Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The doves return to Al-Arakib

"Just like the demonstrators in Egypt were not deterred by the police violence, never left the square, so will we stick to Al-Arakib. This is the Negev's Tahrir Square. Just like the demonstrators in Cairo won in the end, so will we win" said the young man who greeted us when the activist convoy - a full bus and a string of private cars - reached the hills northwest of Be'ersheba. The cries of joy in Cairo at the fall of the regime of tyranny had been clearly heard also in this desolated place.

"The day before yesterday, Thursday, was a particularly hard day. While we ate breakfast, the police arrived and surrounded us on all sides. Their commander said: 'You have two minutes to clear the area, or we will use force'. At the end of the two minutes they assaulted us with great violence, at the men's tent and the women's tent alike. Screams were heard on all sides. My eyes are still smarting, after two days, from the pepper gas which was sprayed directly into them. When a child was injured , it took hours until we received permission for an ambulance to pass through the police cordon and evacuate him. But they had not broken us. In the evening, just after the police left, we went back and re-built our sheds, "said Aziz Abu Median.

"Look at this photo from a year ago. There, over the hill, we had our olive groves. Arakib's 4500 olive trees. The trees gave us a livelihood, olives and oil. We treated them like children, with great effort and dedication, day and night. In the summer, six months ago, they were all uprooted, not a single one was left, not a trace that they had been there. Look, what beautiful trees they were, is it not a pity to destroy such trees? The JNF now says that they want to plant a wood here. What kind of wood? A wood of trees which bear no fruit and bring no benefit to anyone? This is what is going to replace our olive trees and our homes? Why? Such a nasty stupidity. They want to grab ownership of the land, and they don't care how much they hurt people. "

The huts which were built after the last demolition wave were scattered through the field, made of blue plastic and canvas sheets. Young villagers together with activists from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem went around with spray paint cans and decorated the huts with large inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew and English: " Al-Arakib will not fall!", "JNF – the destroying fund, the dispossessing fund", "From Cairo to Al-Arakib - Solidarity, Solidarity, Solidarity! "," Please do not destroy my home - thank you! ". One of the young men underlined three times the word "please."

Sheikh Sayah al-Turi spreads on the hood of a car copies of decades old documents, some of them from more than a century ago. "We bought much of this land in 1906. And I have another acquisition document, from 1929. Everything is here – name of the seller, of the buyer, the amount paid for the purchase. 1350 dunams of land, which were duly purchased and where we lived long before there was an Israel." The documents were translated into Hebrew, printed on large sheets of paper. The government authorities do not recognize any of these documents, proving land ownership by Bedouins. As far as the state is concerned, this is "state land" , and the Bedouins living on it are "squatters" who should be removed so that the JNF could continue its forestry work.

"We are squatters? Tel me, who is buried here in the cemetery? The cemetery which opened in 1914? None of Netanyahu's ancestors are there, nor of Lieberman, nor of Shlomo from the Israel Lands Authority. Everybody buried here are members of the al-Turi Tribe, our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers. And what is the government offering us? To get alternative land at Rahat for twenty percent of our land, and compensations for the reminder. What compensation? 2500 Shekels per Dunam. 2500 Shekels! What a joke! Do they think we are idiots? "

"Why should we go to Rahat?" A young man intervenes. "What is there in Rahat? A very high unemployment rate and a very high crime rate. And why? I know guys whose families had gone to Rahat. They have no income, just a dole which barely allows them to survive. Is it any wonder that many of them deteriorate to crime? Is this what the government offers us? The government is constructing here in the Negev what they call "individual farms", giving to anyone the best of land and water , the best of conditions, provided only that he is Jewish. Let them divide Arakib's 1350 Dunams into "individual farms" and give them to us. You will see what flourishing farm we will create with our own hands! ".

Ya'alah Ra'anan, a prominent advocate of the "unrecognized villages", had given birth a few weeks ago – which did not prevent her from coming on the scene with her baby girl, and giving an explanantion: "It's not really important to them whether or not there would be a forest here. This is no more than a cynical manipulation, in order to safeguard the land theft. Sixty years ago the government expropriated the land 'for public use', but since then made no use of it. Judicially, this creates the possibility of a demand that they return the land to its original owners. So, they quickly set the Jewish National Fund to plant a forest here. They don’t really care if a forest truly grows here, or just thorns, as long as they can come to court and claim that the land is indeed used for a public purpose – forestry!. And Al-Arakib is only the beginning. If Arakib falls they plan to do the same in other places, in Ujan, in Umm al Hiran. There is a village called Umm al Hiran which is unrecognized by the government, where people live, but the government already has plans to build an officially recognized and approved community named Hiran at the same location – a community for Jews only!" The baby nestling in a hanging basket on her mother's body continues to sleep peacefully throughout this fiery speech.

