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Decades of dispossession and discrimination: Umm al-Hiran

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.

The mosque at the unrecognized Bedouin village Um al-Hiran (photo: Yossi Gurvitz)

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.

Read +972’s interview with Suhad Bishara: ‘When I look at the Prawer Plan, I see another Nakba’


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.

Read more: The unequal right to water in unrecognized Bedouin villages

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.

Read more: The JNF’s role in setting Negev land policy

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.

Click for +972’s full coverage of the Prawer Plan

“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.

Residents of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran waiting the Supreme Court’s decision on the village’s case, Jerusalem, November 20, 2013. (photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)


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.”

Activists hold ‘day of rage’ protests against Prawer Plan
WATCH: Jewish settlers await destruction of Bedouin village in Negev 

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    1. The ruling coalition frames these villages as uncontrolled ethnic expansions leading to further usurpation of land. Bedouin exclusivity via extended family settlement is portrayed as a threat, a growing foreign entity in the land. Yet the Community Law effectively creates ethnic enclaves for Jews as well; and the best way to control a village is to incorporate it so that expansion must directly apply for legal confirmation. Israeli political culture has evolved to declare these people unclean while not allowing them an autonomous form of acceptance–they must relocate to become clean, not follow the rules of expansion once incorporated. The Bedouin were, from 48, understandably for the day, defined as unclean. Relocating them en mass retains that designation. Justice Minister Livni says Prawer is compromise; it is, rather, continuance of an unclean status forced on those who serve in the IDF.

      Nakba could end here. One doesn’t have to erase the past, condemn one’s history, just prevent more of the past. One could begin true compromise by recognizing the village derived from military order in 48 with promise of permanence. Other villages might either be recognized or disbanded in negotiation with a resident council.

      I suspect money as well as national religious ideology is driving relocation. Some are going to do well through the new construction of Jewish villages and a forest.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      Instead of castigating the Israeli Supreme Court, why doesn’t 972Mag analyze and critique that Court’s lengthy and detailed decision regarding the Negev Bedouin?

      By dumbing the issues down 972Mag does their readers, and in this case, the Bedouin petitioners, a disservice.

      Reply to Comment
      • In the heyday of US Supreme Court common law, 1960-80 or a bit beyond, the Court heard a case that claimed police were not as active in poor areas and that this violated equal protection. The claimants lost. The Court basically said that it should not get into the fine tuning of police allocation, and that there was adequate evidence of police effort to deny an overt equal protection claim. I suspect the High Court said something similar.

        Yes, I too would like to know more about this water decision. But I am not willing to say our post author is dumbing down. I would also like to know if there was a dissenting opinion. The law travels circuitous routes in its evolution.

        Reply to Comment
        • Haifawi

          There is literally a link to the Adalah petition for water access right there in the article.

          Reply to Comment
          • I didn’t reread the piece upon Joel’s comment. The link you point out directs to another explaining the grounding High Court 2011 decision, a decision not very favorable to the unrecognized villages. According to the 2011 case Adalah synopsis, the Court back then asserted that water access was a constitutional right (but this is based partly on the Basic Laws, which can change), but also said that solution is problematic since the villages are unrecognized and on “state land”; indeed, Justice Ayala Procaccia there says the solution to water access is to move those in unrecognized villages to already recognized towns with water connection–exactly what the Prawer plan proposes. The 2013 High Court essentially says that the higher water prices in themselves to not reach a denial of the declared right in the 2011 case. This is not that unusual for court cases. Courts often limit their reach by not declaring global guidelines, rather saying yes or no to the case at hand. Reading in more than is actually given, the Court in 2011 and 13 seems to be saying that while there is a right to water access, infrastructure is limited to recognized villages. Absent recognition, the question devolves to whether the State is actively preventing access to water. Since residents can purchase water at higher price and albeit with some effort in longer transport, the State is not actively preventing water access. What both courts refused to do is question whether or not these unrecognized villages should be recognized, but that wasn’t a matter of petition.

            I continue to believe that, on the history I have seen, at least one village should be recognized as a matter of contractual promise. However, the Court’s position on water is reasonable for what I know of jurisprudence. A right of access is not a right of possession. If the State is not interdicting the effort of residents to procure water, absent draconian pricing, access is not denied. The Court is under no obligation to say what would constitute draconian pricing and I think its silence is appropriately judicially conservative as a matter of decision process, not policy.

