Joe Gonzales, MRG’s Media Intern in London, reports on recent demolitions of long-established Bedouin villages in Israel, and the hopes of local residents for government recognition of their titles to the land.
According to international media reports, in early November a unit of hundreds of Israeli soldiers descended without notice upon the town of Rahat and fully demolished one of the city’s newest mosques. Rahat is located in southern Israel’s Negev desert and maintains a population largely consisting of Bedouin, a formerly nomadic people indigenous to the area and part of Israel’s Arab minority.
The misfortune present in the unannounced destruction of Rahat’s mosque is obvious, yet the town’s unenviable experience is far from an isolated incident. Instead, it is one example of a continuing Israeli state practice that affects thousands of Israeli Bedouin and sometimes manifests itself in a far more severe fashion. Roughly 45 settlements, home to 74,000 Bedouin, in the Negev are unrecognised by the Israeli government in their entirety. As such, each home, mosque and building in such places is under constant threat of random demolition owing to their implied recent and illegal construction.
One such settlement is Al-Araqib. A Bedouin village with 300 inhabitants located just a few kilometres south of Rahat, Al-Araqib has existed for several generations. The village, however, is not found on any Israeli maps. In fact, even a consultation of Google Maps, with its extraordinary capacity for showing 360 degree street views the world over, identifies nothing but desert where one should find Al-Araqib. This is despite the fact that the village has been located there since the time of the Ottoman Empire.
Al-Araqib’s lack of official recognition is a consequence of various aspects of the country’s legal structure and political history. This lack of official acknowledgment has had dire consequences for the village’s inhabitants. Residents and human rights groups state that Al-Araqib has been demolished six times since June of this year. This included demolitions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Two residents of Al-Araqib, Ismail abu Madegan al Turi and Aziz abu Madegan al Turi, were recently in London to discuss their village’s plight at an event organised by Amnesty International. Ismail’s family has lived in the Al-Araqib for generations. It is where both his father and grandfather were born, and Ismail himself has lived in the village for the whole of his 75 years. He is quick to point out that he is in fact older than the state of Israel itself, and therefore asks, “Did I come to Israel? Or, did Israel come to me?”
Ismail’s rhetoric is far removed from the extreme variety of anti-Israeli criticism often occurring in the media. “We are not enemies of Israel,” he calmly states, “God wants us to live together.” Brandishing his Israeli passport, he draws attention to what he believes to be the root of his village’s problems: gross societal inequalities between Israel’s non-Arab majority and the country’s Arab minority. “Israel says Arabs have rights, but there are no rights for Arabs…no democracy.”
Ismail highlights the fact that the most concrete problem for inhabitants of the Negev’s unrecognised villages is landlessness. This, he clarifies, makes it an entirely different issue than the more widely known predicament facing Arab-Palestinians. “I am not talking about the West Bank and Gaza,” he explains, “they have a state.”
Aziz abu Madegan al Turi presents legal paperwork supporting Ismail’s claims concerning Al-Araqib’s generation-spanning existence. Aziz provides copies of deeds and contracts signed between his ancestors and the Ottoman Empire. He argues that these documents provide historical evidence of his tribe’s right to live in Al-Araqib. He offers further record of his village’s existence in the form of dozens of tax receipts from the British government, dating from the era when the area was part of the British mandate of Palestine. Aziz seems particularly distraught about the village’s loss of livelihood, remarking that “they have destroyed the economy of the village totally.”
Indeed, the constant demolitions have devastated the quality of life in Al-Araqib. It is especially abysmal when compared to the quality of life of other Israeli citizens. The UN’s Human Development Index (an empirical state-by-state analysis of world health, education, and income) ranks Israel as the 15th most developed nation in the world, ahead of Finland, Belgium and the UK.
Conversely, residents and local human rights NGOs report that the Bedouin Israeli citizens of Negev’s unrecognised villages lack access to running water, electricity, health care, education or infrastructure. Aziz and Ismail believe this denial of basic amenities is an attempt to further pressure the villages’ residents to relocate to state-planned townships that do provide these services. These townships are not ideal destinations, however, as local media cover their crippling poverty and high violent crime rates. Rahat is such a township. The previously mentioned destruction of its mosque, as well the high levels of poverty and crime, likely give Bedouin villagers little hope that such a move would be a positive change in their lives.
The possibility for improvement in the lives of the Bedouin natives of Al-Araqib and other unrecognised villages does exist. Both Aziz and Ismail cite the successful efforts that won state recognition for Bedouin villages in the Galilee region in the 1990s. Ismail acknowledges that international NGOs can have a role to play, suggesting that they help pressure Israel simply to recognise Arab Israelis’ rights. “We don’t ask to become an independent state, we ask to become equal citizens.” He is adamant that further demolitions will not diminish his people’s desire to remain in their village. “[Al-Araqib] is our father. It is our mother. We will never leave Al-Araqib.”