The Coronavirus Gave Israel’s Bedouin Immunity From Demolition Orders. Until It Didn’t

In an unrecognized Bedouin village in southern Israel, shepherd Salem Kash’ha and others are learning that putting up a simple shed can cause you problems

David Green
David B. Green
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An Israel Land Authority sign declaring the plot where Jamaya Saraja's hut stands to be off-limits, in the Bedouin town of Rahma.
An Israel Land Authority sign declaring the plot where Jamaya Saraja's hut stands to be off-limits, in the Bedouin town of Rahma.Credit: Dvir Warshavsky
David Green
David B. Green

Salem Kash’ha says his family has been herding goats in the desert outside Rahma since 1970. That’s the year he was born. Like others from this Bedouin village just next to the Jewish town of Yeruham in southern Israel, his family moved to Rahma in the early years of the state. When the winter is a wet one, like it was this year, he will plow his land and grow wheat that, when he returns in early spring, his flock will devour.

“When we’re in the field we put up a tent. It takes 10 minutes and we sleep under it at night, and shelter from the sun during the day,” Kash’ha says. “For the goats, to keep them from running away at night, I have a folding fence that I open up to make a pen.”

This past Sunday he was out with the flock when an inspector, apparently from the so-called Green Patrol of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, approached him and told him he was grazing his animals within a closed military zone. Kash’ha says the inspector fined him 30,000 shekels ($8,550).

Kash’ha tried explaining, to no avail, that he had been grazing there for decades, that the area had never been a closed zone in the past, and that he would be gone in a month or two.

Mohammed Badrani faces a similar situation. He is also a shepherd and is also from Rahma. His father, like many Bedouin of his generation, served in the Israel Defense Forces – in his case fighting in the Six-Day War in 1967.

On May 5, when Badrani, 50, and three of his children were herding their flock of some 80 goats on the same plot of land outside his village they have returned to annually since 1981, he too was approached by an inspector, apparently the same one Kash’ha encountered. The inspector ordered Badrani to destroy the burlap-covered lean-to he had erected out in the field. Afraid that if he didn’t obey, he would be slapped with a fine he could never pay, he took it down.

The temporary goat pen constructed by Salem Kash’ha on land just outside the unrecognized Bedouin village of Rahma.Credit: Salem Kash'ha

“I didn’t use blocks, I didn’t build a hut. All I used was burlap and two wooden posts. Now my daughters are dizzy from the heat of the sun,” he says.

“After 60 years, maybe more, this land turns out to be army land? There certainly aren’t any mines here: We’ve been plowing it for years and years. I don’t irrigate, I just depend on the rainwater.”

Aerial patrol

In normal times, it’s standard for the Bedouin of the Negev “dispersion,” all of whose construction activity is by definition illegal, to encounter government inspectors anxious to demolish their flimsy constructions.

But it wasn’t supposed to be that way during the coronavirus lockdown, whose difficulties are only augmented by the fact that we are in the middle of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours. In consideration of the special circumstances, the enforcement division of the Justice Ministry committed to being lenient during this period. A March 26 letter sent from a ministry lawyer to a number of legal- and Bedouin-rights organizations that had appealed for its consideration promised that there would be no demolitions as long as the medical crisis continued, while warning that any “new” construction could still be ticketed.

According to the Finance Ministry, whose enforcement division monitors building violations in the Negev, “new” construction is defined as anything less than 30 days old (which the ministry can identify because it surveys every square centimeter of the country by air once a month). In the case of Bedouin villages, the area must be larger than 50 square meters (538 square feet) to be eligible for demolition. A source in the enforcement division told Haaretz that it hasn’t carried out any demolitions since March 10.

The temporary campus that will house Rahma's elementary school. The Israeli army gave up a small portion of a firing zone so the school could be built on the land.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

These claims, however, don’t jibe with the detailed records kept by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which keeps track of all interactions of government enforcement agents with Bedouin.

According to the forum’s Tal Avrech, between March 22 and May 10, at least six demolition orders were distributed to Bedouin from the unrecognized villages. In some cases, the orders were issued to residents who had fixed the roofs of their homes following winter storms – such repairs apparently qualify as “new construction.” Or, as in the cases above, the erection of a temporary lean-to, used to protect a shepherd from the elements during grazing season, is also treated as a threat to the fragile planning environment of the desert.

