Opinion

Umm al-Hiran: A Cautionary Tale of an Israeli Government Emboldened by Trump

The demolition of a Bedouin village in Israel's south must remind us American Jews of our responsibility as watchdogs over a right-wing Israeli government energized by the new U.S. administration.

The mourning circle where Umm al-Hiran residents gathered to pay their respects to al-Kiyan’s family, Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017.
Rebecca Arian

Fully armed police officers and demolition equipment arrived in Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in Israel’s southern Negev desert, to evacuate the residents and demolish the village last Wednesday. 

Residents were transferred to the area where the village presently stands in 1956 by Israel. However, because it is unrecognized by the government, the Israeli High Court issued an order to demolish the village in 2015

Clashes ensued between residents, protesters and police, resulting in several injuries including those suffered by lawmaker Ayman Odeh of the Joint List who was shot in the head by a sponge bullet. Local teacher Yakub Abu al-Kiyan and Israeli police officer Erez Levy were tragically killed.  

The following day, we visited Umm al-Hiran as the North American representatives in a delegation of staff and volunteers from Physicians for Human Rights Israel (an Israeli human rights NGO dedicated to promoting the right to health for all under Israel's responsibility). We observed a community in anguished mourning, which contradicted police efforts adopted by some Israeli media outlets and politicians to link officer Levy’s death to an ISIS-motivated attack. 

The devastation in Umm al-Hiran – a village populated by Israeli citizens – was a sign of an Israel increasingly unwilling to accept ethnic and religious pluralism in its society, and it ran counter to the liberal values commonly embraced by North American Jews. 

A rubble heap encountered on the way to the mourning tent, Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017.
Arel Jarus-Hakak

Yet given the Israeli media and police response, Umm al-Hiran teaches us that as North American Jews, it is our responsibility to serve as watchdogs over an increasingly right-wing Israeli government that is likely to be further emboldened by the Trump administration. 

Well-paved Highway 6 turned into a bumpy dirt road as we neared Umm al-Hiran’s entrance; a crude illustration of the neglect unrecognized Bedouin villages have coped with for years, including the government’s refusal to connect these towns to the water and power grids. About 250 meters from the village, our spirited minibus driver declared that because the road was so poor she could not take us any closer. 

Our group disembarked and walked somberly toward the village, passing heaps of rubble, beds and refrigerators: they’d been part of a family’s home just 36 hours prior. We later learned from one of the town’s residents that 48 structures once existed in Umm al-Hiran. Fourteen were destroyed before the violence between police, residents, and protesters forced an end to the demolitions last Wednesday. Thirty-four structures remain. 

We arrived at the mourning tent where residents were paying their respects to al-Kiyan’s family. The men sat in a large circle while younger kids walked around with thermoses serving coffee and tea. Looming a few meters away, we could see the sand dunes and flattened land that mark the beginning of construction of the Jewish town of Hiran that is to be built once Umm al-Hiran is demolished. According to Adalah, an organization providing legal counsel for the town’s residents, no suitable offer of alternative housing has been made by the government. 

We were addressed by several of the Umm al-Hiran residents, including al-Kiyan’s uncle and a local Sheikh. Al-Kiyan’s uncle described his nephew: “He was an educator, the most honest person I know – I trust him more than I trust myself.” Our group was warmly embraced by the mourners, but the residents also expressed disappointment at the lack of Israeli Jews present: “We thought more Israelis would come today; we thought there would be more Jews than Arabs here.”   

Al-Kiyan’s uncle with a handful of bullet casings, arguing that al-Kiyan lost control of his vehicle after being shot by the police, Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017.
by Rebecca Arian

What we saw in Umm al-Hiran were family members mourning the loss of a loved one. Yet given the narrative of terrorism that has emerged in the Israeli media coverage, one might think that the residents are violent thugs. 

The police’s characterization of the death of Erez Levy as the result of an ISIS-motivated attack, a claim that appears to be based solely on the newspaper clippings found in his home, frames the events of January 18th in the language of security and shifts the discussion from that of citizens protesting the demolition of their homes to that of global terrorism and a threat to Israel.

Several media outlets adopted the police’s narrative of events; including this report by Ynet, which, after the police released aerial video of the incident, edited the footage by encircling and labeling al-Kiyan’s car as “‘the terrorist’s car.’” Even though the autopsy revealed that al-Kiyan’s right knee was shattered by bullets, making the claim that he lost control over his vehicle before it crashed into Levy highly plausible, the reporting continued to be framed in security language. Indeed, an article reporting on the autopsy by Channel 10 was posted under the "state-security" subsection, highlighting the contradiction in the media’s refusal to abandon the security narrative.  

Beyond police efforts to connect al-Kiyan to ISIS, the government’s timing to carry out this demolition order is also concerning. This order was issued by Israel's High Court in 2015 and the demolitions were reportedly supposed to have begun in November 2016. So why on January 18, two days before Donald Trump’s inauguration with the world’s attention focused on the transition of power in the United States, did the police officers and equipment finally arrive to carry out the demolitions? 

The Israeli government has undergone an extreme shift to the right during the period of the Obama administration and we cannot predict how it will act now under Trump. 

Our visit to Umm al-Hiran showed us the potential for what's to come. The Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran, in theory, share the same rights under the Israeli government as Jewish citizens. Yet the destruction of their homes – including a demolition order for the town mosque – runs counter to the progressive values of North American Jewry. 

Given how many Israeli media sources adopted the state’s security narrative in characterizing the villager’s protest, Umm al-Hiran teaches us that as North American Jews, it is our responsibility to serve as watchdogs. Now more than ever, we must advocate for diversity, equality and pluralism in Israel in a political environment that, as it turns ever more rightwards, becomes more and more hostile to these values and to the civil rights of its minority populations. 

Rebecca Arian is an American Jewish attorney based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. She is a recipient of the NIF/Shatil Social Justice Fellowship and works as an International Law and Advocacy Fellow at Physicians for Human Rights Israel.  Follow her on twitter: @SaintBecca

Arel Jarus-Hakak is an Israeli-Canadian political science masters candidate at Carleton University, currently in Israel conducting research for his thesis and interning at Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

The views expressed here are the opinions and conclusions of the authors and do not represent the positions of Physicians for Human Rights Israel.