The Bedouin Village at the Center of a Storm With Israeli Right-wingers

The village of Bir Hadaj in the Negev, home to some 7,000 Bedouin, is facing a crackdown from authorities for illegal construction. Its residents, though, say they just want the same rights as their Jewish neighbors

David Green
David B. Green
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The Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj in the Negev, southern Israel.
The Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj in the Negev, southern Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
David Green
David B. Green

There’s a war going on in the Negev, and its current front is the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj. A confrontation there on May 31 between residents and two officers from a nearby army base – an encounter that came close to turning violent – provided an opportunity for a crackdown on the village by government agencies, activists say, with officials pouring in 10 days later to seek out and shut down a wide range of illegal activities, most of them unrelated to the earlier showdown.

The right-wing Yamina party took advantage of the occasion to conduct a provocative “fact-finding” tour of the area, during which one of its leaders described the Negev as a no-man’s-land where there is “no sovereignty, no state, only Bedouin wildness and grabbing of state lands.”

In Bir Hadaj, and among the roughly 250,000 Bedouin of the Negev in general, they certainly don’t feel they have the upper hand. A standoff for over 15 years with the state over a disputed master plan means that any and all construction in the village – situated some 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, southwest of Be’er Sheva – is by definition illegal. And the fact that large swaths of the Negev are officially reserved for military use means that, according to one former leader of the local governing council, “You can’t walk more than 10 meters outside the village’s borders without stepping into a military zone.”

Although informal understandings between the village and the Israel Defense Forces usually keep this from becoming a problem, for a community where most of the residents support themselves by raising sheep and goats, the lack of any title to their grazing lands puts them at a legal disadvantage.

On the evening of June 11, the day after the first multipronged raid on Bir Hadaj and the day of the visit by Yamina lawmakers, Shuli Dichter – a longtime activist on behalf of Arab-Jewish shared life – sent out a message to fellow activists inviting them to a meeting the next day at Bir Hadaj, “to learn about the attack on them this week, and to express solidarity.”

Yamina lawmakers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich during a tour of the Negev, June 11, 2020.Credit: Almog Ben Zikri

A ‘terrible’ plan

Although members of the el-Azazmeh tribe have lived on the site of Bir Hadaj since at least Ottoman times, the current incarnation of the town goes back to 1993. Then, explained former council head Salman Abu Hamid at the June 12 meeting, “people returned en masse” to this piece of desert some 20 years after having been moved by the state east of Route 40, to a site near what was then the Ramat Hovav toxic waste dump.

In 1999, Bir Hadaj was one of 11 Bedouin municipalities that received “recognition” from the state. That meant a master plan could now be drawn up and the town, which today has some 7,000 residents, could be hooked up to the national electricity grid and have roads paved – along with all the other infrastructure projects that are standard in any Jewish town. Having an approved plan also meant that residents would have the opportunity to purchase plots of land on which they could build homes and set up pens for their flocks.

A master plan was indeed drawn up and agreed upon in principle in 2004, but the authorities began tinkering with it soon after. According to Dafna Saporta, an architect at Bimkom – an Israeli human rights organization dealing with planning rights – the state’s unilateral changes included reducing the size of the individual plots by 50 percent. Even in its original form, she says, the plan was “terrible.” For one, it allotted far too little land to the village, to the extent that it would have left “60 percent of the village’s population outside its boundaries.” It also “didn’t take into account the possibility of the village’s economic development,” she says, both in terms of agriculture and its potential for desert tourism. The residents of Bir Hadaj refused to agree to the revisions, and that’s where things remain.

Saporta is not alone in voicing suspicions that some of Bir Hadaj’s current problems are connected to its refusal to go along with the diminished master plan. “They didn’t cooperate, and then the state said, ‘OK, we’ll show you who’s boss,’” she says.

Salman Abu Hamid and Salim Danifri, two leaders of the Bedouin community of Bir Hadaj, explain their version of events to visiting activists, including Shuli Dichter (right), June 12, 2020.Credit: Ghadir Hani

Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives organization, describes the relationship between the town and state as “passive-aggressive.” If it could, he says, the government would have moved the residents – and the el-Azazmeh tribe generally – to the Bedouin city of Segev Shalom. “But we are now in a different era, and that won’t work.” These days, most planners accept the idea of settling the Bedouin “in place” (hasdarah bamakom) wherever possible.

In the past, most of the young men of Bir Hadaj served in the IDF, although today the motivation to do is limited, and so is the number. The village does have an emergency rescue squad, however, and when IDF Staff Sgt. Adiel Fishler disappeared outside his base in the Arava on Thursday, the squad participated in the search for him. (Fishler’s body was found near the Shizafon base on Saturday.)

