While the Prawer Plan has made international headlines, Israel’s Bedouin have suffered from dispossession and discrimination since the state was established. Such is the story of Umm al-Hiran, which will be destroyed so a Jewish town of Hiran can be built in its place.
In the unrecognized Bedouin village Umm al-Hiran, 600 people are waiting for the Israeli High Court of Justice to decide their fate.
Abed Abu Al-Qia’an is a 49-year-old resident of Umm al-Hiran, which Israel plans to empty and destroy in order to make way for a new Jewish town, Hiran. “The children are panicking. All the time, they’re asking us, ‘What will happen?’” he says, adding that kids from the village have trouble concentrating in classes because “they go to school not knowing if they’ll come home to a house or not.”
Earlier this month, the Israeli cabinet approved the state’s plans to demolish Umm al-Hiran to make way for Hiran, which is designated for Jewish religious nationalists. The current residents of Umm al-Hiran, who are citizens of Israel, will be forcibly transferred to the nearby township of Hurah.
This will not be the first time the village’s inhabitants are displaced. Prior to Israel’s founding in 1948, the residents lived northwest of where Umm al-Hiran stands today. Like many Bedouin, they were expelled from their homes in the Negev during and after the 1948 war.
Like most other Arab citizens of the state, Bedouin in the Negev lived under martial law until 1966. It was the Israeli military government that in 1956 ordered the Abu Al-Qia’an family to move to their current location. Salim Abu Al-Qia’an’s parents were among those who were transferred to the land. “The state brought us here by force,” he says.
Israel confiscated the Abu Al-Qia’an’s original land in 1948 in order to establish Kibbutz Shoval.
According to Attorney Suhad Bishara, director of the land and planning rights unit at Adalah – Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Abu Al-Qia’an family first petitioned to get their property back in the 1970s.
“Of course the state doesn’t recognize these claims,” Bishara says.
Approximately 40 years later, the Abu Al-Qia’ans’ case is still pending.
According to Salim Abu Al-Qia’an, the villagers got the first notice that they would be evicted from Umm al-Hiran in 2002. Then, a few years later, the state filed a lawsuit against the family, “claiming they are trespassing on state land,” says Bishara, who has represented the Abu Al-Qia’ans in their legal struggle for a decade now.
A district court eventually acknowledged that the residents are not squatters, and that they were brought to the land where they currently live Bishara continues. But that has not helped the Abu Al-Qia’ans family hold onto their village. Bishara explains: “The state is saying, ‘Since we gave them permission to live on the land, we can take it back.’”
Although Israel acknowledges that it indeed moved them to their current location, the government refuses to recognize the village—denying it basic services such as water, electricity, and infrastructure. Accessing healthcare and education is difficult for many, impossible for some.
In February of this year, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the village’s petition to gain access to the state’s water network. According to Adalah, which handled the case, “The Court ruled that the village’s current source of water — a private citizen who lives four kilometers away and allows the villagers to purchase water from him at exorbitantly high prices — constitutes ‘sufficient access.’”
Umm al-Hiran residents pay three times the amount most Israelis pay for water.
At the same time that villages like Umm al-Hiran have gone unrecognized for decades — struggling for basics like water — the government recognizes and provides infrastructure to Jewish settlements built in contravention of both Israeli and international law.
And it’s not just Umm al-Hiran.
The Bedouin village of Al-Araqib has been demolished over 60 times now; the state plans to use its land for a JNF-KKL funded forest.
On a much wider scale, Israel’s controversial Prawer-Begin Plan will lead to the destruction of some 35 unrecognized villages, if enacted. Tens of thousands of Bedouin will be transferred against their will to townships like Hurah.
Salim Abu Al-Qia’an says the state intends to concentrate the Bedouin into a small corner of the Negev.
“The Bedouin go according to the family,” Abed Abu Al-Qia’an interjects, “every family has a special culture of its own. You can’t just put us all together.”
But while the Prawer Plan has made international headlines, Bishara and the Abu Al-Qia’ans emphasize that it doesn’t actually represent a change in Israeli policy.
“The policy of evicting unrecognized villages has been there for a long time. Prawer just came up with a new legal framework [for it],” Bishara explains.
Critics say that the government’s plan to build Hiran on top of Umm al-Hiran is more proof that Israeli policies are discriminatory and give preferential treatment to Jews, often at the expense of the Arab population.
“It’s racism,” Salim Abu Al-Qia’an says. “Why is the state investing in new towns rather than the towns that are already here?”
He points out that the money Israel is spending on increasing the police presence in the area and demolishing homes and villages, could instead go toward building up those very same communities.
“[The government] says they want to develop the Negev but they are ruining it,” he laments
In November, the Israeli High Court of Justice put a temporary freeze on government plans to evacuate Umm al-Hiran’s residents. The judges requested additional documents from the villagers and another hearing will be later this month.
The state’s treatment of Bedouin calls into question whether or not Israel is indeed the democracy it defines itself as, Salim Abu Al-Qia’an posits. “It’s impossible to ask us to pay taxes and to vote and then to ignore us.”
One of the most offensive aspects about the state’s plans is that the villagers were not consulted, he says. “They didn’t talk to us before they decided to move us,” he adds. They are “treating [the Bedouin] like animals.”
Bishara points out that when representing clients, she and other lawyers from Adalah base their arguments on a framework of human and constitutional rights, “which should be the core of any democracy. Unfortunately, in Israel, it’s not working.”
The legal system, she explains, upholds discriminatory government policies instead of intervening to protect citizens. She calls the Supreme Court’s decision to refuse the village access to the national water system, the plan to build Hiran on top of Umm al-Hiran’s ruins and attempts to destroy al-Araqib to build a forest “absurd situations. These are anti-democratic policies, of course.”