Saturday, July 23, 2011

Al-Arakib - sixty years, and the struggle is just beginning

Al-Arakib is a village in Israel, northeast of Beersheba. A village which does not appear on any map published in this country, a village whose existence the Government of Israel does not recognize and does all in its power to make sure that it would indeed no longer be there - and yet, in spite of all that the government can do, the village is very much alive. At just the moment that I write this, the children of Al-Arakib are very loudly singing and dancing at the center of their village.

The village of Al-Arakib existed in the Negev, under the Ottoman Empire, long before a Viennese Jew named Theodor Herzl convened a conference at Zurich, Switzerland to call for the creation of a Jewish state. Sheikh Mohammed Son of Salem al-Okbi owned six thousand dunums of land at Al-Arakib. He employed twelve field hands who plowed and sowed the ground each season and sold the surplus produce to traders from Gaza, Jordan and Sinai. The Ottoman Government did virtually nothing for the villagers, but nor did it interfere much with them and certainly never tried to deprive them of their land.

In 1917 British soldiers who came from the south to conquer the land passed near Al-Arakib. An artillery shell fired at the retreating Ottoman soldiers hit the house of Sheikh Mohammed and destroyed it. But with the consolidation of the British Mandate rule the house was rebuilt, and the new British government also did not interfere much in the life of the Al-Arakib residents and left them to live quietly on their land. And in 1948 a new rule again came to Al-Arakib, the rule of the newly-established State of Israel. And at first the people of Al-Arakib thought that also under this regime they could live as they had lived all those years under the earlier rulers.

During Israel's two first years, the villagers' way of life seemed to be respected. Indeed, the home of Sheikh Suleiman son of Muhammad al-Okbi was used by the State of Israel as a Tribal Court, empowered to settle disputes among the Bedouins of the area, and Israel's National Flag was always hoisted on the roof when the court was in session.

The illusion was shattered on a single bitter day in 1951. Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, on behalf of the military government under which Arab citizens of Israel then lived, arrived and ordered the residents of Al-Arakib to leave immediately their homes. After six months they could return, so they were told, but years passed in their place of exile and the day for going back never came. When in 1954 Sheikh Suleiman tried to return to his home, soldiers promptly arrive to take him into custody at Beersheba.

And the village houses were destroyed and razed to the ground, including the house which the State of Israel had used as a court of law and the house in which the polling station had been placed for the first Knesset elections in 1949. And in the Land Registry of the State of Israel it was duly noted that this parcel of land was "an uncultivated and unoccupied property" and therefore it was registered as the property of "The Development Authority", i.e. of the government of Israel. And when the al-Okbis tried again to go back and cultivate their land in 1973, they were charged with trespassing on State Lands. And the same with Nuri al-Okbi, son of Sheikh Suleiman and the grandson of Sheikh Mohammed - who is himself not a sheikh but an activist for the rights of his people, the Bedouins. He had set up a tent on a small portion of the land of his ancestors, and lived in it day and night for several years until the police came to arrest him on charges of trespassing and a court sternly warned him that repetition of that offense might entail a long prison term.

And not just him. Hundreds of the al-Turis, neighbors of the al-Okbis who had also been expelled in 1951, returned in an organized way to their ancestral lands at Al-Arakib, near the cemetery where family members had been buried for over a hundred years - land of which the state had made no use of any kind during all the decades that it was in its possession . And they rebuilt their homes and farmed the fields and planted olive trees and returned at least part of al Araqib village to life.

And the authorities were far from pleased, and demolition and eviction orders were issued against the residents, and the sown grain fields were destroyed by aerial spraying, and after the Supreme Court banned the aerial spraying the Israel Lands Administration began to plow the lands and destroy the newly sprouted corn. And the residents, undeterred, continued to farm the land and sow again and again.

