Bedouin Women Capture Their Village's Final Moments Before It's Demolished by Israel

‘My biggest fear is what will be forgotten,’ says one of the women whose photos appear in a new book about Umm al-Hiran – the village that's being demolished so that a Jewish town can be built on its land

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“Working with these women brought up a lot of childhood memories for me,” says Halah Abu Frieh, 28, who has a degree in cultural studies from Sapir Academic College.
“Working with these women brought up a lot of childhood memories for me,” says Halah Abu Frieh (pictured), 28, who has a degree in cultural studies from Sapir Academic College.Credit: Meged Gozani
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

After years of exhausting legal battles, home demolitions, police raids and a violent incident that resulted in a tragic death, the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev will soon be vacated once and for all, with the land earmarked for a new Jewish community of Hiran. Hundreds of families are in the process of relocating to the large Bedouin town of Hura, as per a compensation agreement signed under duress. All that remains is to document life in their village so that they'll never forget it.

A recently published book, “Umm al-Hiran – Moments of Farewell to the Village,” features a collection of snapshots taken by women who live in the village that they will soon have to leave forever. In April 2018, after a protracted battle, the residents had no alternative and were forced to sign the agreement to evacuate and move to nearby Hura.

>> Editorial: What Israel's state prosecutor ignored at Umm al-Hiran

A photo of local women from the album “Umm al-Hiran – Moments of Farewell to the Village,” published by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality.Credit: Halah Abu Frieh

The sad period of bidding farewell to their soon-to-be-abandoned village has been documented by a group of Bedouin women who have been taking part in the Yusawiruna – Photographing for Human Rights, a project the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality has run for the past four years. Participants in the NGO's project were given stills and video cameras, professional instruction in photography and information relating to human rights issues. They have been documenting life and presenting their output to others in the group during weekly gatherings in Umm al-Hiran (which are still taking place), learning how to analyze and perfect their photographic language while discussing the situation in the village and their lives as Bedouin women in Israeli society in general.

“My biggest fear is what will be forgotten. It’s important to me to photograph in order to preserve memories from the village and my home,” says Rimal Abu al-Kiyan, 35, a mother of five who was born and raised in Umm al-Hiran. “I am fearful because our future is uncertain. When I’m photographing – the fear disappears. I wasn’t afraid to photograph even when they [the Israeli authorities] arrived at my home and gave us the evacuation order. The camera gives strength.”

Bedouin children in Umm al-Hiran.Credit: Meged Gozani

Rimal’s family is supposed to move to Hura, but construction on their house there is not yet complete.

“I feel like an alien in Hura. My home is here. This is where I was born. I belong to Umm al-Hiran. It hurts to leave,” says Abu al-Kiyan.

In a beautiful introductory essay in the new album produced by the women – published by the Coexistence Forum in Hebrew, Arabic and English – Israeli artist and photographer Miki Kratsman writes: “No photographic action or project is more correct or accurate than that of a community which is documenting itself – all the more so when this is being done by women who know they are acting as cameras for [preserving memories of] a place that will no longer exist.

"As they photograph the final days of Umm al-Hiran, glimpses of the Jewish community that will take its place are captured in the background. One tractor demolishes while another builds. These are photos created amid a countdown… The photos of the women of Umm al-Hiran are charged with the anxiety of what might be, of a threatening future.”

A photo of a convoy of Israeli vehicles, from “Umm al-Hiran – Moments of Farewell to the Village.”Credit: Aishah Abu al-Kiyan

Indeed, the text and images in the book are tinged with deep sadness, shrouded in the sense of crisis that the community is experiencing. Wandering today through Umm al-Hiran, surrounded by its picturesque landscape, one sees a village replete with demolished homes belonging to residents who fought in vain against their forced evacuation, locked-up houses whose occupants gave up and moved to Hura, and locals clearly traumatized by having to make this transition.

“Our community is coming apart. There is despair here,” says Aishah Abu al-Kiyan, a 45-year-old mother of three whose photos also appear in the new book; she moved to the village after marrying a local man at age 19. “People are up in the air, both those who already moved to Hura and those who are still here.”

