“This is where the Jews are living in the forest.”
A few weeks ago I was on an air-conditioned bus tour for journalists of unrecognized Bedouin villages in Southern Israel when I overheard “—And this is where the Jews are living in the forest.” A finger pointed to an out of place green patch between golden hills: Yattir, a Jewish National Fund (JNF) park.
The Jews are living in the what? Looking through the window I could see no houses or roads in the distance, just trees planted, donations from Americans. Bar Mitzvah gifts and charity drives have sent legions to the Negev under the header of “making the desert bloom.” And somewhere in that man-made oasis are Jews, or rather Israeli-Jews, holding out in a clandestine trailer park.
The guide, Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, Adalah’s Naqab (Negev) office director, said the township in the woods, Hiran, is illegal. It’s an unrecognized Jewish locality. It was established without building permits in the forest. It has the same status as a nearby Bedouin village, Umm el-Hiran, in the valley below except Bedouin-Hiran is facing eviction and Jewish-Hiran is not. Forests are not zoned for “residential use” and so no permeate structures are allowed, which is why the Israelis are in the loophole structures of caravans similar to a West Bank outpost. Any concrete in Hiran is illegal, electricity is illegal, water systems, sewage, and even the kindergarten is also illegal. Israeli law does not allow “work” in unrecognized villages, so by that standard even if the school is in a caravan, it should be demolished.
And so the tenants of Jewish-Hiran are hunkering down in these temporary structures until the impending eviction orders whisk out the Bedouins. Once that land is cleared of its inhabitants the Israelis plan to move from their current spot in the forest to the Bedouin-Hiran’s land and re-make it as Jewish-only Hiran equipped with traditional suburban houses.
The development of Hiran is run by an ideological “Judaization” organization, the OR Movement. The group provides infrastructure and public relations to Hiran and five other new towns constructed under its “settlement division.” With OR’s assistance, campers run about $225 per month in rent in Hiran. “Our goal is to enlist hundreds of thousands of Israelis to build their lives and futures in the Negev and Galilee,” says a promotional video for the OR Movement. The group describes its communities as a “proactive solution” to “change the paradigm in Israel.”
A trip to the Hirans
A few days ago I, along with Max Blumenthal, Phil Weiss, and Scott Roth, and Palestinian activist and producer Irene Nasser, piled into a rental car and headed to the dust-blown desert with the artificial forest and settlers. Nasser is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and so her experience weaved a fluidity between visiting Palestinian-Bedouin communities and the most hard-line elements of Israeli society.
For most of the daylight hours we were cramped in a white Ford between half-empty water bottles and banana peels. We stopped at unrecognized villages, one stop unplanned because we were told that demolition orders were given out by the police that morning, and made an impromptu viewing of the former desert home of David Ben-Gurion, which operates today as a museum and wine-tasting center.
“Ben-Gurion saw the Negev as a blank slate for realizing his revolutionary dreams,” writes Blumenthal in his forthcoming book, Goliath, on Israel’s deepening authoritarian society and policies. “In his memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small settlements throughout the Negev, where they would be weaned off the rootless cosmopolitanism they inherited from their life in the diaspora.”
Ben Gurion’s house is modest, but retains his admiration for European culture. The furniture seemed Danish modern. Nasser said she has the same oven in her kitchen. The biggest room is the library. There were separate bedrooms for Ben-Gurion and his wife. The guide said this is because the leader of the nation liked to stay up late working, rather than laying with his beloved. The green one-floor rectangular home is stuck in time, a throw-back to the bygone-era of Zionist leaders who had puritanical ethics of sacrifice and humility.
After the museum we ventured toward the Hirans. The interplay between the two is a reflection of how much ideology pilots the law in Israel. Illegal Jewish-Hiran, a pioneer town gated to the teeth and not on any map—anachronistic inside of Israel’s 1967 borders but a staple of West Bank settlement growth—should be demolished. But instead it has backing from the state. And despite a government promise to Bedouin-Hiran for a land title, it is facing eviction. Jewish-Hiran is like a civilian bulldozer.