A tale of two communities

The drive to Bir Hadaj is instructive for any visitor who wants to experience firsthand some of the implications of such a stalemate. One way to approach the village is through Retamim – a failed kibbutz that was revived about a decade ago as a community for a modern Orthodox population. Its residents numbered under 500 in 2018, but it is clearly growing, and the shortcut to Bir Hadaj takes one on a freshly paved road through a newly rising neighborhood of attractive and spacious homes.

If a driver didn’t have Waze to tell them to turn right on “Road with no Name” Street, it would be hard to identify the turnoff to Bir Hadaj. Driving in Bir Hadaj without four-wheel drive is also risky, as the driving paths (“roads” would be a grandiose description) are mostly unpaved, and the small stretches that are paved are more treacherous than the dirt roads because of the craters that pepper them.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana speaking at an event in February.Credit: Moshe Biton / Sheva  

Each family appears to have its own small, fenced-in compound, with a small house and an area for sheep and goats, but the town has a randomness to its layout. There are also no power lines, and although drinking water is piped in, the village doesn’t have an allocation for subsidized agricultural water, so has to pay premium rates to water its animals. There is no water available for agricultural use. The lack of trees is especially noticeable on an early summer afternoon here in the desert. Bir Hadaj does have three schools and several kindergartens and preschools, as well as a medical clinic.

Abu Rass, a political geographer by training, contrasts the situation of Bir Hadaj with that of a neighboring kibbutz, Revivim. With about 1,100 residents, Revivim spreads out over some 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres); Bir Hadaj, with a population six times as large, must make do with one-fifth that amount of land. Unlike the Bedouin village, Revivim has an allotment for subsidized water.

Angry standoff

The story of Bir Hadaj is repeated, to one extent or another, all across this part of the Negev. From its founding, the state has widely been seen as trying to urbanize the Bedouin, establishing seven “townships” in the 1960s in the hope of concentrating them in a few large towns, such as Rahat and Segev Shalom. Although some 60 percent of the Negev Bedouin do today live in those urban areas, there are still a total of 1,700 building “clusters” spread around the area. These range from 35 unrecognized villages down to sites consisting of little more than a lone house on a hilltop. Nonetheless, Abu Rass notes, although the Bedouin constitute one-third of the population of the Negev, “they sit on less than 2 percent of its land. And what they are asking for is no more than 5 percent.”

The May 31 incident that set off the current flare-up began when two officers involved in an exercise at the Tze’elim army training base gave chase after a suspicious vehicle, whose occupants appeared to be stealing army equipment. They followed the intruders into Bir Hadaj, where their jeep was immediately surrounded by residents. Apparently feeling threatened, one of the officers fired his weapon in the air. Within seconds, a rumor – completely unfounded – spread on a village WhatsApp group that a Bedouin child had been shot and killed.

A child playing in the Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj, southern Israel.Credit: Nir Kafri

The army officers took off, but now it was they who were pursued, by residents of the village, who ran their jeep off the road. A clip of the angry standoff that followed made its way onto video app TikTok the following day. In it, one sees a lot of yelling, and a small amount of pushing, but fortunately no shedding of blood. Both groups waited for the police to arrive, at which point the situation was defused.

The bloodletting – figurative, that is – followed, as the footage of angry Bedouin youth seemingly threatening two IDF officers made its way online. No one denies that there is a lot of theft in the Bedouin areas, although some would say Yamina Chairman Naftali Bennett overstated the case when he declared, during the June 11 tour, that “people trying to travel in the Negev can’t leave their car even for several minutes without returning to a car smashed [by Bedouin thieves].” To Bennett, this constituted evidence that “we’ve lost the State of Israel here,” something that “anyone driving [south] to Eilat can see.”

And if you believe Bennett’s highly provocative colleague in Yamina, Bezalel Smotrich, the Bedouin are an existential threat to the State of Israel. During the June 11 tour, he told journalists that the Bedouin “double themselves every 12 years,” a problem he believes “needs handling.” He has yet to voice concerns about the even higher birth rates among ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Ten days after the IDF-Bir Hadaj standoff, the authorities showed up in large numbers. Some say it was to teach the Bedouin a lesson. At the end of the operation, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana posted a message on Twitter announcing that “14 suspects were arrested, three vehicles were apprehended, and equipment and money were confiscated.” His message contained no additional information regarding the background to those actions, but it was accompanied by a photograph of a caravan of police SUVs driving through the desert – presumably on their way to or from Bir Hadaj – as well as a final sentence warning that “This is definitely not a one-time action. It’s going to continue this way.”

