Salameh al-Kasasi came home from kindergarten on Sunday to discover that his home had been demolished. He left home in the morning and returned at midday – to nothing. When his father arrived, after having been detained by the police for 40 minutes, he saw his son standing on the heap of rubble and poking around in it.
“What are you looking for?” he asked his little boy. “For my yellow teacup,” the boy replied. The beloved cup was found a few minutes later amid the pile of stones that had once been a house.
Salameh is a 4-year-old Israeli boy from the “unrecognized” Bedouin village of Saawa in the Negev. In 1952, the Israeli government moved his relatives from the area of Beit Kama – in order to make room for kibbutzim – to the place where he was born. Now the authorities seek to expel his family from there, too. Four times Israel has already demolished this tiny village of Saawa, which lies east of the town of Hura, and four times it’s been rebuilt.
When we arrived this week, the day after the devastation, the residents were already busy clearing rubble and sealing up holes in houses that had been damaged but not totally destroyed. A heap of ruins lies next to just about every home here, like a monument to a house or a memorial for a room that was razed. Some are from this week’s demolitions, which were a continuation of a wrecking process that was begun last December.
Battered by experience, the locals are now rebuilding their homes with cheap components, tin panels, and sealing them with insulation materials. The fate of their little enclave is sealed, too, they know. At the conclusion of their struggle – a lost cause – the village will likely become a Jewish National Fund grove or a site earmarked for Jewish habitation.
The dirt trail leading to Saawa is potholed. Running alongside it is an improvised water pipe that’s perforated across its whole length, and leaking. There’s no supply of electricity, and the water is drawn from nearby Hura at a high price. The sun beats down on the pipe and it became cracked. A herd of camels stands on the ridge; the females are cavorting with their newborns, a delightful sight. Indeed, the only happy sight we saw this week in Saawa.
The homes are generally well kept, as much as can be expected under the circumstances. Eight of them were razed this week. A total of about 300 people live here, 28 families. Among them are Nawaf and Salam al-Kasasi, who are brothers. Nawaf’s home was also destroyed this week. He is wearing a fleece jacket of the Israel Defense Forces’ Yanshuf (Owl) Battalion, which is trained in nuclear/biological/chemical warfare; he works as a security guard in Jerusalem and on the “seam line.” Hence the jacket.
Most of the men living in the enclave are contract workers in the bromine plants in the region or at the Ne’ot Hovav hazardous-waste disposal facility.
Their problems with the governmental authorities date back to the 1980s, when Israel stopped leasing them farmlands. About a decade earlier, they had filed ownership claims for the land, which were never authorized. In 1991, the entire village was razed, and it was destroyed again in 1994, in 2004 and again now.
The legal battle has gone on apace, reaching the Supreme Court, but the Bedouin inhabitants have almost always lost. In the meantime, harassment by the authorities continues unabated.
The villagers say that in recent months inspectors from the Interior Ministry have been coming to their little hamlet, photographing, surveying and bothering them, almost every day. They say that there are a total of about 1,000 families in the Bedouin dispersion who are ready to move but not to the places to which the government wants to relocate them.
The people of Saawa, for example, say they are ready to move to Hura, but not to that town’s Neighborhood 16, where the familial, communal and social fabric is unsuited to them. But the government is insisting on Neighborhood 16 only: Either you move to 16 or we’ll demolish your homes, the inspectors tell them.
“We are the weak side, that’s obvious,” Nawaf says. “The demolition of a house is rough, but we are choosing the lesser of the evils here. Destroying my house is less terrible than destroying my life. If I move to Neighborhood 16 in Hura, it will be for life, and I will destroy my life and my children’s lives. We are ready to move to the planned extension of Hura, or to Rahat, to Tel Sheva – anywhere but Neighborhood 16.
“They have to understand the people here,” Nawaf continues. “We have our culture. If I live in Hura, I have to find the people of my race, my tribe. They are not in Neighborhood 16. Why don’t they suggest that we move to Ashkelon or Ashdod? Neighborhood 16 is located at the northern edge of Hura, and there’s no place there to expand for our children, because of the boundary of the [Jewish] community of Meitar.
“We’re ready to accept a solution. We don’t want a 100-percent solution, but we do want one that we can live with. We’re talking about our life, our whole future.”
Last December, they were did some of the demolition work themselves with their own hands, an option the villagers are given if they want to try and rescue some of their property and building materials. About half the demolitions of recent years in the Bedouin dispersion have been self-administered. In December, four families here demolished seven structures – and then rebuilt them.
“In the middle of the winter, we built only what was urgent, so people wouldn’t sleep outside,” the Kasasi brothers relate.
But last Sunday the authorities swooped down again. Inspectors actually showed up on Saturday, so the residents of Saawa they knew that the next day the wreckers would arrive. Eight residential structures were leveled to the ground.
At about 9 A.M., large forces of police arrived, some of them on horses, accompanied by water cannons, together with personnel from the Interior Ministry and bulldozers. The contract workers brought in to do the wrecking removed some of the personal property, but closets and beds were crushed under the heavy machines, as we saw with our own eyes. The villagers didn’t resist; they just stood and watched as their homes were leveled.
We walked between the ruins – heaps of stones and tin panels. What do they tell their children?
“They ask questions for which we don’t have answers,” Nawaf says. “What can we tell them? A child comes home from school and asks, ‘Where is our house?’ What can you tell him?”
And there is of course an atmosphere here of discrimination and racism, intensified by the existence of the veteran kibbutzim in the area, but mostly by the phenomenon of nearby single-family farms of Jews, some of them built without permits, which have electrical power and water – and which no one demolishes.
Says Nawaf: “Why aren’t we allowed to build farming communities? The whole country is filled with farming communities – and only we’re not allowed? Isn’t that racism? Don’t believe what they tell you: The Bedouin are not ‘trespassers’ and they are not ‘expanding.’ If someone from [the Be’er Sheva suburb of] Omer wants to move to Tel Aviv, no one will prohibit him. Obviously there has to be law and order in the country, but no one is negotiating with us. With us there’s only coercion.”
From the 2013 report of the Southern Directorate for Enforcing the Land Laws, as uncovered by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which documents the demolitions and helps the Bedouin in their struggle: “Total: 46 demolition days – implementation (including four days of earth turning). Results of activity: 697 demolitions.” Between July 2013 and June 2014, there were even more: 859 “results of activity.” On Sunday of this week another eight “results of activity” were proudly chalked up.
The following statement, in response to questions from Haaretz, was received this week from Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach: “Eight illegal structures north of route 31 were demolished this week, in accordance with both administrative demolition orders and judicial demolition orders by the Supreme Court. The area where the illegal structures stood is not zoned for residential construction, but for agriculture.
"According to the Authority for the Regulation of Bedouin Settlement, the families residing in the illegal structures were offered a number of alternatives; all were rejected. The demolitions were carried out according to regulations, by a contractor.”
Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz