Al-Arakib villagers in a protest march commemorating the year anniversary of the first demolition. They have been targeted for demolition more than 20 times since. Credit: activestills.org
Across the rocky ravine Mohammed points to a handful of tents and small wooden structures covered in tarpaulins that sit behind a wire fence.
'We had to rebuild inside the cemetery this time. We know the Israelis won't demolish there; it is the only amount of respect they show us.'
Appearing on no published map, the village of Al-Arakib lies down an unmaintained track that veers sharply off the side of a motorway in Israel's southern Negev desert. As one of over 40 'unrecognised' villages in the region not only is its existence ignored by the state, but as if to affirm its official invisibility the authorities have subjected it to repeated demolitions in the last twelve months, on each occasion met with a reconstruction effort by local villagers who refuse to give up their land.
While portrayed by the authorities as an isolated dispute over planning laws, campaigners argue that the plight of Al-Arakib illustrates a deliberate strategy pursued by Israel to remove the indigenous Palestinian Bedouin population.
The history of the matter can be traced back to a 1965 planning law that devised a register of towns and villages throughout the country. While innocuous in appearance, ignored by the survey were 123 Palestinian villages which as a result became classified as 'unrecognised'. Of these, 45 were villages home to Bedouin Arabs in the Negev desert. In conjunction with a 1953 law that transferred over 90 per cent of Negev land to the ownership of the state, the presence of the Bedouin and their buildings was consequently considered illegal – despite having been there long before the creation of Israel.
As part of the Palestinian Arab population, the Bedouin were traditionally distinguished by their nomadic lifestyle, roaming according to the season for grazing purposes but often with a station to which they returned in winter. As this way of life gradually disappeared the villages eventually became their permanent bases.
'Al-Arakib is over 100 years old,' explains Mohammed. He adds that deeds conferring legal title to the land are disregarded by the authorities: 'I have the papers to prove my family owns the land; it was bought by my great-grandfather in Ottoman times. But they don't care.'
Due to their unrecognised status the villages are refused basic municipal services such as running water and electricity – despite the Bedouin being Israeli citizens. Until a year ago Al-Arakib operated autonomously with electricity provided by petrol generators and water transported to its 300 residents by the costly means of tanker-trucks.
But a year ago the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which claims ownership of the land, sought to resolve the dispute for once and all – by force. In an offensive that involved an estimated 1,500 police, helicopters and bulldozers, 46 structures were destroyed on 27 July 2010 as the village was razed to the ground, with tear gas and plastic bullets deployed t quell the villagers' resistance. This would set the pattern of subsequent demolitions which have been repeated 24 times in one year.
'My home was over there,' points Mohammed to a wooden shack covered by a plastic sheet. 'It cost me $20,000 to build and they demolished it and gave me no compensation. It is humiliation; sometimes they bring young Israeli children to watch and laugh. How are my children to live here, with no water to wash their clothes?'
Like many of the residents, Mohammed divides his time between the village and another home he has in a nearby town where he sends his children to school. For the situation of Al-Arakib villagers is not one of homelessness but one of forced displacement, as explains Oren of Active Stills, a photography collective that documents the occupation: 'Many of the villagers live in other towns or stay with relatives. After 1948 it was Israel's policy to force the Bedouin to move into concentration towns in order to force them from the land that the Zionists wanted for Jews exclusively'.
The realisation of this plan is borne out by demographic statistics: while the 180,000 Bedouin living in the Negev comprise 27 per cent of its population, they occupy only 5 per cent of its land. Half of them live in Israeli planned urban townships where there is no space for owning animals or growing food.
From the summit of the cemetery you can see a ring of green specks that encircle the village lands. These young trees are part of a multimillion pound forestry initiative, Blueprint Negev, intended to 'make the desert bloom'. Their planting is another concerted step towards the uprooting of indigenous people in the Negev.
In the words of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blueprint Negev is a 'major initiative to revitalise Irasel's southern region' through a 'visionary plan to increase the population of the area and improve living standards for all its inhabitants'. Yet it evidently does not take into consideration the interests of all the Negev's inhabitants. The $600m plan has been criticised by anti-occupation activists both as a cover to remove the indigenous inhabitants and an excuse to erase any traces of their villages. In turn the JNF, a para-legal organization which indirectly and directly manages 93% of Israeli state land, has been singled out by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as an integral part of the Israeli colonisation process due to its discriminatory policy of refusing to lease land to non-Jews. Nevertheless the JNF continues to enjoy charitable status in scores of countries, including the UK.
In addition the ecological credentials of the plan have faced intense scrutiny. According to savethenegev.org, planting of a single species of non-native pine trees is unsustainable as it provides no support for other plant and animal species while the destruction of native species disturbs the equilibrium of the ecosystem.
This rings true in the experience of Mohammed: 'Around the village there used to be hundreds of olive trees. But they uprooted them all', he says with a sweeping gesture towards the open rocky plains, 'and now there is nothing'.
The villagers' resilience is being increasingly tested, according to an elderly woman who speaks through an interpreter. 'My house was on flat land, so before we could rebuild it after each demolition. But now they have purposely dug up the land so it is no longer flat. Instead there are the trenches for the trees to be planted. We cannot receive any building materials because the Israelis threaten tractor drivers with fines or revocation of their licenses if they come, and the army takes away what they demolish'.
In parallel to the peaceful resistance of villagers on the ground – and the many Israeli and international solidarity activists who visit Al-Arakib to help defend and reconstruct homes – there is a long-running legal campaign fighting for the recognition of the villages.
'A number of villages have been recognised in recent years,' says a spokesperson for the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 'however, when you visit these villages it is difficult to see the difference in the standard of living between them and those that have not been recognised. Many of them still do not have an approved detailed local outline plan that would allow residents to obtain building permits and build legally.'
Furthermore a recent government plan to resolve the land conflict issue would result in the Bedouin receiving recognition to only 30-40 per cent of that to which they lay claim. 'In short, there is still a long road ahead until justice is achieved in the Negev for all its residents'.
In the top corner of the perimeter fence of the Al-Arakib cemetery stand a clump of the distinctive white marble headstones that mark Muslim graves; for protection from the bulldozers the remaining villagers have decamped within its borders. Yet some say that they fear even this will not deter the demolitions.
'Of course they will continue to demolish,' says Mohammed, looking over as children throw rocks across the ravine. 'But the people are strong. That is what is important'.