The truth is only now finally coming out about the Israeli Army’s dawn raid on a Bedouin village in the Negev desert earlier this month that resulted in the death of two people – one Arab and one Israeli – and the demolition of six houses.
The first reports from the Israeli police said an Arab man, Yakub Al-Kian, had deliberately rammed his pick-up truck into a group of policeman, killing the Israeli victim Erez Levy. They also said he was a “terrorist” linked to the Islamic State and had four wives.
A different story came from the villagers. Al-Kian, they said, was in his pick-up truck at 5 am when he saw bulldozers approaching. He started driving towards his house to rescue his possessions, but the police opened fire without warning, spraying bullets at his moving vehicle.
The autopsy has largely confirmed the villagers’ story. Al-Kian received one bullet in the chest and another in the knee, causing him to lose control of the truck which then veered off the road and hit a group of policemen. He was left to bleed to death in his truck.
According to reports on Israeli television, an inquiry by the Israeli Ministry of Justice will soon confirm that everything else that was said about him was also untrue. He was not a terrorist. He had no links to Islamic State. He was a local teacher. He had one wife, who is a Ph.D., and a brother who is an inspector with the Israeli Ministry of Education.
This level of disinformation is all too typical of incidents involving the Israeli police and the army, who put out their own ‘facts’ which are widely reported in the international media who – by the time the full facts are known – have usually lost interest in the story.
In this case the information was given out by the Israeli public security minister, Gilad Erdan, who is now saying he got the information from the police and was acting “to back up his troops”. He says an apology will be issued to the family.
But the incident does shine a light on the largely unreported campaign of ethnic cleansing that the Israeli government is conducting against Bedouin villages in the Negev. Their target on the morning of January 18 was the village of Umm Al Hiran which they plan to demolish in its entirety by February 28 in order to build, on its ruins, a village for Jewish Israelis only.
Riad and Mariam Al-Kian at their home in Umm al Hiran
This is the fate that awaits all of the so-called “unrecognised” Bedouin villages of the Negev, but the Umm Al Hiran case is perhaps the most shocking because it will be replaced by a village in the same place with the same name “Hiran”, but with Jewish instead of Arab inhabitants.
This is not because of land ownership issues. The land was given to the Bedouin by the state in 1956 in compensation for their ancestral lands which were taken off them and given to an Israeli kibbutz after the Israeli war of independence.
Nor is it because there is a shortage of land – there are 3¼ million acres in the Negev and the built-up area of Umm al Hiran covers hardly more than an acre.
It is part of a deliberate plan – the Prawer plan that is officially “frozen” but is still being implemented – to evict the inhabitants of the 35 so-called “un-recognised” Bedouin villages and to move them into townships – with echoes of both apartheid-era South Africa and the 18th-century clearances in the Scottish Highlands.
The current Israeli strategy is to persuade villagers to demolish their homes themselves by threatening them with heavy fines or to send in the bulldozers when it is dark to pull down a few houses at a time in the hope that the world will not notice.
This strategy failed on the morning of January 18 when trigger-happy police opened fire on a moving car, causing the death not only of a Bedouin but of one of their own colleagues and bringing unwelcome publicity in the international media.
Their strategy of trying to portray the Bedouin villagers as “terrorists” has also failed because the villagers are so reasonable, telling the world that they would be perfectly happy for a Jewish village to be built next to them and live as neighbours.
Members of a delegation of Labour Party members who visited the village just ten days before the latest demolitions were told by Riad Al-Kian, a cousin of the villager who died: “We were never against building a Jewish village here. We only requested that we would be included as part of this village and we can live together as neighbours and also receive some of the development that the Jewish village is going to get.
“I don’t understand why the Prime Minister is giving orders to demolish houses in the Negev, because we are Israeli citizens and we pay taxes and we want to be part of society and all we get in return is violence and hatred.”
Ironically, on the very morning that the bulldozers moved into Umm al Hiran, MPs from Labour Friends of Israel were presenting a Bill in the House of Commons supporting co-existence between Jews and Arabs, but embarrassingly in this case it was the Israeli government that turned down a proposal for the two villages to co-exist.
Riad and his wife Maryam also fail to conform to the Israeli caricature of Bedouin as nomadic herders with little or no education. Maryam is a teacher at a local school and is studying for master’s degree and Riad runs a transport business.
The 500 villagers include a good many doctors, engineers or teachers, but they prefer to live in their village where, they say, the crime rate and the unemployment rate are zero rather than move into flats in new townships where both crime and unemployment are high.
They have little reason to be grateful to the Israeli government as the “unrecognised” villages receive no electricity, no water, no telephone lines, no metalled roads, no services of any kind. This is not because it is remote. On the contrary, the Jewish owner of a dog-kennel only 800 metres away is provided with all mod cons.
This is also a contrast with the new village that will be built on the ruins of their houses. This new Hiran will be built with all infrastructure in place and even with a cemetery already provided even before anyone has moved in.
“Unrecognised” villages are not shown on any official map and their residents are not allowed to build permanent structures or make any attempt to surface the roads or link up to water supplies. Often if the villagers try to pave the roads, army bulldozers break them up; if they install water pipes, they are disconnected; if they build stone houses, they are demolished. The Israeli government wants the buildings to look temporary, ramshackle, worthless.
This makes it easier for them to sustain the myth that the villagers are nomads who originate from other countries. In fact it is historically verifiable that their families have lived in the Negev for hundreds of years.
In the winter their solar panels don’t provide enough electricity even for lighting and Maryam has to heat water on a gas stove when she gets back from school to keep her baby warm. On top of that she is always listening out for bulldozers and wondering when they will come for her house.
“I don’t understand whether Netanyahu expects us to vaporise or what, because he doesn’t give us any sustainable solution to our situation,” she says.
Traditionally, the Bedouin have been less militant than the Arabs in other parts of Israel, with a number of them serving in the army, but the evictions and demolitions have started to change that. “We feel that this policy causes Arabs to have nothing but hatred in their heart towards the Jewish community. This is the real tragedy. We want our children to grow up knowing that it is possible to live together and work and study together and to lead a shared life, Jewish and Arab both.
“I would like you to tell me if you know of any state – other than apartheid states – that would treat their citizens like that because they are Bedouins and still present themselves as a Western progressive country.
“The international community is in many ways like the mother and father of the state of Israel and we think it is time that you should say to the Israeli government: ‘Stop for a second! Open your mind!
“We as a community are trying so hard to be peaceful and observe the law and are being treated like felons. Not only us but all of the Arab community are all suffering from the same form of racism and we think it is time that somebody would intervene and stop that.”
It is not too late. The 500 villagers are still there. Two families have agreed to demolish their own houses and another six were demolished in the raid on January 18. But 22 houses remain. The Israeli army hopes to clear the whole village by February 28.
The villagers know that the only thing that will stop the Israeli government is an outcry from the international community. So write to your MP now.