Exactly a year ago, on July 27, 2010, the police and Border Guards and Israel Lands Administration mobilized no less than 1,300 men under arms, accompanied by bulldozers and heavy equipment, to raid the village and surround it on all sides and destroy and raze it to the ground and uproot the olive trees to the very last one and make it again "uncultivated and unoccupied" as it was when the state registered it in its name.

But these are not the 1950's, and this time the land was not left empty for decades. The residents did not give up, and they came back and built their homes again the very next day - if not actual houses, at least huts to give a degree of shelter from the desert sun and the cold nights. And once again the police came and destroyed everything and again the residents rebuilt – and so it went on all of the past year, twenty-four times at least. There was increased police violence during the arrest of villagers and of the Jewish and Arab volunteers who came to help them, and once again the village was rebuilt the next day or even the same night, and again the government representatives came to destroy it, and so on and on and on…

Meanwhile, the government passed a directive to the Jewish National Fund to begin forestry work and plant a wood where the Al-Arakib houses stood, and also where olive trees had been planted by the villagers. (The trees which the JNF plans to plant in their place would bear no fruit...). "Making the desert bloom", the JNF's decades-old slogan, seems now a bit less attractive. And the villagers appealed to the District Court, and the judge admonished the JNF for establishing facts on the ground when the disputed ownership of the Al-Arakib lands has not yet been decided on.

The activities of the JNF's bulldozers at al - Al-Arakib were also heard of beyond the borders of Israel, and British TV aired an extensive item article about it, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the termination of position as "A Honorary Patron of the Jewish National Fund". The JNF was one of various registered charities in which the British PM had this position, but it became a bit embarrassing in light of the Jewish National Fund's less than  charitable activities at Al-Arakib...

Actually, the problem should have been solved already years ago, when the Government of  Israel appointed a fact-finding commission headed by former judge Eliezer Goldberg,  to deal with the Bedouin Problem. It deliberated for more than a year, heard testimonies – including even from the Bedouins themselves - and its recommendations called for giving formal recognition to the "unrecognized" Bedouin villages in the Negev – which might have been applied to Al-Arakib, too. But many influential people in the government and the Knesset did not like that recommendation, and a new committee was appointed, headed by Ehud Praver of the Prime Minister's Office, and this second committee did not bother hearing the opinion of the Bedouins, and decided that most of the unrecognized villages should be destroyed and some thirty thousand people transferred to (jobless) townships.

But these aforementioned influential people did not quite like these recommendations, either,  because they did still include some recognition of Bedouin land ownership rights. And so the PM's National Security Adviser, Ya'akov Amidror, asked that publication of the  conclusions be delayed, because he wanted to make some changes and amendments. Which are not likely to be changes in favor of the Bedouins...

Meanwhile, at Al-Arakib life goes on as usual, and the latest destruction so far took place on Thursday last week. And yesterday, to mark the anniversary of the 2010 destruction, dozens  of activists came over from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and youths from villages in the Galilee who held a summer camp in the Negev, and American Christians peace activists of the CPT, usually based in Hebron, and some Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who managed to gain a rare entry permit. And together they rebuilt Al-Arakib for the twenty-fifth time (some say the twenty-seventh), and twelve strong and sturdy huts were erected. And on Friday afternoon, there was a common prayer of Muslims, Jews and Christians. And three young women activists encamped at the tent camp in Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard came and held a presentation for the Al-Arakib children who received them with great applause, and tonight a delegation of Al-Arakib residents will take part in the protest march of young Tel Avivians who are rendered homeless by the scarcity and soaring prices of housing in their city. And on the coming Wednesday - July 27, 2011, the exact anniversary of the 2010 destruction - villagers and supporters of their struggle from all over the country will at 6:30 pm hold a picket and torchlight parade at the Lehavim Junction, on the highway near to Al-Arakib.

Not that anyone has illusions. The police will come again, and the huts erected now will be destroyed and need to be replaced by new ones. The Government of Israel has not given up its intention to wipe Al-Arakib off the face of the Earth. But the villagers have definitely not given up, either.