'100-vehicle' convoy

When Haaretz spoke several days later with police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld, he explained that the Israel Police had made a “strategic decision” to increase police activity in the south, “with a focus on Bir Hadaj – which is the main area where we’ve seen the escalation of incidents.” Much of the alleged illegal activity takes place on army bases, Rosenfeld said, and in the past few months alone included incidents like “stealing equipment, ammunition, night vision equipment and tents belonging to the IDF,” he said. Rosenfeld added that the police had found drugs being grown (marijuana), and thousands of shekels in cash.

Rosenfeld said the police had arrested “17 suspects just from the Bir Hadaj area, and there are still ongoing investigations against the suspects.”

The initial police raid was on June 10, and the visit of Jewish activists to the village took place two days later. The next week began with another raid on Bir Hadaj. Minister Ohana didn’t feature this one on his social media feed, but according to Abu Hamid and local council head Salim Danifri, as many as 100 official vehicles arrived there last Sunday morning and photographed some dozens of structures, so as to begin the legal process of condemning their illegally constructed homes. Officials representing the police, the Green Patrol of the Nature and Parks Authority, the Agriculture Ministry’s unit for enforcement and investigations, and the Income Tax and Value-Added Tax Authorities took part.

The Bedouin village of Bir Hadaj, southern Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The solidarity meeting had taken place in a modern-day equivalent of a Bedouin tent, one with a cast-concrete floor, on which the half-dozen Jewish activists and your correspondent sat leaning on large pillows as their hosts gave their version of recent events – which they said had been misrepresented in the Hebrew press.

Abu Hamid acknowledged that some Bedouin had entered Tze’elim, but insisted that it was by accident and that no theft had been attempted. (In a statement reported on the Walla news site, the IDF spokesperson’s unit confirmed that nothing had been stolen from the base.) After the chase on road 222, Abu Hamid explained, “the police arrived, they checked what had happened, the rumor about the child [being killed] was dispelled … and, with the involvement of the police, it was agreed that they would end the affair on the spot. They shook hands and everyone went his own way,” he related.

Unfortunately, the following day, a young person from Bir Hadaj – in violation of the understanding brokered by the police – posted the clip on TikTok. “That’s when all of the pressure from the right began,” according to Abu Hamid.

New opportunity

There are those who say the aggressive actions against the Bedouin of Bir Hadaj, but also in general in the Negev, are the last gasp of a right-wing political faction that sees its power waning. This is not only because the Yamina party is not part of the governing coalition, but also because the coalition agreement moved responsibility for the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority from the Agriculture Ministry to the Economy and Industry Ministry, which is now led by Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz.

Peretz, himself a resident of the Negev, toured a number of Bedouin communities on June 11, after which he released a statement declaring that, “We have received a joint opportunity to rehabilitate from scratch the trust that has been badly damaged in recent years. We have one joint goal – to help all of the [Bedouin] residents, those living in [recognized] towns and those living in the ‘dispersion’ [of unrecognized villages].” Among the Bedouin leaders Peretz met with were Bir Hadaj’s Abu Hamid and Danifri.

Economy and Industry Minister Amir Peretz speaking at a ceremony in May 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Peretz may have some difficulty changing the tune of the Bedouin authority, however. On June 14, Tali Hevruti-Sover reported in TheMarker that shortly before the election in March, the then-director general of the Agriculture Ministry quietly renewed the contract of the Bedouin development authority’s director, Yair Ma’ayan, for an extra four years. He is perceived as having an aggressive attitude toward the Bedouin and a general lack of sympathy for their problems.

In the meantime, on June 7, the commander of the police’s Southern District, Maj. Gen. Yoram Sofer, visited Bir Hadaj’s neighbor, Retamim, for an off-the-record meeting with residents – with his recorded remarks subsequently being aired on Channel 13 news.

Although Sofer claimed that crime in the area is on the decline, he also admitted that he lacks the means to combat it as needed. “I’m not one of those who will say to you, ‘Everything will be OK,’” he said. “I really don’t think that. Really, hand on heart, I don’t think I can prevent [the crime].”

At the same time, though, Sofer expressed sympathy for the Bedouin. “I think that what has to happen, as quickly as possible, is that the state has to deal with the issue of regularizing [their presence in place], in order to get them into permanent homes,” Sofer said. “I will take you to the area around Be’er Sheva, and you will see there are areas there where you still have situations in which a family member will go into reverse [in a vehicle], run over a baby. [That’s] a super-upsetting incident which, if there was proper infrastructure – sidewalk, parking, electricity, street lighting – would not happen. How many times can this happen in a year? How much can one endure?”

Members of the Bedouin community in Bir Hadaj, June 12. 2020. Credit: Ghadir Hani

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