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Unrecognized in the Negev

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At the break of dawn on 27th July 2010, the unrecognized village of Al Araqib was surrounded by 1,500 police officers clad in riot gear.

Helicopters circled overhead as bulldozers razed homes and animal pens to the ground. It took 4 hours to demolish a village that was home to around 300 people, hundreds of sheep, dozens of goose, hens, pigeons and horses.

Al Araqib, 2009

My first visit to Al Araqib was in 2009, a year before that mass demolition. I boarded a taxi from Be’er Sheva. The driver had no idea where the village was and there were no signs to help us along the way.

Following a phone conversation in Hebrew with my Bedouin host, Aziz Abu Madegham Al Turi, the driver followed precise instructions and left me “by the highway shoulder on Route 40 near the phone-mast after Lahavim junction”.

Next to me was an opening in the protective guardrail large enough to let a couple of cars through. From there a dirt road straddled into the horizon.

This is also where the documentary I am making with Linda Paganelli and SMK Videofactory, ‘Unrecognized in the Negev, begins. In Al Araqib.

68 demolition in less than four years

Since 27th July 2010, the village has been demolished a further 68 times. Of the original 300 inhabitants only 20 have remained and they are confined to the cemetery area.

What is happening in Al Araqib is happening to unrecognized Bedouin villages across the Negev and in our documentary we focus on the lives of Sheikh Saiah, the charismatic head of the village, and his family, to make sense of the wider context.

Sheikh Saiah’s principal family members are his son Aziz, his wife Sabah and their newly arrived daughter named ‘Al Araqib’, Salim, who every morning prepares the coffee with cardamom, his wife Haqima, their kids Mariam, Ibrahim, Mohammed, Hala and all the others.

Recognition denied

At the core of the story we are telling is a tension between state and minority. The state of Israel does not recognize Al Araqib. The village exists in the real world but it does not exist in the reality that the state wishes to construct.

That is why there are no signs indicating its whereabouts or why there are no paved roads leading to it. It is also the reason why the state does not provide any basic services to its people, such as water, electricity or sewerage. The Al Araqib I got to know during that first visit in 2009 was a thriving community, against all odds.

The first thing I was shown were the fields of growing wheat that the state had ploughed into the ground just days before. Aziz, his wife Saba and their neighbour Mohammed wondered at the waste.

“We are Israeli citizens, we are not doing anything bad”, Aziz said. “We only want to live on our lands in peace. It isn’t easy to live like this. But at least we are on our land.”

The Al Turi continue to have a clear vision for their village, it may not be drawn as a plan that the state can understand but it is a vision informed by centuries of desert dwelling.

Before the demolition everything had its place: the shig (communal tent), the dirt paths, the homes, the parking spaces, the women’s sections. It really did take little imagination to see what it could become, given a fair chance.

The Jewish National Fund

The reason for the mass demolition of the village on 27th July 2010 has been closely linked to the forestation activities of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Israel’s Land Administration (ILA).

In the regional master plan approved by authorities, the area is allocated to recreational use. Hence the forest. Hence the dispossession. As the trees advance, the Bedouin are forced to retreat and each day the map designed by the state imposes itself on reality a little more.

Hundreds of times Sheikh Sayah has wondered, “are the trees of the state better that they need to uproot ours and plant new ones?”

The very methodical and planned way in which the JNF chooses where to plant and in what quantity, has led the Israeli historian Ilan Pappè to call this quasi-state agency “the principal judaizer of Israel-Palestine”.

In ‘Unrecognized in the Negev’ we also look at the dark side of something as ‘green’ and eco-friendly as planting trees by the million in the desert.

The Bedouins and the state

The idea of centralized power ‘willing a place out of existence’ plays an important part in the documentary. We explore what happens to people when they don’t fit in the plans of the state to which they nominally belong.

What happens when the way in which power wants to shape them might result into their erasure, that of their community and their history? What processes are unleashed? Al Araqib is only one of the villages in which these mechanisms are happening, there are many more.

Bedouins are indigenous inhabitants of the Negev, they are Muslim and Palestinian and hold Israeli citizenship. Today they number roughly 220,000. About half of them live in the same conditions as the Al Turi tribe, in villages that remain unrecognized. The other half live in seven government-planned townships and ten recognized villages.

Since 1948 the policy of the state of Israel has been to settle the largest number of Bedouins on the smallest amount of land.

For example, in 1951 the state moved Bedouin tribes into an area called the Siyag, then in the 1970s pushed them to settle into seven government-planned townships. These efforts are ongoing.

The Prawer-Begin Plan

The latest development in this policy is the Prawer-Begin plan, approved by the government in 2011. This plan seeks to ‘regularize’ Bedouin settlement within five years. The bill seeks to do this through the use of the law, making it gradually illegal for Bedouins to refuse the settling of land claims in favour of the state.

There are currently over 3,000 land claims filed by Bedouins in the Negev Courts. They have been awaiting a ruling since the 1960s. In these legal cases, Bedouins claim ownership over specific areas for which they hold deeds and documents that were accepted as valid by both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate.

Yet since Israel has been passing very specific laws, or applying past laws very narrowly, in order to nationalize much of the land in both Israel proper and the occupied Palestinian territories, it is very hard for Bedouins to win any of these claims.

The Prawer-Begin plan seeks to speed up this process. Once the claims are settled and the land cleared, the state will be able to build new towns, develop industrial zones, plant more forests, and generally fully implement what it calls ‘development’ plans worth billions of NIS for this peripheral region.

These plans, officials argue, will benefit both Jewish and Arab citizens of the Negev.

Unrecognized in the Negev

These narratives put forward by the state – of development, urbanization and modernity – and the ideologies supporting them, point to a clear path for the Bedouin: from the tent to the house, from the field to the factory or the office.

Yet what the Bedouins seem to argue is that A to B should not be the only path available and there is nothing ‘natural’ about it.

So far ‘development’ of the Negev for the Al Turi has meant loss of land, loss of job, stress, violence, arrests and clashes with the authorities.

All the while Jewish communities have thrived and in some cases, as for example in Umm-al-Hieran, are due to take the place currently occupied by Bedouin localities. This inequality in access to and distribution of resources is highlighted throughout our documentary.

And as we explore this inequality we also understand what it means to be a Bedouin in Israel today – and whether Israel can make room for this Arab minority since, as Aziz puts it:

“They can demolish us 100 times, but we are not going anywhere.”

Silvia Boarini is a freelance photographer and journalist currently based in Be’er Sheva. She is a graduate of SOAS and some of her work is available on her website.  She is currently working on the documentary ‘Unrecognized in the Negev’ with visual anthropologist Linda Paganelli and SMK videofactory.

This article originally appeared in the Ecologist.

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