A war of trees in Palestine

Daphna Thier reports on the struggle of Bedouin tribes to remain on their land.

A demolished building in the Bedouin village of Atir (Tal King)A demolished building in the Bedouin village of Atir (Tal King)

ON THE eve of August 31, roughly 600 protesters gathered in downtown Tel Aviv to protest the Prawer Plan, a law that would mandate the forced relocation of centuries-old Bedouin tribes in order to impose "order" in Israel's Naqab (Negev in Hebrew) desert.

If passed, the plan will allow the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to take over the lands and begin "forestation" and Judaization. Though the law has yet to pass its final two readings, the Israeli Land Administration (ILA) and the state police forces have already begun implementing forced evictions and demolishing villages.

Palestinian Bedouins protested that night alongside other 1948 Palestinian and Jewish activists from Tsedek Hevrati (Social Justice) of Hadash, a joint Jewish-Arab party. Among those present was Sheikh Sayah of the Al Araqib village, who had just been released from the Rahat detention center a couple days prior, along with his two sons and cousin.

The four had been arrested without charges, and the terms of their release were that they abide by a restraining order barring them from their village. They refused to sign the agreement, however, and said they wished instead to stay in custody. After four days, they were forcibly released under those terms.

"What reason did they have to keep me and my sons from our village?" said Sheikh Sayah to a reporter at the demonstration. "I ask, but I know the answer. They want to set a precedent with this restraining order. But I did not accept this." So they returned to the police station and demanded to be rearrested. When they were refused, they decided to camp outside the station for three days and nights. Finally, the court issued a reversal of the restraining order.

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SINCE 2010, the Israeli government has demolished the village of Al Araqib more than 56 times, three times in the last 10 days of August alone. Refusing to leave their land, the inhabitants continue to return and rebuild the village and are currently occupying its graveyard.

The Bedouin families of Al Arakib claim ownership of roughly 4,600 acres of land, and they hold deeds dating back to 1906. According to the ILA, the land had been abandoned in the 1950s. Later, it offered to rent the land back to the Bedouins for 2 NIS per dunam (equivalent to about $.56 for roughly a quarter of an acre), which would amount today to more than $10,000 a year, a sum not feasible for a Bedouin tribe in Israel.

In 1998, the ILA offered the land to the JNF, which has a specific mandate to develop and lease land only to Jews. In 2000, an Israeli court order banned the Bedouins from entering their land, but the ruling was disregarded, as Bedouins continued to move back into the village and plant trees. The ILA went so far as to destroy the Bedouins' agricultural plots by using crop dusters to fumigate their wheat fields.

In July 2010, ILA inspectors and 1,300 police officers in full riot gear entered the village, demolishing 46 buildings and uprooting 850 olive, citrus and almond trees. Witnesses said they were accompanied by "busloads of cheering [Jewish] civilians."

Men, women and children were carried from their homes, which were then demolished. Special forces troops surrounded the area, as helicopters hovered overhead. The village chicken coop was flattened with all the chickens in it. The Bedouins have since collected evidence of the many demolitions, including rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and spent stun grenades. Many of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Palestinians believe that planting a tree connects them to their land. After Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, many Palestinian villages were covered over with pine trees by the JNF. They uprooted hundreds of olive trees, sometimes planting their own orchards in their place. Today, the same war of trees is still being waged.

Environmental protection specialists, both foreign and Israeli, have contended that the JNF's forestation causes serious and irreparable damage to the natural landscape. Invasive trees like these can be seen elsewhere. Non-local pine trees are common in settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem; hundreds of saplings, sometimes simply planted in barrels, surround fields that Palestinian farmers are forbidden to enter. These trees are designed to ensure Jewish Israeli control.

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THE OFFICIAL Israeli reasoning behind the Prawer plan is that "development" of the region will provide an opportunity to provide the Bedouin population with better education, health care and infrastructure, such as electricity. "We are determined to narrow the gap," said Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office. "They are citizens of Israel and are entitled to all the opportunities associated with being citizens."

But this is very different than what Netanyahu was saying just three years ago, quoted in the Hebrew version of Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper:

We are a nation state, which means that the overall sovereignty of the country is reserved for the Jewish people...Today, an international campaign is being waged against the definition of Israel as a Jewish state...[If] in the Negev [the Hebrew name for the Naqab desert], for example, if it becomes a region without a Jewish majority...[this] constitutes a real threat.

And of course, Netanyahu has no intention of addressing the impoverishment that Bedouins face. The new state registration policy will in fact relocate the Bedouins in the slums of the Naqab's "development" towns, exacerbating their desperate conditions.

Under the Prawer Plan, an estimated 50,000 Palestinians will be forced to leave their homes and grazing lands. Some 35 villages will be demolished. In exchange for the roughly 800,000 dunams of land that will be expropriated (roughly 198,000 acres), the Bedouins will receive compensation for up to 50 percent of the land they lay claim to and land equal to about 1 percent of the sum total of that land. Additionally, under the new law, there will be no court venue through which to appeal eviction. And those who do not claim their compensation and agree to the terms within the first six months of the plan's implementation will lose all rights to reparations.

Despite the JNF's insistence that the plans are beneficial to the Bedouins and that they are working with the tribes, no Bedouins were involved in the planning or the drafting of the Prawer Plan. According to Rabbis for Human Rights, the Prawer Plan is intended to clear the way for a collaboration between the American consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the JNF-USA headed by right-wing billionaire Ron Lauder. Entitled Blueprint Negev, the new Jewish settlement plans are being developed by the JNF in conjunction with Or–National Missions, an organization whose purpose is the Judaiztion of the Naqab and the Galilee valley.

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THOUGH THE Prawer Plan still needs to pass two more readings in parliament to become law, evictions are already underway. This is likely because under the terms of the law, land expropriated prior to the law's implementation will not be eligible for compensation.

Additionally the tribes must also have an Original Ownership Claim filed between 1971 and 1979 and approved by the ILA to be eligible for compensation. In the case of Al Araqib, the village was in fact approved in 1973, but only for the two tents that were erected at the time. The founding of Al Araqib followed a series of forced expulsions of Bedouins in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Since then, the tribe managed to rebuild the village, and the population itself has naturally grown.

Furthermore, any land with a slope of 13 percent or greater is automatically expropriated. In order to irrigate in the dry desert climate, slopes are essential because the rain rarely reaches the low points under such hot conditions. Palestinian agriculture is based on creating layered "terraces" along the hills so that the rainwater can be utilized from top to bottom.

While Bedouins must work very hard to prove their claims, and their forcible removal from the Naqab enters full swing, Jewish ranchers are encouraged to settle down in the desert. Titled the "Wine Route Plan," Israel's parliament passed a law only a few years ago allowing the allocation of land to private Jewish ranches, most of which already existed. These ranches and small settlements are a relatively new phenomenon. They have no deeds or original claims from the 1970s.

The Bedouins of Israel are standing up for their elementary rights. But they are facing a powerful coalition of both state authorities and non-state players, including the JNF and the security forces, private corporations and settlers.

As the protesters marched through the streets of Tel Aviv, Sheikh Sayah turned to me and said, "You see, there will be peace when there is justice. And there will be justice when your son and my son feel that they are equal, that they are part of one community, one tribe."