            Perhaps some will be surprised at this stance, given my general position on Prawer. But jurisprudence cannot be crafted to fit my or any preferred political outcome. Law cannot grant everybody everything they want. Here I think the issue of recognition should be faced directly, and I suspect that, at best, under the contractual promise view I have advocated, some but not all unrecognized villages could be granted recognition as a matter of constitutional law. The remainder could indeed be expunged, residents relocated. A lot would hinge on how long each village has been where it is, and how the State has treated residents up to the present. Wickedly, if the State has repeatedly demolished such a village, it has thus shown no acceptance of it, which means the State has not admitted its legal standing through tacit recognition. However, once again, that village having a contractual promise during military occupation should be recognized, as the State there the State explicitly recognized the village’s existence, with growth.

            Reply to Comment
    3. David T.

      What state did the same to Jews?

      Reply to Comment
      • Average American

        Tell me, what state was it? Was it the Bedouin, and they should now get what they gave?

        Reply to Comment
        • David T.

          Let them make comparisons, they hate it, when others do.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Average American

      In the photo that you click on to get this article, what do the symbols mean on the shields the soldiers are holding? What does the writing on the shields say? Do the symbols and writing refer to religious ideology, or to democratic law?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ari

      So many mistruths and outright lies in this article I couldn’t not reply: I am taking the liberty to use Ben Dror Yemini’s 8 points in his recent blog on the issue to illustrate the mistruths in the above article:

      1. The Bedouin members of the Al-Gian tribe, were transferred to the Yatir region of the Negev in the 50’s, of their own volition and at their request, due to a dispute with another larger tribe. (if you actually read the hebrew government document posted here on +972 you see this is fact)

      2. When Hiran was being planned, over a decade ago, there were only a few Bedouins still in the area of Yatir. The move to Umm al-Hiran occurred in the wake of the plans for the new town. Aerial photographs prove this.

      3. Today, only a small part of the master plan for Hiran (established in 90’s) is on the land occupied by these new squatters.

      4. In the late 70’s early 80’s the state built the town of Hura, for the Bedouin, with paved roads, electricity and water infrastructure and more. adjacent to the new Al-Gian village of Umm Al Hiran,

      5. Every family in the Al Gian tribe is entitled to receive nearly a 1/4 acre of land in Hura. Even a bachelor over 24 is entitled to a plot of land, in preparation for future generations.

      6. In addition to the free land, with free infrastructure development, each family also receives monetary compensation for the previous, illegally built house where they lived.

      7. Most of the tribe – 3,000 of the ~ 4,000 members – actually felt this was a fair arrangement, and they indeed moved to Hura.

      8. The new town of Hiran is not designated only for religious Jews, or only for Jews either. Any Bedouin who wishes to buy land can and is fully entitled to do so as is any citizen of Israel. A good example of this is the town of Meitar, where Bedouins from the surrounding area decided to buy plots of land. BTW Jews are not allowed to buy land in Hura or any other Bedouin town or city…..

      Reply to Comment
      • It does not matter whether some Bedouin requested the transfer in the 50’s or not. Controlling is the military promise that they would there remain. It may be that that promise was one of protection against other Bedouin, but the promise was made in a general form: you will not have to move again. This binds the State contractually, in my view. I base this reasoning on the English 972 report by Noam.

        That a substantial majority accepted transfer later to Hura does not obviate the contract if enough remain; on your own report, at least 1000 decided to remain, enough for a village, so the State contract remains.

        Reply to Comment
        • Arib

          Greg, The military made no promise they would be able to stay there. Everyone new it was a temporary location until some arrangement was sorted. The neighbourhoods built specifically for them in Hura was that arrangement, which is why the majority moved there. So we have some Bedouin holding out for a better deal etc. that’s the story.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Joel


      The symbols are kabbalistic and say,’ American. You’re a 3rd rate bigot. Go fuck yourself’.

      Reply to Comment
      • Average American

        Perfect. Avoid the question entirely.

        I figured since the writing was in Hebrew, someone here might be able to tell me. Maybe someone other than you.

        I think it’s important to know since it’s being held by an authority figure, a figure representing the State.

        Reply to Comment