“Aishah is the person people go to for information,” says Adi Lavy, a documentary photographer who has been involved in the project and teaches participants how to shoot videos. “She’s very involved, she notices everything – when people arrive to demolish homes in the village and when an evacuation is starting. And this is reflected in her photography, too, which is very political.”

Bedouin children in Umm al-Hiran.Credit: Saher Abu Alqian

All of the women taking part in the project wear a hijab, so, Lavy explains, “They can’t photograph their faces. But within this limitation, they have come up with creative ways to find their artistic freedom.”

The Abu al-Kiyan tribe lived in the northern Negev village of Khirbet Zubaleh since long before the State of Israel came into being. In 1952, the military administration forcibly removed its members and resettled them in the nearby Lahav Forest area. Four years later, they were uprooted again because the state declared that it needed their land; they were relocated in Umm al-Hiran, named for nearby Wadi Hiran and Mount Hiran.

Despite the fact that members of the clan were uprooted and settled there by the government, Umm al-Hiran has remained an unrecognized village, with no education or healthcare services, and never connected to water or electrical infrastructures (residents use solar panels to produce electricity).

In 2002, the villagers began receiving evacuation and demolition orders for the third time, because the government had decided to resettle them – this time in order to build an exclusively Jewish community called Hiran on their lands. Overnight, Umm al-Hiran became a symbol of the struggle against the evacuation of Israel's Bedouin and Arab communities in favor of the country's Jews, and a lengthy public and legal battle ensued, accompanied by demonstrations, police raids and demolitions.

A photo from the new album on the Bedouin village. "The photos of the women of Umm al-Hiran are charged with the anxiety of what might be," says Miki Kratsman.Credit: Rimal Abu al-Kiyan

The villagers' request to remain on their land and live amid the new Jewish community was denied by the state: In May 2015, the Supreme Court rejected the petition they had filed against the evacuation and demolition of their village, thus paving the way for Hiran to be classified as a town for Jews only. That same year, construction began on the new locale, which is slated to have 12,000 residents.

Tragic death

The escalation in the government's demolition activities in Umm al-Hiran made headlines on January 18, 2017, when just before dawn, a large number of policemen surrounded the village; they had been deployed to guard the forces that were to destroy six homes that day. Local resident Yakub Musa Abu al-Kiyan, a teacher, collected his things and left his house, not wanting to witness the demolition. He got in his car and began to drive away when armed police officers ordered him to stop and fired a number of shots at the car. Gravely injured, Al-Kiyan, lost control of his car and eventually bled to death. The vehicle sped up as it rolled down a hill, and ran over and killed Staff Sgt. Major Erez Levy and injured another policeman.

Immediately following the incident, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared that it had been a deliberate, vehicle-ramming terror attack. An internal police investigation concluded a year later, however, that it was unlikely to have been a terror attack and that the driver had lost control of his vehicle and was traveling at about 10 kilometers per hour as a result of his shooting injuries. The investigators also found that Abu al-Kiyan did not receive medical treatment and bled to death after he had been wounded by the gunfire.

Bedouin children, photographed in the Umm al-Hiran album. "All of our kids are afraid to go to sleep at night,” says Aishah Abu al-Kiyan.Credit: Rimal Abu al-Kiyan

In addition, Shin Bet security service investigators also determined that it was unlikely that Abu al-Kiyan had intended to run over the policeman. Nevertheless, in April 2018, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to close the case but did not exonerate him. Haaretz's Gidi Weitz and Josh Breiner subsequently reported that even though attorney Shlomo Lemberger, the deputy state prosecutor for criminal affairs, supported the findings of the police investigation, Nitzan chose that course of action after Alsheich discussed those conclusions with him and pressed him not to completely rule out the possibility that it had indeed been a ramming attack.

