died, according to tradition.
A pall of despair seems to have descended on Umm al-Hiran. No one is expanding his house, no one is renovating or fixing anything – neglect is rampant. The mounds of ruins have become street furniture, the meager plantings have wilted, there’s no reason to cultivate anything. The generators, the black water containers, the satellite dishes and the solar panels – all are now signs of transience here, scattered about on the ground, after dozens of years of habitation. Only the access road to the community, formerly scarred and pot-holed, was miraculously repaired and repaved recently. After all, it’s going to serve Jewish residents soon.
An uneasy silence hovered over Umm al-Hiran under a blazing noontime sun, penetrated occasionally by the bleating of a lamb or the crying of an infant. Everyone understands that the fate of the village is sealed: Bedouin out, Jews in. And not just any Jews – according to the charter of the new community that will be built here, its land will be sold exclusively to “observers of the Torah and the precepts according to the values of Orthodox Judaism.” The core settler group is already waiting, living in mobile homes, in the nearby Yattir Forest.
Two weeks ago, the district planning and building committee approved a plan for the evacuees of the Bedouin village to be moved to a provisional site for 15 years, in Hura in the southern Negev. In the entire expanse of this vast desert, only here in Umm al-Hiran was a place found for Jews to settle in, on the site of yet another demolished village.
Strewn about, across from Raba’s tent, the double mattress she shared with her husband lies amid solar panels; their personal effects remain trapped under concrete beams. Iron rods, kitchen cupboards, a basin. Of the small olive grove that Yakub tended, the wreckers left only one ornamental tree, which thrusts up from the ruins.
“They thought that was their tree, a tree that we didn’t plant, so they let it be,” Raba says, “but it’s a tree that Yakub planted.” The sheep Yakub raised as a hobby, which were the apple of his eye, also survived and now lie, reeling from the heat, in a small new pen that was built for them. Two mangy stray dogs have found shelter under the wreckage of a car.
Along the sloping dirt road on which Yakub drove slowly to his death, exactly at the place where he was shot by the police, a modest monument of stones in his memory has been erected, surrounded by used tires. Before leaving his house in his jeep, he told Raba and the children to stay clear. “It’s dangerous here,” Yakub said. His family never saw him again.
Last weekend, on Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, Raba prepared two holiday meals, one “a meal for Yakub,” the other for guests. She took the meal for her late husband to the mosque and donated it to the needy.
The couple’s eldest son, Hussam, 25, completed medical school in Odessa and is now preparing for the Israeli certification examinations. Unable to study in the hot, crowded tent, he travels to Be’er Sheva every day, to the library of Ben-Gurion University; his father had a master’s degree in computer engineering from BGU.
Daughter Maryam, 21, emerges from the tent and joins the conversation. Smiling and exuding charm, she’s a student at Kaye Academic College of Education in Be’er Sheva. At the time of her father’s death, she was doing a trial week as a kindergarten teacher. Three weeks later, she sat for exams. She says she was unhappy with the grades she attained, in the shadow of the trauma.
When her mother stumbles while speaking Hebrew, Maryam helps her out. Her teacher-training studies haven’t yet resumed for the fall, so she’s helping out in the tent. There are no toilet facilities, and the only electric power they have is generated by a solar device.
Everyone in the village has been living in the shadow of fear since January, Maryam says, especially the children.
“I am in a constant state of worry,” she says. “Maybe they will come back again to demolish. Maybe we will leave home in the morning and won’t be able to come back in the afternoon because everything will be blocked and they will level the rest of the houses. If they destroy my home, they will destroy all the memories that it contains for me.”
In the meantime, other than a widow’s allowance from social security, Raba hasn’t received anything from the state, whose leaders lost no time calling her husband – a revered teacher – a “wicked terrorist,” in the words of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich. Later they half-retracted what they had said, without apologizing. Nor is the Justice Ministry department that investigates the police in any hurry to help out. Following reports that the department's investigators had found a “grave operational failure” in the conduct of the police on January 18, and that “there was probably no terrorist event” – an oppressive, prolonged silence has prevailed, as though the case has been closed.
At the other end of the village, Yakub’s nephew, Raad Abu al-Kiyan, continues to wage a struggle for the community’s survival. Forty years old, polished and articulate, he’s the chairman of the village committee and he sets forth his views again, tirelessly. His wife, Maryam, who has a master’s in public policy management from BGU, is the chairwoman of a local women’s group.
Raad works in the realm of environmental quality, but won’t say where.
“They killed Yaakov and Musa,” he says, referring to his uncle and to his grandfather, Musa, Yakub’s father, who died 21 days after his son was killed, possibly from heartbreak.
“We’ve lived here for 62 years without getting a thing from state, which settled us here. And now the state rewards us with murder – a state that employs all its force against its citizens,” Raad says. “We asked for a partner who would come and talk with us. Who would bring a real offer. But they don’t want an agreed-upon solution. They want to do things by force. Why is there only an enforcement unit that operates against the Bedouin, the [Israel Police’s] Yoav Unit? Is there a unit against people from the Caucasus? Against the Russians? The Ethiopians? Why is there an enforcement unit only against us?
“We suggested that we live together, one next to the other,” he continues. “But the Hiran charter states that the community will be only for Orthodox Jews. Why did Yakub and Musa have to be killed in order to bring Yaakov and Moshe instead? It’s no small thing, what happened on January 18. The world knows what happened here. Now they want to do things by force again, but without anyone noticing. To remove Umm al-Hiran from the ‘front,’ to soften things, so it’s not felt – and then to expel us. We don’t know what to expect, but we haven’t lost hope. A hope that’s 2,000 years old.”
Adds Raba: “Aren’t we citizens? I tell my friends from Hebron: You live better than us. You have land. We don’t even have that.”
Her daughter, Maryam, points to the concrete ceiling that lies crushed on the ground. “This is where we did our homework, and here’s where we played, so we wouldn’t bother Dad, who liked quiet.”
Every month Raba visits Yakub’s grave, at nearby Tel Shoket. She was there early this week, too, with two of her children. What do you tell her husband in his grave? “That God will help.”