After dusk and getting lost on dirt roads, we finally found Jewish-Hiran in the woodlands. Nasser ran into a friend of hers, an attorney driving a Mercedes on one of the tiny roads in the park. He directed us to it. The road that led to Hiran was paved, the first indicator that something was off. Paved roads to unrecognized villages like Hiran are illegal and by law are pre-approved for demolition.
Once we approached the outside gate lights were visible—in addition to barbed wire, fence and serious gate. Inside were rows of caravans resembling Ben-Gurion’s home. One permanent structure, a synagogue equipped with bathrooms and a patio, is situated by the entrance. Calling out English through the gate, we asked to come in, journalists from various outlets wanting to speak with someone about what the villagers are doing in the forest. The gate opened by remote control. We went in and were greeted by a 30-something young nationalist-religious Israeli named Af-Shalom who identified himself as from near Kiryat Gat and one of the founding members of the community. Because we arrived at night, and because the neighborhood is barricaded as if it’s under siege, our first interaction with him was less than amicable. He looked straight at Nasser and asked, “were are you from?” We sat on wooden benches over an astroturf clearing and waited for Moshe who we were told was a representative from the OR Movement. He would answer our questions.
“It’s not a secret, everyone knows it,” said Af-Shalom, explaining that he feels like the Bedouin are taking over the land. He felt the need to live in a trailer park in the Negev amongst 30 other Jewish families for the larger purpose of populating the area, and so three years ago he moved. “Our goal is to be in the Negev” he continued.
He said he first visited this location years ago when he was 18 during army service. “It was pretty empty. Now, here are thousands of illegals, restaurants and gas stations.” He sees his way of life as an aggressive mechanism to entrust the land of the Negev to Jewish tutelage. In reality there are no illegal gas stations in the Negev, but for him, all Bedouin construction is a chaotic mess that he cites as illegal, despite the glaring irony that his caravan village is indeed illegal. This models Ben-Gurion’s distaste for the Negev’s Bedouins chronicled in Goliath by Blumenthal. “Ben-Gurion was repelled by the sight of the open desert, describing it as ‘a reproach to mankind,’ ‘a criminal waste,’ and ‘occupied territory’—from the standpoint, the Arabs were the occupiers.”
We had about five minutes before Moshe, the live-in spokesman arrived who politely told us he wouldn’t answer any questions. As Hiran is in the middle of a nature reserve and feels totally disconnected from civilization, Nasser inquired where the children go to school. Af-Shalom said in Susiya, a settlement in the Hebron Hills in the southern West Bank, and only an eight minute drive away. I asked about where people work and receive medical care, and again he said Susiya. “Not Beersheva?” the closest major Israeli city. Again, Susiya. So Hiran is not a deep woods bedroom community of any Israeli center, but an offshoot of Hebron. In fact as we drove out of Hiran later, we timed our commute to Jerusalem through the settler highway system. It takes about one and a half hours to get to downtown Jerusalem through the West Bank, which is also the fastest route from Hiran to the urban life of the holy city.
Jewish-Hiran’s villagers are pioneers. Residing in trailers and breeding are the aesthetics of this nationalist-religious movement. They distinguish themselves from other members of the government’s right-wing coalition by their self-effacing lifestyle. At Ben-Gurion’s house, there is a plaque that reads: “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.” And the OR Movement, the founders of Jewish-Hiran, repeat this quote on their website. Then they state they are comprised of “idealistic Israelis dedicated to making this dream a reality.”
The OR Movement is further emboldened by an assemblage of establishment politics, monitoring systems against the adjacent Bedouin communities, and transnational support from the JNF. The hidden dwellings in the artificial woodlands are protected against demolitions because the JNF has their own police force and jurisdiction over the region. They give financial support to the town despite its illegal status. And so the residents of Jewish-Hiran are not renegade dreamers yearning for a demographically strong Jewish Israel. They are movers-and-shakers in low-rent houses, already air-lifting 20,000 to the Negev and Galilee. And the cherry on top is that the district, which has JNF representation on the local council, has put into future city plans Jewish-Hiran’s conquest of Bedouin-Hiran; the state has ordered the replacement of Bedouin-Hiran with Jewish-Hiran.
