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?