According to Avrech, in some senses the power that the enforcement authorities hold over the Bedouin can even be worse than the simple act of demolition being demanded. (The authorities hand out orders in the name of the Israel Land Authority, the Green Patrol and the Israel Defense Forces, among other bodies, according to a logic that is not always self-evident.)

For one thing, the law is written in a way that almost guarantees that the alleged violator will carry out the demolition himself – because if the state undertakes the work, it can tack on a fine that can reach hundreds of thousands of shekels, as well as open a criminal file, Avrech says. And recent changes to the regulations (in the form of the Kaminitz Law) allow for an expedited carrying out of orders, with no opportunity for the defendants to appeal in court.

Avrech adds that the inspectors sometimes show up when Bedouin men are at work and their wives are home alone, even though Bedouin tradition prohibits women from being in the presence of men who are not their husbands. Other times, the inspectors will appear in the middle of the night, as if they had come to arrest a suspected terrorist. During the coronavirus crisis, inspectors have also been showing up without proper protective gear such as face masks.

A demolition order affixed to the Israel Land Authority sign declaring that it is state land, and that anyone on it is trespassing.Credit: Dvir Warshavsky

An inspector calls, again

In the case of Rahma, nearly all residents report visits by a “highly aggressive” Green Patrol inspector who signs the orders he deposits with them simply with the name “Yossi.”

It was Yossi, for example, who showed up at the tumbledown shelter of Jamaya Saraja, a 62-year-old widow who, with her 20-year-old son, raises goats and sheep. For more than 20 years, Saraja lived in a hut on the edge of the Yeruham industrial zone, next to her brother’s home. About three years ago, their small hut was destroyed by the Green Patrol. To give them somewhere to sleep, Saraja’s brother Odeh erected a flimsy shed next to the pasture where she keeps her sheep. They have been living there ever since, in great discomfort.

Odeh told Dvir Warshavsky, a resident of Yeruham who is active on behalf of his Bedouin neighbors in Rahma, that “Yossi” showed up on April 23 with no mask or gloves, and placed a demolition order on the hut. When Odeh tried to explain the situation, and asked at least to hold off with the order until after the health crisis had passed, the inspector responded in a threatening manner, Odeh said.

It was also Yossi who tracked down Kash’ha and Badrani – and their goats – in the desert and ordered them to take down their lean-tos. When Haaretz asked the Nature and Parks Authority why its inspectors were doing this, in some cases imposing insurmountable fines, a spokesperson responded that it was only “documenting illegal construction, which would be dealt with [only] following the coronavirus period and Ramadan.”

She added, however, that, “out of a desire to protect the lives of the shepherds on firing zones, and so as not to interfere with IDF training exercises, the shepherds were immediately evacuated from the area.”

As noted, the orders, which residents are expected to carry out themselves, and immediately, were distributed on the spot, during the coronavirus emergency and Ramadan; the army was not carrying out exercises anywhere in the area; and the shepherds are still in the field with their animals, only with nowhere to shelter from the sun.

"When we’re in the field, we put up a tent. It takes 10 minutes, and we sleep under it at night, and shelter from the sun during the day,” Kash’ha says. Credit: Salem Kash'ha

Last week, the daily Israel Hayom reported on an April 5 document produced in the Southern Division of the national Planning Administration, which is part of the Finance Ministry, which proposed ways to address the needs of the residents of the Bedouin villages during the health emergency. The proposals included making available mobile residences that could house Bedouin who need to be quarantined but whose crowded dwellings don’t allow for isolation; installation of Wi-Fi so that Bedouin children can take part in distance learning like their peers in the rest of the country, and other measures.

What caught people’s attention, however, was a clause recommending “substantial measures toward recognition in place of the majority of the Bedouin population, and acceleration of laying of infrastructure in their communities.”

According to the story, the Planning Administration was proposing to “grant legitimacy to all of the structures and compounds dispersed throughout the Negev … [which] amounted to a de-facto reversal of the state’s historic efforts to organize the Bedouin dispersion in centralized, modern communities, in which they would be granted basic services.”