Bedouin Umm el-Hiran
Jewish-Israeli Hiran’s relationship to Bedouin Umm el-Hiran is rancorous. Just the day before, Umm el-Hiran’s community leader Hajj Ahmad Abu Alkin told Nasser that scores of people from Jewish-Israeli Hiran motored down to Palestinian-Bedouin Hiran to survey the land. From what Abu Alkin could gather they were mapping out plots for their houses. They drove their cars into the Bedouin village; parking next to a water line that was constructed right through the Bedouin village in anticipation of enhancing Jewish-Israelis’ life quality once they secured the area for themselves.
Abu Alkin’s life’s periodization is a series of expulsions that coincide with trends in Israel’s history. Since 1948 he has been uprooted three times, a common experience for Negev Bedouins who lived under formal military occupation until 1966. During the first decades of statehood, Abu Alkin was forced into an Israeli army-run camp called the siyag zone. At that time, while Jewish Israelis were advancing their lives, Bedouins were living behind checkpoints trapped outside of the burgeoning Israeli social fabric and legal system. Because Abu Alkin was in the fenced area he was unable to register the title of the land he owns to the new state. But when he and the rest of his family were dumped in what is now Umm el-Hiran, he signed an agreement with the government under which the government promised that they could live on that land, if they forfeited their rights to ancestral grounds.
Ten years after Abu Alkin moved into Umm el-Hiran, the JNF started planting Yattir forest a few hundred meters away–the greenery around Jewish-Hiran. Abu Alkin was told that shepherds in his family could use the land for grazing and watering. He even was bestowed the honor of placing the first JNF sapling in the earth during the inaugural ceremony. But the Israeli government passed special restrictions for Bedouin shepherds. And now permits are required for Palestinians to bring sheep into the park. If a sheep wanders into the forest the “green patrol,” a special police force for parks, is called. These nature officers monitor Arab-owned animals—not people—and grazing without permits is punished by confiscation. If the sheep are not bailed out in 24 hours, with a fine that is roughly half the cost of an adult sheep, the green patrol slaughters the animal and sells the meat in Israeli supermarkets.
“If you don’t come and pay the fine and pick up the sheep then yes, it’s true, it’s slaughtered,” said Dr. Yaeela Raanan who works with a Bedouin shepherd association. I called Dr. Raanan because it seemed crazy to me that park rangers would slaughter animals and then sell the cuts in a grocery store to Israeli consumers. The green patrol will summon “the agricultural police” if the process of capturing rogue sheep becomes too complicated, Dr. Raanan continued. Abu Alkin said that recently the border police and a special forces unit were called in to search cars for a sheep because someone had tipped off the green patrol that a Bedouin was transporting livestock in his car.
“The sheep are the buffalo of the Bedouin. And the Green Patrol, the JNF, the Israeli police, the Prawer Plan — that is their General Custer,” said Blumenthal. The only places where they have security to stay on the land is inside one of seven planned townships, or reservations, in the Negev.
In the past the expansion of Jewish landholdings was garnered by war. 1948, 1956, and 1967 marked increases in Israel’s borders. But since the 1970s, expansion is brought about by internal shifts via a tapestry of laws and housing incentives. The Prawer Plan, a bill that scraps land rights enshrined in law for Israel’s desert dwelling Arabs, will be the impetus for the next expulsion of the Abu Alkin clan from Umm el-Hiran. Nasser pointed out that it’s not a law over a specific area, it’s a law over a specific people. Likely this will be Abu Alkin’s last year in the village. It’s a Kafkaesque arrangement but there isn’t any one policy that’s causing this disaster for the Bedouins. Rather it is the sum of all of Israel’s land-use codes that creates the conditions of replacement.
Democratic Israel’s bureaucracies emaciate Bedouin shepherds—or lawyers, or professors—but next-door the Jewish-Israeli localities are flourishing. It’s just a little weirder in Hiran.
View Max Blumenthal’s full Storify of our trip here.