Umm al-Hiran, in the Negev Desert, near Israel’s de facto border with the West Bank, is home to about 1,000 Bedouins who have lived there since the 1950s
UMM AL-HIRAN, Israel — Salim al-Qian settled back on his white faux leather couch strewn with pink cushions and took a sip of tea, clearly comfortable in his tiny home in this ramshackle hamlet in the dusty hills of southern Israel. The sense of permanence suggested by his comfort, however, looks to be short-lived.
Mr. Qian and the other members of some 70 Bedouin families are likely to be evicted soon from their homes in the hamlet of Umm al-Hiran, where they have been living since the 1950s. In their place, the Israeli government plans to build a community with nearly the same name, Hiran — but its expected residents will be religious, Zionist Jews.
The government says Umm al-Hiran is on state-owned land that it would like to develop, and it has fought a long legal battle to have the Bedouin families, about 1,000 people, relocated. This month, the Supreme Court ruled in a 2-1 decision that the families would have to leave. The court gave no date for when evictions could begin, and residents intend to appeal the decision.
The Bedouins say they do not want to leave land on which they have been living for more than half a century after being resettled there by the Israeli military. The government has promised compensation in the form of cash and land elsewhere, but the Bedouins say the decision to move them reflects discriminatory policies. “It is not possible to order one home demolished because it belongs to an Arab and build another for a Jew,” said Mr. Qian, 57, a trader and community leader.
The drama is taking place in a few square miles of the vast Negev desert, but it has become a rallying cry for Arab citizens who see it as a demonstration of what they say is their second-class status in Israel. For advocates of the future Jewish town of Hiran, the evictions are a matter of law and order. “We are talking about state-owned lands on which people knowingly built on illegally,” said Liad Aviel, a government spokesman on Bedouins. “These people who built illegally on land that belongs to the state need to get off this land.” But he added: “The court is very humane. They will not be kicked out of their homes without them having a solution.”
But supporters of the Bedouins view moving as acquiescence to a racist policy. The residents of Umm al-Hiran also say that the land the government has offered them in nearby Houra is already crowded and unsuitable for resettlement. “This is a fight over our existence,” said Talab Abu Arar, a Bedouin member of Israel’s Parliament. “The Israeli state sings to the world that it is a democratic state of Arabs and Jews,” he said, but “an Arab resident is prevented from his rights, while Jewish residents are given all their rights and more.”
Hassan Jabareen, chief attorney at the Arab legal rights group Adalah, which is representing the village, said that it was the first time the courts had ordered the evacuation of an entire hamlet, and that the reason for doing so — to build a Jewish community — set a dangerous precedent. “If we are quiet on Umm Hiran, then they can evacuate any village,” he said.
The government says it is trying to resolve the tangled situation of the Bedouins as it seeks to build two large military bases and develop the long-neglected, sprawling area forming two-thirds of the country’s land mass. Mr. Aviel said that the government had sought viable living alternatives for the Bedouins, but that they did not want to live in areas under state supervision.
There are about 240,000 Bedouins in Israel, descendants of the 13,000 who remained in Israel after its creation. Most members of the community, estimated at 65,000 at the time, fled or were forced out during the 1948 war, said Eli Atzmon, an expert on Israel’s Bedouin community.
Clinton Bailey, an Israeli scholar who has studied the Bedouins for 45 years, said the military had concentrated them into one part of the Negev. Later, when Israel passed an absentee property law in 1953, Bedouins lost the rights to the land they used to live on, which had already been tenuous because most of them did not have deeds, just tribal acknowledgment of their territories, he said. Suggesting Umm al-Hiran’s permanence, some residents have two-story homes with gates and driveways. They stand alongside slapped-together tin dwellings, satellite dishes propped up in the dirt for televisions, and pens for goats and sheep, all spread over the dusty hills of the hamlet.
On a recent day, two of Mr. Qian’s wives — he has three — prepared a lentil dish for dozens of men attending a wake for a young man who had drowned. The Bedouins are the poorest and fastest-growing group in Israel, partly because of large, polygamous families. Some 70,000 Bedouins live in 35 communities that are off Israel’s planning grid, with no running water, power, roads, health care or education. A $2 billion plan to resolve the Bedouins’ long-contested ownership claims to lands in the Negev was shelved in December 2013. It would have forced thousands of people to relocate, generally to smaller plots of land in government-built towns.
But Umm al-Hiran is unique among the Bedouin communities, its advocates say, because the Supreme Court acknowledged in its May 5 ruling that the residents were not trespassers. The government leased them land there until the 1980s, according to Adalah, the legal group. And Hiran will be built where Umm al-Hiran lies, suggesting that the government could also provide infrastructure for the Bedouins.
Hiran was part of a 2002 government plan to create several Jewish communities in the Negev to populate the sparse region, particularly contentious border areas like Umm al-Hiran, which is just miles from Israel’s de facto border with the West Bank. The government said Umm al-Hiran’s residents could purchase plots in the future town, but Mr. Qian said they wanted to stay together as a community. He said they had asked to have their community recognized and to have a Jewish community built alongside theirs, but had received no response. One wife waved apologetically at the dusty courtyard. “Please don’t say Bedouins are dirty,” she said. “We just haven’t cleaned yet.”
Nearby, Mr. Qian’s third wife, Khitam, 30, a schoolteacher, proudly showed off her pink and white home. “I want to enjoy my house,” she said. “I just decorated it.”
A few miles east, Aharon Dissen, a Jewish Israeli, lives with his wife and two sons in a small house strewn with piles of children’s clothing, in a tiny community built in a forest. Mr. Dissen, 27, said he hoped the family would soon be able to move to Hiran. Mr. Dissen said he and his wife, who have lived in the house for three years, hoped to fulfill a mission of populating Israel’s sparsest areas. Nearby, three boys kicked around a ball in a parking lot where one vehicle was emblazoned with a Hebrew sticker reading “Hiran is my home.” A few miles west is Houra, where the state wants Umm al-Hiran residents to relocate. The government built Houra in the 1980s for the Qian tribe, which lived in various communities in the area, including the one in Umm al-Hiran. Most of the tribe moved to Houra, but Umm al-Hiran’s residents refused and challenged court orders to leave in 2003.
Mr. Qian said Umm al-Hiran residents could not move to Houra because doing so would risk starting a war with other members of the tribe over the land. Residents of Houra, a town of about 20,000 people, said they did not have enough land to accommodate their own young men who wanted to build homes near their families, let alone newcomers from Umm al-Hiran. “There’s not enough space for all of us,” said Jamil al-Qian, 29, a pharmacist who lives with his parents and 10 brothers and has been waiting for years to buy a plot of land in Houra. “They should stay on their own land.”
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