Along with several young men from the village, the activists march two kilometers out to the compound surrounded by barbed wire where the Jewish National Fund bulldozers are parked under police protection. "Here is the tractor which destroyed my home" points a young woman. "There is nothing left of it, even the rubble was taken away. Nothing was left. I had a house with a kitchen and a bathroom, like everybody, like city people. We did not have a connection to piped water, but my husband placed a big water tank on the roof, and we had a house. A beautiful house, a good life. Now it is all destroyed, this tractor here destroyed it. Now we have only a hut to live in, and they destroy even the hut every few days again."

A journalist who accompanied the convoy records her words. "It will all be on our website tommorow" he promises the woman. Suddenly there is shouting from the front of the line: "Hurry! Hurry! Come here quickly! They arrested three of us!" At the gate of the bulldozer compound, the conflict is already underway. Dozens of activists are sitting on the ground, facing a bunch of policemen. "I, Captain Haim Cohen, inform you that you are on private land. This is trespassing. If you want to demonstrate, go to the other side of the hill!" In response, there is a wave of chanting "The JNF is tresspassing!" / "Release Danny and lilach!" ("What is the name of the third one whis was arrested?" asks someone) / "We all came here together - we will only leave together!" / "When the law is illegal - civil disobedience is the answer! "/" We want equality, equal rights - equal rights, and nothing less! "/" Arakib shall not fall – the bulldozer shall be to no avail! "/" Fascism will not pass, no, no, will not pass! "

The big sign at the entrance to the compound reads "Jewish National Fund. Danger! Building site, entrance is forbidden. Works carried out by the Department of Forestry, Southern Region." Activist pull out bumper stickers from backpacks, and the amended sign soon reads "Jewish Racist Fund - Danger!"

Captain Haim Cohen appears again, promises to release the detainees, retracts the promise to a chorus of loud boos, and a few minutes later makes the promise again. "Go on sitting, we are blocking their only entrance, and they can’t arrest seventy people. We have the advantage!" After half an hour Ezra Nawi returns from negotiations inside the compound and announces "This is it, they are going to be released". The three are received with applause and hugs.

On the way back to the Arakib huts, villagers come with trays full of food: hummus, pita bread and ordinary bread, tomatoes, olives, onions, chicken legs. "Sit down, eat, you are our guests, very honored guests!" All sit down on the ground in a circle, eat and talk. "My son started to say "the Jews are bad, the Jews destroyed our home. I told him 'Those were the government people, but there are also the Jews who come to help us and are struggling together with us." Now he only says only 'the government are bad people, the government are nasty bastards'. It is more than a month since I heard him cursing the Jews. "

"Yesterday, after we held the Friday prayers, suddenly our pigeons returned. They had flown away and escaped when the village was destroyed. Also their dovecotes were destroyed, like our houses. And still, they came back, they also know that Al-Arakib is their home.

Where things now stand

After the visit on Saturday, the veteran Ya'akov Manor and several other activists stayed the night, in case the police and the JNF bulldozers return on the next morning. In practice, Al-Arakib had had since then several relatively quiet days, and the huts are still standing. But yesterday afternoon a new urgent message came om the activist action alert network: "The next demolition of Al-Arakib may occur at any moment, and the early morning hours are the most vulnerable" followed by a request to those who can to come over and spend the night with the villagers, those able and willing to call Arik 050-5607034 or Kobi 050-2345251.

Meanwhile, activists have visited the house of Nuri al Ukbi, the Bedouin activist born in Arakib, to modestly celebrate his release from jail. At least one piece of good news.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The village and the forest - and a bit about God

Yesterday at seven A.M., large police forces, accompanied by bulldozers and many trucks, were observed at the Kama Intersection northwest of Be'er Sheba. Residents of Al-Arakib village instantly understood that they were the target for these forces.

Al-Arakib had already been destroyed 12 times within less than a year, and each time the residents returned to set up shacks and huts at the site of their destroyed homes. Yesterday was the 13th time.

