When you visit Sheik Sayah in the tiny Bedouin village of Al Araqib not far from Beersheva, he will show you documents signed by his great-great-grandfather who purchased and registered his land in 1905 during the Ottoman Empire. He will show you tax receipts from the British mandate. He will show you gravestones from 1914 in the village’s cemetery. You’ll see where village houses once stood and hear why residents are staying even though Israeli police have demolished their homes 83 times, put many in jail and is suing the villagers nearly 2 million NIS [about $500,000] for the cost of the demolitions.
Staying has never been easy. Since the 1948 war, the Israeli Government has concentrated Bedouin citizens into a specific area called the SAYAG zone in the Negev-Naqab desert. In the 1960’s, Israel declared SAYAG zone agricultural lands, making all shelters “illegal.” They refused to recognize Bedouin villages or supply infrastructure — instead, they forced the traditionally rural population into towns.
There are currently 250,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens in the Negev, residing in three areas: governmental planned towns, recognized villages and unrecognized villages. The Government of Israel continually demolishes homes in all three areas while insisting that urban resettlement is the only option for Bedouins. Why? Because towns provide the minimum area for people to live on and when the Bedouins move from their villages, the government takes their lands.
How did this happen? Until 1966, all Palestinians who remained in Israel were granted citizenship and were subject to martial law. In places like Al Araqib, the military governor would visit the Sheikh of a tribe to say that the army was conducting maneuvers in their area. They were told that for their own safety the villagers would be removed for six months and afterwards, they would be allowed back.
When, after half a year Sheik Salman al Huzaiel, the leader of the tribes in this area, asked if his people could return, he was denied. When the village filed land claims with the State of Israel and asked for permission to grow barley and wheat, they were told they must pay rent. Their land now belonged to the State of Israel under a 1953 land acquisition law allowing the state to take over “abandoned” land. Native Americans could certainly relate to the unfair treatment.
Instead of allowing these people to return home in peace, the Government of Israel destroyed their wheat and barley, spraying Roundup weed-killer from airplanes and then just plowed it under when the court said no more. It allowed the Jewish National Fund to plan and plant the Ambassadors’ Forest on their land. Ambassadors from foreign countries, unaware of the whole issue, are invited by the JNF to help plant more trees.
On July 27, 2010, the state demolished the entire village. But the villagers did not leave – they rebuilt as best they could, again and again. On April 19, 2015, Israel’s police force demolished the village for the eighty-third time.
According to the Israeli Government, the leader of the village, Sheik Sayah, and his people invaded state land. But the State created this conflict between law and morality when they expelled Bedouin citizens from the land they own.
One of the most important lessons from World War II is that we should not tolerate racism anywhere. Especially in the Jewish State, we must affirm each person’s common humanity, whether Jewish or not, and uphold everyone’s basic human rights. If Israel does not stop its discriminatory policies, it will lose its moral standing and risk the good will and support of the entire world. If Israel does not stop this, it risks its very existence.