The Bedouin village of Umm el-Hieran in Israel’s southern Negev desert is running out of time and appeals before it will be razed to the ground and an exclusively Jewish town will be built in its place. After a decade of legal battles—a matrix of court cases over lands, houses, and demolition orders—the Bedouins now have one final petition at their disposal, a re-trial. If they lose this hearing their township will be demolished and the saga will end with a modern Jewish bedroom community owned by a private Israeli developer that does not sell homes to Arabs.
“We exhausted the appeals process. What we are trying now is a second hearing/review,” said Khalil Alamour, a lawyer with Adalah the legal group representing Umm el Hieran. “At the same time we are submitting a separate request to ‘freeze’ the demolitions until the hearing.”
In the lead up to the final ruling expected in the next few months the 25 Jewish-Israeli families who want to move into Umm el-Hieran are already living in mobile houses in a nearby nature reserve. They relocated there in 2009. Set behind a barbed-wire fence and a gate, they are ready to motor their caravans downhill to the Bedouin town as soon as the bulldozers remove the last shanty structure. Their hope is to construct 2,500 units serving more than 10,000 Israelis.
Hiran does not have building permits for their trailer park. Yet no demolition orders have ever been issued. Construction inside of nature reserves is strictly forbidden in Israel, Hiran included. Still the community was built openly and with a degree of advertisement by the OR Movement, a private company that seeks to expand Jewish-only communities in sparsely populated regions of Israel. The OR Movement partners with the Israeli government on numerous housing development projects and is the recipient of a handful of state awards for excellence in building new communities.
In 2013 I visited Hiran with colleagues Phil Weiss, Max Blumenthal, Scott Roth and Irene Nasser. We piled into a rental car and roamed the Negev desert until we finally found it tucked deep inside of Yatir forest. The gate opened by remote control and inside we met resident Af-Shalom. After introducing ourselves he told us to wait for a live-in spokesperson, Moshe, who could answer questions. We sat in a courtyard of the trailer park’s synagogue that also hosted a pair of public bathrooms. On an exterior wall a plaque reads, “The landscape development was completed with thanks to the generosity of JNF UK.” Moshe never arrived.
You can read Blumenthal’s storify about our reporting trip here.
From Af Shalom, I learned that most of Hiran’s residents relocated from Susya, a settlement in the south Hebron hills of the West Bank just under a 30-minute drive away. Susya, he told us, is closer to Hiran than Israel’s only major city in the desert, Beersheva and Hiran’s inhabitants keep close ties with the settlement. Weekdays Hiran’s adults travel to Susya to work and the children to school.
Like their settler counterparts, Hiran’s residents are also religious-nationalists. The fortress of mobile homes hidden in the desert oasis is full of ideologues who consider themselves “pioneers.” They see Bedouins who are citizens of Israel as squatters on the “last vast land reserve of the Jewish people,” according to a promotional video for the OR Movement. Af-Shalom waxed casually over “thousands of illegals,” Arab-owned, “gas stations” and “restaurants.”
To the Bedouins in Umm el-Hieran, the establishment of nearby Hiran was an act of aggression. They view Hiran as an illegal settlement driving them off of their land in the same fashion a Palestinian in the West Bank views encroachment from Israeli settlers. Even more, Hiran’s inhabitants already erected water lines underground Umm el-Hieran as a bold move of setting up infrastructure in advance of the court handing the territory over.
Israel gives away Umm el-Hieran
Umm el-Hieran was founded in 1956 by an order from Israel’s military governor, a unique establishment story for an Arab-Palestinian town. Their descendants (and their lawyers) have copies of correspondence between the village heads and Israel’s prime minister’s office that verifies a lease to the Bedouins and a commitment from the state of Israel that they have “no intention of transferring” Bedouins off of the site. Even so, Umm el-Hieran’s lease was never logged into city planning maps. In 1980 Israel then turned over the village to the JNF, without telling Umm el-Hieran’s residents. Later in 2002 Hiran won building permits to construct a Jewish-only town on Umm el-Hieran’s lands. Again, no one notified Umm el-Hieran that the state had given away their village.
When the state finally realized Bedouins were living in the grounds where Hiran intended to erect a suburb, demolition and eviction orders were issued in 2003 and 2004, respectively. For a third time, no one ever notified Umm el-Hieran of their village’s ever changing status.
Finally in 2007 the Bedouins of Umm-el Hieran caught wind that their village was slated for demolition. They immediately filed a petition asking the state to take a look at their lease from the 1950s. Court proceedings initiated, but the case froze. To date no decision has been made.
The Bedouins then went on the offensive. They submitted separate challenges to the demolition orders and eviction orders. They also filed another petition calling for the state to register the lease it gave them in the 1950s. By 2010, Umm el-Hieran was entangled in a half dozen lawsuits. When one of the cases closed that year in favor of the Bedouins, the prime minister’s office intervened and cancelled the ruling, instead recommending the Bedouins relocate.
Today, the old demolition case from 2003 is finally nearing its end. If the Bedouins do not win their re-trial, they will have exhausted the legal tools available to them. Their circumstances are particularly unfortunate, because the Bedouins do have lease from Israel to continue residing where they are. As the Bedouins see it the problem is Israel’s courts refuse to look at those documents.