Hall No. 4 of the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem was packed this week: Residents of the village of Dahamesh, near Ramle, were there for a hearing about their petition. Row upon row they sat, in Israel’s highest temple of justice, the day before the general election, in the only democracy in the region. Women in head coverings, men with grim looks and lawyers in black ties bearing the logo of the Israel Bar Association.
Some of residents carried rolled-up maps and aerial photographs as irrefutable evidence of their plight, living in what has been deemed an illegal village, but no one asked to see them.
It was hard to know, after so many years of waging a legal and public battle, how much trust and hope they still had in the three honorable justices sitting as the High Court of Justice before them: Esther Hayut, Anat Baron and Zvi Zylbertal. The latter were whispering among themselves, as though there were no audience, before finally deciding to defer discussion of the villagers’ fate.
A village goes to the capital city to request recognition. The village wants the court to compel the government to recognize its existence. Only in Israel, surely. Yet another of the many wounds from 1948 that continue to fester and refuse to heal. Another “unrecognized” village, but this one’s in the center of the country, between depressed Ramle and Lod and the prosperous moshav (cooperative village) of Nir Zvi.
The forebears of Dahamesh’s residents arrived there in 1951, after being removed by the state from their fields and homes on the coastal plain, and being offered alternative land. And indeed they built new homes on the land they received, which was earmarked for farming – and, horror of horrors, the village even expanded over time, as villages are wont to do. The state never recognized it. There is no village.
Until 2004, however, Dahamesh was allowed to exist. That year, the authorities suddenly remembered there was a village, albeit an unrecognized one. They began issuing – and implementing – demolition orders.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli government to grant Dahamsheh legal status.
Here’s what Menashe Moshe, head of the Emek Lod Regional Council, to which the village belongs and to which it pays taxes, wrote in 2010, in response to a question put to him by a local newspaper: “The notion implicit in your query, that this is a ‘village’ and that it has a name, ‘Dahamesh,’ and that [its residents] are being harassed because they are ‘Arabs,’ is incorrect. There is no village, there is no name and there are no Arabs ...”
It’s hard to believe the conditions in which these 700 people live, in 2015, half an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. A scarred and battered gravel road, studded with potholes and lined with garbage, is the high road, the only road, into the “non-village.” Its nonexistent Arabs dwell in 73 houses. Damahesh is its “non-name.” It was established three years before its well-known – and desirable – neighbor, Nir Zvi, now a community dotted with mansions.
Beyond the concrete barrier that separates the two worlds, and well hidden from the eyes of the newest moshav homes, lie Pardes Snir and Dahamesh, distressed villages that are also crime-ridden. Pardes Snir, the larger of the two, is now in the process of being officially recognized, but the residents of Dahamesh continue to travel to Jerusalem to seek recognition that will ensure provision of electricity and water and garbage pickup and sanitation and a school and a medical clinic and similar luxuries.
The villagers remove the garbage by themselves, or burn it, and in the main convey electric power via an improvised system of cables from house to house. The children are bused to school in Ramle or Lod.
The chairman of the village committee, Ismail Arafat, whom the villagers affectionately refer to as “Chairman Arafat,” even dares to dream of having a real address. That is, an address in his ID card. At present he’s registered as residing at 12 Hahashmonaim Street in Ramle. In fact, 400 of the villagers are listed as living at 12 Hahashmonaim Street, another 150 at 8 Hahashmonaim Street and 100 more at 8 Sholem Aleichem Street, also in Ramle.
There is no Dahamesh, it doesn’t exist.
The main road traversing the village is not a road, and in the winter rains it’s too muddy to cross. Four rail lines cross the entrance to the village; trains go by every few minutes, heading for Israel Railway’s central maintenance depot, in Lod. The warehouses full of junk at the entrance don’t exactly recall fairy tale-like villages, either.
This week, prior to the election, posters of the Shas party greeted visitors to Damahesh.
It’s unlikely that the High Court justices who deliberated the village’s fate a few hours before our visit have ever been here. Last Saturday, ahead of the court session, a happening was held in the backyard of the Asaf family, with the participation of performing artists who included actor Itay Tiran and singer Shaanan Streett. A group of young activists, Arabs and Jews alike, supports the village’s struggle devotedly.
Two days after the happening, Justice Hayut, who headed the High Court panel, stated that an effort should be made to find a solution, without demolition. Some of those in the hall were very encouraged by her words. Specifically, the residents asked the court to order the government to hold a discussion about the village’s status and to halt plans for demolition until a solution is found; the village was destroyed once already, in 2006. The court instructed the respondents – the government, the regional council and the Lod municipality – to make their positions known by September 1, but declined to suspend the demolition plans. The villagers and their lawyer, Kais Nasser, were pleased at this partial victory.
“Why not be recognized as a new community, I ask. Why not?,” says Chairman Arafat, though he knows the answer. “What’s wrong with establishing a new community? What’s the problem?”
The problem is that they are Arabs. They have submitted numberless plans and proposals to the authorities, but nothing was approved. Meanwhile, the development plans of the surrounding cities and towns threaten to strangle Dahamesh. A new road and expansion of the rail line, along with new neighborhoods in Lod and Ramle, might even have the effect of blocking the one existing access route to the village.
The villagers’ fallback position, which they declared this week in the High Court, to the justices’ satisfaction, is to be annexed as a neighborhood to Lod. But does Lod want them? It’s very unlikely the new mayor will want to take Dahamesh under his jurisdiction. No one wants them.
Does the regional council want you? Arafat: “No – we are Arabs.” Does the Lod municipality want you? “Not in the least.” And the Ramle municipality? “It long ago rejected the idea outright.”