As hinted by the story in Israel Hayom (a newspaper generally understood to reflect the positions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the wider right wing), the problem of unplanned settlement in the Negev goes beyond the 35 unrecognized villages generally referred to. The Planning Administration document, for example, referred to some 1,700 building “clusters” whose size can range from several isolated structures on a desert hilltop serving a single family, to the villages themselves, some of which have several thousand residents. From the point of view of the Planning Administration, the coronavirus crisis merely accentuated the impossibility of allowing the current situation to continue unresolved.

According to Yael Agmon, a resident of Yeruham who has for years been active on behalf of the town’s Bedouin neighbors in Rahma, the Planning Administration has long made it clear that it understands “that you have to leave a majority of the Bedouin in their places. Obviously, you can’t let everyone stay wherever they want. You can’t bring water and sewerage everywhere that people set themselves down. But the administration understands that most of the public needs to be left where they are, and part needs to be [moved to more central locations].”

A youngster playing with a ball in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Rahma.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ariel patrol

This understanding seems to be widespread, in particular with regard to Rahma. Bimkom, an Israeli NGO that deals with planning rights, has helped seek solutions for the unrecognized villages in the Negev for most of the past two decades. Bimkom activists say it has long been clear that Rahma should be the next community to have its status legalized.

In fact, the process of recognizing Rahma, with its approximately 2,000 residents, either as an independent town or as a “shepherds’ quarter” in Yeruham, was well underway until, in 2014, Uri Ariel stepped in.

Ariel, then a lawmaker from the religious-right National Union party (today part of Yamina), became the agriculture and rural development minister. For some in the religious Zionist camp, the normalization of any Bedouin settlement in the Negev would be a blow to their vision of Jewish control of the entire region, and under Ariel, all efforts to legalize any unrecognized Bedouin settlement was stopped in its tracks.

With the swearing-in of a new government this week, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz is slated to take over the Economy and Industry Ministry, and there have been reports that he has demanded that the Bedouin “file” be transferred to that ministry. In the meantime, and despite the political situation that stalled overall progress on the Bedouin question, there has been progress in Rahma in recent years.

This includes construction of an elementary school (comprised of mobile homes) in the town, scheduled to open this fall, and the paving of a road linking the village to the nearby highway.

Probably the main thing Rahma has going for it is the “web of relationships,” in the words of one activist, that has been established between both its leaders and citizens and the residents of Yeruham. Actually, part of Rahma lies within Yeruham’s municipal boundaries.

Several years ago, the then-mayor of Yeruham, Michael Biton, spearheaded an initiative by which Yeruham transferred 500 dunams (some 125 acres) of its land to the village. Something similar occurred between the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council and the Bedouin village. And Yeruham’s current mayor is known for her support for the residents of Rahma.

Relations at the unofficial level are also unusually warm. There are many examples of this, including the fact that when a shepherd in Rahma is served with a demolition order, Yael Agmon and Dvir Warshavsky will likely know about it within minutes, and will do what they can to intercede with the governmental bureaucracy. Agmon describes herself as “the nudnik who can be counted on to bug the authorities.”

In that cooperative vein, residents of the region had planned a demonstration to be held outside Rahma on Tuesday afternoon. Its purpose, in the words of political activist Ye’ela Raanan, was to “stop the demolitions, stop the destroying, stop de-recognizing, give people the right to live a decent life.”

Self-styled "nudnik" Yael Agmon and her grandchildren with Rahma resident Odeh Zaun.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

After the regional police chief called on the chairman of the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev to join him in trying to convince the government to let up on the distribution of demolition orders, the demonstration’s organizers, who included the Council of Unrecognized Villages, agreed to postpone it.

Agmon tells Haaretz: “We still don’t know just what sort of influence the police can have on bodies like the Israel Land Authority – we have our doubts. But the council acted wisely when it decided that, if the police are requesting it and the meeting is scheduled for this Thursday, there’s no reason not to postpone [the protest] for a week.”

She also notes, though, that on that very day, additional local Bedouin residents had been the recipients of new demolition orders.

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