A Bedouin Community's Last-ditch Effort to Remain on Its Land

Residents of Umm al-Hiran are staging a legal battle to remain in their Negev village, where they were moved by the state in the 1950s.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Salim Abu al-Qi’an and his wife Hitam, at home. 'If they contemplate evicting the village, the whole world will come here.'
Salim Abu al-Qi’an and his wife Hitam, at home. 'If they contemplate evicting the village, the whole world will come here.'Credit: Alex Levac
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

On Monday, a lamb was born in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the northeastern Negev. The tiny creature tried to stand up and take its first steps. As it faltered, its mother licked its body, her hindquarters still dripping with blood.

It is very doubtful this lamb will spend its days in this village. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court − sitting in its capacity as a court of appeals − began deliberating a petition from two of the villagers, Ibrahim Farhud and Atwa Abu al-Qi’an, through lawyers from Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, appealing the demolition and eviction orders that were issued against them by the state. The Supreme Court has not yet reached a verdict. At the exact same time, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee was discussing the so-called Prawer-Begin bill, which would relocate an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin from their homes in the Negev to centralized government townships.

It was noon in Umm al-Hiran. The skies darkened as the children returned from their school in the adjacent Bedouin village of Hura, descending the sandy path that leads to their homes, their schoolbags on their backs and lollipops in their mouths. They, too, may not grow up here, if their country’s intentions are carried out. The road that leads to the village is strewn with concrete blocks, planted next to each shepherds’ community. They warn about a firing zone, entrance forbidden − written in Hebrew and English, but not in the local language of Arabic.

From the road, scarred with one pothole after another, a stink rose from the garbage of Hura. This road leads from Bedouin country in the Negev to the southern Hebron Hills. Here and also there, on both sides of the Green Line, a systematic Israeli effort is now under way to clear the area of its non-Jewish inhabitants, raze villages and shepherds communities and drive the residents into towns.

In Umm al-Hiran, the government wants to raze the village − whose residents have lived there since 1956, when the authorities expelled them from their lands near Kibbutz Shoval − and build in its place an Orthodox Jewish community ‏(to be called Hiran‏).

Expelled for a second time, the residents here have put up a fight. For now, it is taking the form of a legal battle, but it might turn violent. Meanwhile, Silvan Shalom, Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, has already termed the residents − expelled here by the authorities more than half a century ago − “squatters.”

Here is what it says on the website of Garin Hiran, the group waiting to advance on the ruins: “Hiran is a young and developing community, which arose some place in the northeastern Negev, between Meitar and Arad, not far from the rustling pine trees of Yatir Forest.”

We did not hear the “rustling pine trees” the other day in Umm al-Hiran; only the noontime sounds of women and children in a community where there is life but no electricity or running water, only a quarter of an hour from Be’er Sheva.

Garin Hiran continues unruffled: “The core group consists of families that understand the present need ... to contribute significantly to the demographic balance, out of a sense of Zionist calling ... In view of this, the core group set as its goal to build a faith-based community, which aspires to become filled, to strengthen and become strengthened, in spirit and matter.” In the best tradition of the nationalist-religious jargon.

Expensive satellite dishes and solar panels, generators and water tankers, make life possible somehow for Umm al-Hiran’s 600 or so residents. Permanent buildings and tin shacks piled together, sheep pens and residential homes, skeletons of cars and scattered garbage, with some effort to give the place a semi-tidy appearance.

A majority of the people who live here are employed outside the village. Some hold academic degrees, quite a few are teachers and three are lawyers. They want a house in the country, not a house in a backward town. They are willing to relocate to their original lands, near Shoval, but not to bulging Hura, as the authorities want.

“If the state is sorry it brought us here, if it wants to declare null the deal it made with us in 1956 − then let it restore us to our lands in Shoval,” says the leader of the village’s campaign, Salim Abu al-Qi’an.

