AL-ARAQIB, ISRAEL - A few hundred meters from the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Araqib sit half a dozen bulldozers. Surrounded by razor wire and heavily guarded by Israeli police officers and soldiers, a sign hangs on a shed inside the permanent bulldozer encampment: “Works being carried out by Keren Kayemeth Leisrael – Jewish National Fund”.
“There were police in al-Araqib and also the [Jewish National Fund (JNF)] bulldozers. They ploughed up some parts of the land. We tried to resist them, but we were arrested and handcuffed,” explains 17-year-old village resident Adam Salim Abu Mdeghem.
"It is devastating, but this is the situation."
Located in Israel’s Negev desert about an hour south of Tel Aviv, al-Araqib has been demolished a total of 19 times since July 2010. During some of the most recent demolitions, Israeli police shot tear gas and sponge and rubber-coated steel bullets at residents, sending many to the hospital.
“I am sad. Not only sad, but very sad for what has happened to the al-Araqib area. We never expected that anything would happen to our land," said Abu Mdeghem, sitting on the hillside next to his family’s small, make-shift tent.
The Jewish National Fund aims to plant a forest over the lands of al-Araqib. Co-sponsored by evangelical Christian organization God-TV, this forest would involve forcibly displacing the 300 Bedouin residents of the village, who are all Israeli citizens, from their homes. A non-profit organization in charge of forestation and Jewish settlement throughout Israel, the JNF controls approximately 13 percent of the land in Israel today. This land falls under the management of the Israeli Lands Administration (ILA), and can only be leased to Jews, or for Jewish settlement purposes.
According to Israeli activist Haia Noach, while the JNF initially denied any involvement in the destruction of al-Araqib, residents and local activists saw JNF bulldozers destroying property in the village during a demolition in early February:
“We connect them with this; they are directly responsible for what is going on there, for the fact that people lost their houses, lost their herds, their orchards,” said Noach, the Director of the Negev Co-Existence Forum, a joint Jewish-Arab organization working for Bedouin land rights in the Negev.
The destruction of al-Araqib is part of a larger Jewish National Fund project called ‘Blueprint Negev.’ Launched in 2005 at the cost of $600 million, the project aims to increase the population in the Negev area by 250,000 Jewish residents by 2013.
“Since the foundation of Israel, JNF was actually planting forests on Arab villages’ remains. And you see it all over Israel, in the North and even in the South. There will be more and more Arab villages in the Negev that are threatened by the forestation of the JNF,” Noach predicted.
Like many other residents, Adam Abu Mdeghem and his eight siblings now spend the week in Rahat – a nearby government-planned Bedouin township that suffers from a crippling lack of services and high unemployment – and only stay in al-Araqib on weekends.
One of over 45 so-called unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Israeli Negev, al-Araqib does not receive such basic infrastructure as sewage treatment, electricity, roads, water, and educational and health services. Today, nearly half the Bedouin population in the Negev – approximately 90,000 people – live in these unrecognized villages.
Despite these difficult conditions, a few families have resisted the Israeli state’s plan to re-settle them in Rahat, and continue to remain living in al-Araqib.
“We don't want to live in Rahat. They put us all together like little chickens: here is a chicken coop, chicken coop here, chicken coop here,” Abu Mdeghem’s mother, Hakmah, said one afternoon last October,
“There's no place to take the children. There's no place. There's no place where the kids could play. The houses are close together, one on top of the other. And the truth is that you can't restrain anyone inside four walls.”
Given no realistic options, the residents of al-Araqib have fought for the past nine months to remain on their ancestral lands. In the past, whenever the Israeli authorities would demolish their homes, the men, women and children of the village would immediately rebuild.
Recently, however, Israeli bulldozers have been carting away all the building materials after each demolition. This has not only made the rebuilding process that much more difficult, but signals to residents an attempt to erase any evidence of al-Araqib’s existence in the area.
Today, al-Araqib is almost unrecognizable. Only a few makeshift tents – tarps slung over wooden beams – have been erected outside of the village cemetery compound, the only safe haven in the village that Israeli police and bulldozers haven’t entered or destroyed. Nearly every inch of land has been overturned in preparation for planting.
“It’s hard. Very, very hard,” Hakmah Abu Mdeghem told me, from her family’s new tent in the cemetery compound earlier this month, as JNF bulldozers could be seen digging up village lands in the distance.
“But I can bear it. God willing. With God’s will, I can bear it,” she said.
In addition to the destruction of their lands, the Israeli State Attorney’s Office has also just announced that it plans to sue al-Araqib residents for more than 1 million New Israeli Shekels (about US $300,000) to pay for the manpower and equipment required during each attempted eviction.
The pointed threat hasn’t deterred residents, however, from remaining steadfast in their demand that the Israeli state acknowledge their land claims and allow them to stay in their village.
“The use of force is not a solution. We call on the government, that they must find a solution with the Bedouins. They must find a solution with us. We are not demanding something from the sky; we are demanding a piece of land to live on,” explained resident Aziz Abu Mdeghem al-Turi.
Surrounded by a group of international and Israeli activists, al-Turi erected a road sign just off the dirt path that leads to the village last week, clearly demonstrating residents’ resolve and continued refusal to leave their homes.
In Arabic, Hebrew and English, the sign read: “Al-Araqib”.
“We own this land. It passed from my grandfather to my father: my father Sayyah and my grandfather Suleiman,” al-Turi said. “[This village is] my right. It’s my history. It's impossible for me to give it up, and I will never give it up.”