Police forces surrounded the area on all sides, to prevent any villager or Human Rights activist from interfering with the demolition operations. Members of "Bimkom" – an association of architects and urban planners who are trying to formulate alternative zoning plans to those of the political establishment - were stopped by the police, their I.D.'s were taken and they were informed: "The area is closed, entry forbidden"

"How far does the closed area extend?" asked activist Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, and was told "From horizon to horizon." He was not satisfied with this answer and stated: "If you close an area, you must present a precise map." The answer to this was immediate and decisive: the activist was dragged to the police patrol car to spend seven hours in detention, on suspicion of "insulting a police officer" and "failing to obey a police officer."

Meanwhile, behind the police cordon, the bulldozers continued their work. The twelve miserable huts where the villagers had lived were pulled down, as was the protest tent where they had received guests who came to visit them from Israel and abroad. Every remnant, from this and previous demolitions, was loaded on the ten trucks and taken away, to make sure that Arakib villagers would not recycle them in the next reconstruction. Residents watched the destruction from the cemetery where their ancestors had been buried in the past century, and which remains (so far?) untouched by the bulldozers. The Mosque in the cemetery remains the only structure still left standing, providing children with a bit of a shelter in the cold Negev winter nights.

The Police does not have enough manpower to keep the area permanently closed. Tomorrow or the day after, the police will leave and the residents return to the land which they have no intention of giving up. They will erect new huts and live in them until the next wave of destruction, a month or two hence.

Why is the government of Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East (?), so insistent upon repeatedly destroying a small village which existed long before Israel itself came into being? The answer is well known: to make the desert bloom. Yes, it is the proclaimed and outspoken intention of the Jewish National Fund to plant a forest on this site. This damned unrecognized village called Arakib poses an obstacle to their noble forestry plans. .

A forest? Is it really possible to let a forest grow in this arid area, even if a lot of water is pumped there from other regions. Possibly the JNF might manage a little grove, should the police ever manage to rid them of the stubborn villagers. Maybe.

In fact, the Jewish National Fund already intended to embark on planting several weeks ago, on Tu B'Shvat, the Tree Holyday. But the villagers disrupted these plans by rebuilding the huts in their destroyed village and demonstrating in front of the JNF headquarters in Jerusalem and appealing to the court in Be'er Sheba.

Judge Nehama Netzer-Shalom did not order the JNF to stop their work, although she did note that "the JNF should avoid planting on the site, as it is doubtful whether such planting is consistent with preserving the existing situation. She also stated that "There can be no doubt that the time has come to regulate the construction problem , so that also such people as the Bedouins of Al-Arakib would be able to build legally and establish communities without being later declared to be "unrecognized villages". All this, however, are but recommendations without the power of a verdict – and in this enlightened democratic country, the authorities are often very tardy in carrying out even explicit judicial rulings. (The residents of Bil'in have been waiting for more than three years already for implementation of the Supreme Court ruling to move the "Separation Fence" - but that's another story ...)

God is also involved in this story - at least, GOD TV - established by American Evangelical churches based in the United States – has been providing generous funding to the tree-planting project. "It is an apostolic, prophetic act, to restore the desert places to the lush green land it once was, make the deserts livable (sic!) once more, preparing the Holy Land for the return of the King of Kings" so did God declare yesterday by means of a communiqué published in the website of his TV station. .

And what about the uprooting of the Arakib villagers from their land? Well, this is between the villagers and the government of Israel, not the business of GOD TV. Of what importance are a few villagers compared with the return of the King of Kings to the Holy Land?

A historical perspective

In 1066, more than a thousand years ago, the adventurer William the Conqueror, also known in his lifetime as William the Bastard, invaded and conquered England at the head of his Norman army. For centuries afterwards, the Saxon inhabitants of England endured harsh oppression and exploitation under Norman rule.

Of the many aspects of the Normans' oppression of the Saxons, one became particularly notorious and was remembered with a shudder for centuries afterwards: the demolition and total destruction of Saxon villages in the county of Hampshire, in order to plant on their site a forest – "The New Forest" – where the conqueror king and his courtiers could go hunting deer to their heart's content.

Two of William's sons died in the Forest, Richard and William Rufus. Local folklore asserted that this was punishment for the crimes committed by William when he created his New Forest, as told by the Seventeenth Century writer Richard Blome:

"William the Conqueror, for the making of the said New-Forest, caused the Parish Churches, with all the Houses thereto belonging, to be pulled down, and the poor Inhabitants left succourless of house or home. But this wicked act did not long go unpunished, for his Sons felt the smart thereof; Richard being blasted with a pestilent Air; Rufus shot through with an Arrow; and even Henry his Grand-child, as he pursued his Game, was hanged among the boughs, and so dyed."

