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.