Thus, after an exhausting, Sisyphean and tragic struggle, the villagers, feeling they had no alternative, gave up and signed an agreement that they leave their land and move to Hura in return for compensation. Ten families (about 100 people) have moved so far; 300 families remain in Umm al-Hiran while their houses in Hura are under construction.

“We haven’t forgotten Yakub,” says Aishah now, visibly pained. “He lives on in our minds and his memory will never be erased. We speak his name every day."

Indeed, the new album that she and the other local women have produced, which also includes images from that tragic day in 2017, has been dedicated to Yakub's memory.

"When I tell people about the home demolitions and the evacuations," says Aishah, "it means something, of course, but when people see our photos it provides a more powerful illustration of the anguish we’ve had to endure, of the discrimination and racism.”

Umm al-Hiran. "When people see our photos it provides a more powerful illustration of the anguish we’ve had to endure, of the discrimination and racism.”Credit: Meged Gozani

“I want people to see what we’re going through,” she adds. “Photography gives me courage and the strength to cope with our situation.”

As for what she thinks of the evacuation of her village and the move to Hura, Aishah declares: “It is blatant racism. We were intimidated. The police came every day and the children became anxious and frightened. They pushed us to sign the agreement and to evacuate. It wasn’t a choice, we were forced to do it. We were left with no other choice.”

She takes a deep breath and continues: “Our children are paying a heavy price. For a long time after they witnessed the home demolitions and the police raids, my kids were really scared and traumatized. They were afraid to leave their rooms and move about the house. All of our kids are afraid to go to sleep at night.”

Aishah's family is currently building a house in Hura. “I don’t want to move there but it’s not up to me,” she says. “I’ve come to terms with it. My dream is for us to live in a home with confidence and peace of mind, without anyone invading and threatening us and scaring us.”

Freedom and restrictions

Halah Abu Frieh, 28, who has a degree in cultural studies from Sapir Academic College, helped to train the women of Umm al-Hiran in stills photography.

“Working with these women brought up a lot of childhood memories for me,” says Abu Frieh, who herself was born in an unrecognized village in the south and later moved with her family to the Bedouin city of Rahat.

“Through them, I am remembering my roots. This has really brought my past to life. I see before me a community that is being uprooted and moved by the state, against its will, to a place that is foreign to its way of life," Abu Frieh explains. "My family had to follow a similar path and it makes me see how much we have lost of our culture and our natural way of life.”

“We’re human beings just like you [Israelis],” says Sahr (not her real name), a 27-year-old mother of five who joined the photography project two years ago. “We see how [the new town of] Hiran is now being connected to infrastructure, while we asked for that for years and it never happened. We have been subjected to infringement of our basic rights in every area and now we see how a proper, new road is being paved for Hiran.”

“Working with these women brought up a lot of childhood memories for me,” says Halah Abu Frieh (pictured), 28, who has a degree in cultural studies from Sapir Academic College.Credit: Meged Gozani

Sahr came to Umm al-Hiran at 19 after she married a local man. “I love to take photos near the house,” she explains. “I photograph my young children, the goats, the nature, the landscape – how we bake pita in winter in the tabun. In my photography I like to show the connection to the place and what a beautiful village Umm al-Hiran is. Photography gives me a feeling of peace, of calm. When I’m photographing I feel that I’m breathing.”

But now, she says, she and the other women believe that the move to Hura will further limit their freedom and that more limitations will be placed on them.

Sahr: “In Umm al-Hiran we’re all part of one clan. It’s small and familiar and has a family feel, and the style of building is different than in Hura. We can sometimes leave the house without a hijab, we can call out to one another, move about freely. There is no strict supervision or serious restrictions. In Hura it’s different: It’s a bigger place that is home to people from other clans. We’ll need an escort when going from place to place. Our whole way of life will change.”

“Everything is on hold now,” she adds. “Our dream first of all is to live on our land without being uprooted.”

In the text accompanying Sahr's photos in the new book, she writes: “I dream that our lives will be stable, that there will be stability at home and emotional stability for our children. To be able to repair things in my home without thinking that it will be demolished.”

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