In England it is now a horror story from ancient history. At the heart of the forest, which still exists, tourist guides point to the stone erected where a mysterious arrow pierced the heart of King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror.

What will tourist guides point to in the Negev, in thousand years from now?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From darkness to light

It happens again and again in history, and each time it comes as a surprise. People endure severe repression for decades, sometimes centuries, and see no choice but resignation, with the ruling power crushing anybody who dares to protest or revolt. And suddenly, without anyone expecting or predicting it, a spark sets off a great conflagration. The oppressed wake up and unite and rebel and discover how powerful they are. Suddenly the chains break and the apparatus of oppression is smashed to pieces and falls down and those who were oppressed yesterday breath the intoxicating air of emancipation.

So it must have been in 1789 in Paris when the crowds stormed the grim fortress and prison called the Bastille. So in the Berlin of 1989 when thousands of enthusiastic youths people celebrated at the top of the Wall where just days before anyone approaching faced being shot to death forthwith. One of the first known cases in human history was in Egypt thousands of years ago, when a subversive revolutionary named Moses led an enslaved people to face one of the great empires of the time and come out from slavery to liberty, from oppression to redemption, from mourning into celebration, from darkness into a great light, as we are reminded in the Hagada of Passover. And again, this very day at Tahrir Square, Liberation Square, in the heart of Cairo, where the millions gathered to overthrow the rule of tyranny.

Who can oppose the demand and aspiration of the massed Egyptians - young and old, men and woman, secular and religious, Muslims and Christians - to change their lives and live in a democracy and win basic rights? Who can object their having the same rights which citizens of Israel take for granted - the right to freely express their opinions, to organize politically as they please and choose their own government and parliament in free and democratic elections?

Who can object to that? In the state of Israel many can and do, a lot of politicians and journalists and commentators and experts until a week ago never imagined what was about to happen in their field of experience. All as one they express concern and worry and anxiety over the spectre which is haunting the Middle East — the spectre of democracy, the fierce storm blowing out of the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and Suez and the other cities of Egypt. Democracy? In Egypt? In an Arab country? What a disaster, what a nightmare, a real nightmare!

Indeed, who can tell what will happen if free elections are held in the land of the Nile? Truly free elections, truly democratic elections to which all candidates can present themselves and all parties contest in a country with eighty million citizens? Who can tell? That's the problem with free elections. You can only be sure of the result after all votes had been counted.

Certainly, there is no certainty and no guarantee that in free and democratic elections – in Egypt or in any other country – it will always be good and worthy candidates who get elected. Here in our State of Israel, which until now boasted of being the only democracy in the Middle East, one can see a living example of how fanatic religious nationalists can penetrate the political system and gain power and influence far beyond their numbers. Also a very concrete example of how a racist demagogue can establish a political party and conduct a campaign of pure incitement and gaining the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs immediately following the elections. On this very day we saw at Knesset in Jerusalem how parliamentarians duly elected in democratic elections can engage in a witch hunt and attempt to gag Human Rights organizations and try to undermine the democratic system in which they were elected.

And still, with all the faults and difficulties, Winston Churchill said of Democracy: It is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried."

Congratulations, Democratic Egypt which was born today! Congratulations from the depth of the heart!

And what about the peace?

"Only Hosni Mubarak and the members of his close associated are truly committed to the peace between Egypt and Israel. If power passes out of this circle, the peace will be in great danger" wrote in the pages of "Yediot Ahronot" one of the experts who are so confused and at a loss over the past week.

Indeed, already for many years the peace between Israel and Egypt is a cold peace, a peace without a soul, a peace with the regime and not with the Egyptian people. This; for a clear and manifest reason - the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel. In his historic speech in the Knesset thirty-three years ago, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat called for an end the occupation and peace between Israel and the Palestinians, seeking to bring down the psychological walls separating the two peoples. Successive Israeli governments instead insisted on the repression of the Palestinians. From the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, a bare few months after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was implemented, to the bombing and mass killing in Gaza during the "Cast Lead" war, Egyptian citizens have witnessed on their screens scenes of horror which made them regard their country's peace with Israel as a disgusting phenomenon.

At this moment, the struggle going on in the streets of Egyptian cities is mainly directed inwards, aimed at a deep change in the regime and society, and relations with Israel play only a marginal part in it. Only by at long last ending the occupation and reaching peace with the Palestinians can Israel preserve and even strengthen the peace with Egypt, under whatever government and regime will emerge from the current popular struggle.