Abu al-Qi’an, 54, is a furniture merchant and manufacturer whose business is located in Hura, because his village has no electricity. He speaks thoroughly Israeli Hebrew, has 11 children and three houses in the village, for his three wives. He lives with the youngest of them, 28-year-old Hitam, in a dolled-up dream house where the color pink dominates his living room, festooned with lace and decorations, and countless photographs of the young couple adorn the walls of the white bedroom. He drives a smallish Mercedes SUV.

He first married when he was 15, and his eldest son was born a year later. The son, Ra’ad, served three years in the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade, most of the time in the Gaza Strip. One time, Ra’ad came to the Knesset with both a draft order and demolition order in his hands.

Salim’s parents were expelled to here in 1956, and he was born in Umm al-Hiran. The hitchhiking post at the Beit Kama junction was built on his father’s lands. Since the 1980s, they have not been allowed to work their old farmlands.

In the winter of 1997, the Negev was hit by a terrible storm. Three children from the village were swept to their deaths in the nearby wadi, and most of the village’s homes were destroyed. Abu al-Qi’an says that after the disaster, Ariel Sharon visited the place ‏(in his capacity as national infrastructure minister‏) and called on the residents “to rebuild their homes.” The state also extended financial aid.

A few years later, in the early 2000s, the state began handing out demolition and eviction orders. “They said we were squatters and that we had no right to be here,” recalls Abu al-Qi’an. “They issued orders [for about 30 families in the village] and tossed them into the hands of an old man, Mohammed Abu al-Qi’an, without telling him what for and why.”

Within a few months, they understood from the police that their fate was sealed. The villagers turned to Adalah, which agreed to help them fight the eviction. To date, orders have been issued against some 30 families, two of which were the subject of Wednesday’s hearing. Two lower courts, the Kiryat Gat Magistrate’s Court and the Be’er Sheva District Court, already approved the demolition and eviction. Now the inhabitants are appealing to the Supreme Court.

The facts are not in dispute. The district court in Be’er Sheva ruled in its verdict: “The factual outline that emerges is that of relocation of the families’ place of residence to the site in question, decades ago, with the permission and even demand of the proper authorities. In time, for various considerations, it was decided to cancel the authorization and vacate the area.”

Do we know of any Jewish community, within the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, that has been treated in this manner, “for various considerations”?

“We are helpless in the face of the legal system,” Abu al-Qi’an says. “I could have written the Kiryat Gat verdict before the judge wrote it. I am sorry the judicial system does not recognize my existence. But the matter is not in the hands of the judges. It is a political matter, not a legal one. That is obvious: They want to expel us because we are Bedouin and not Jews. I told the judge, ‘Do you want me to change my name to Abraham or Isaac?’ For the past few years, we’ve been living in the courts. The authorities are looking for ways to break us. They suggest to the court an alternative in Hura − but Hura doesn’t have a single available lot. In neighborhood number 12 [in Hura], 350 people are waiting for a lot. Eligible people are being told to wait. That means there is no alternative in Hura, despite the state’s claims.

“We don’t want to move to Hura,” he adds. “In Hura, every week there’s a murder and trouble between the clans. Why would I want to go to a disaster? Smell the garbage in Hura. Hura is a town. We were born in a rural village, and we want to go on living in a rural village. The state says it wants to turn our village into a Jewish village. They can go ahead and build a Jewish village, there is no lack of space, but they should recognize us, too. Give us a water point and we’ll take care of all the rest. Just recognize us and let us stay. We are not against the state and will not fight it. We are citizens of the state. We are merely requesting equal citizenship. Enough of racism and hate. My sister Fatma was kidnapped in 1968 by infiltrators from Jordan. My son served in the IDF. We defended the country.”

Will there be an intifada?

“I don’t want to name the thing before it is here. I hope not. But if they contemplate evicting the village, the whole world will come here. Back in 2003, 850 people arrived here from all over the country because of a demolition order for the mosque. Umm al-Hiran is now the talk of the [Bedouin] community. You want to kill the mother, Umm, and bring the child, Garin Hiran. You brought us here, so what do you want now?”

Just then, the voice of the muezzin summoning the faithful to afternoon prayers sounded from one end of the village to the other.

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