No One Had to Die in Umm al-Hiran
by Eetta Prince-Gibson
It didn’t have to come to this.
On Wednesday, a police effort to demolish illegally constructed homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran went horribly wrong. Police sergeant Erez Levi and village resident and schoolteacher Yakub Abu-Quian were killed; another policeman and two Members of Knesset from the Joint (Arab) list were wounded.
And the already fraught relationship between the State of Israel and its Bedouin citizens deteriorated even further—perhaps irreparably.
In an extensive story on the Bedouins in Israel, published in Moment in August 2015, we warned of dire results if the state and its institutions continued to treat the Bedouin with what expert Clinton Bailey referred to as “a complete lack of good will.” We cautioned that violence would break out if the Israeli government didn’t adopt and implement plans that combined enforcement of the rule of law with cultural sensitivity and respect for the Bedouins’ traditions and collective aspirations. We saw that the Bedouins would not continue to passively accept their dismal status as Israel’s most deprived and most hopeless sector in Israel.
We visited Umm al-Hiran and observed that the unrecognized villages in the Negev, Israel’s most undeveloped and sparsely populated region, were rapidly become a galvanizing symbol of Bedouin rage at the failure of Israeli Jewish institutions to treat them fairly and offer them hope.
Sadly, we were right.
Umm al-Hiran is one of the nearly 50 Bedouin villages that the Israeli government regards as illegal and therefore provides them with no public services of any kind. But Umm al-Hiran is also an unusual “unrecognized village” because the Israeli government forcibly moved the al-Quian tribe from their traditional lands to this site in 1956, to make way for a new kibbutz. But the government never made the village legal, never provided any services and never granted any construction permits.
They lived in that limbo until 2002, when the government of Ariel Sharon, in an effort to encourage Jews to move to the Negev, decided to establish 14 new Jewish communities. And one of them, Hiran, a large modern city of 2,500 households slated for young national-religious Jews, is going to be built smack on the site of Umm al-Hiran.
The state offered the residents of al-Quian various alternatives, but the residents rejected them and petitioned the Israeli court system. Why did they have to move? the residents argued? The Negev is so sparsely populated—why couldn’t Hiran be established somewhere else nearby? Or why couldn’t they live together with the incoming Jewish residents in the same town?
But in the spring of 2015, the Supreme Court rejected the last of their petitions, paving the way for the demolitions. On Wednesday, the police came in the earliest hours of the morning to implement that decision.
There are two very conflicting versions of what happened and how Levi and Abu-Quian were killed. According to Riad Abu-Quian, an unofficial spokesman for the village, Abu-Quian got into his car to leave the village because he didn’t want to see the demolitions. The police, he contends, fired at him deliberately and without provocation. “The police came to kill us,” an eye-witness resident told Israel Radio.
According to the police, Abu-Quian was shot as he deliberately drove his car into a line of policemen overseeing the demolitions. Police officials quickly called the attack an act of terrorism and said they have information that Abu-Quian was an extremist with ties to radical Islamic groups, including ISIS. (The villagers fervently deny this and the police have provided no proof.) The police also posted an edited version of a video, shot from a police helicopter hovering over the scene, which, they insist, proves that Abu-Quian deliberately plowed into the police ranks. But the unedited video, which has also been made available, appears to show police officers walking toward Abu-Quian’s car and shooting at him as he was driving at a slow pace and that the car picked up speed only afterwards. As of this writing, no investigation has been established.
We may never know what “really” happened. But we do know that as the state destroys the ramshackle homes of Umm al-Hiran, it is also destroying the delicate threads that once connected the Bedouin to the State of Israel. Some of the residents of Umm al-Hiran remain huddled around the ruins of their homes, with little more than blankets for warmth against the helpless despair and the cold Negev winter night.
Here in Jerusalem, I sit comfortably in my well-heated home, yet I, too, am beginning to despair of my government.
The alacrity with which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians have been pulling the terrorist card reminds me that only a few months ago, as the fires raged throughout Israel, Netanyahu and other right wing politicians insisted that the fires were the result of a “firefada,” an incendiary Arab uprising against the Jewish state. But no one has been indicted for the purported arson wave. Once again, by insisting that Abu-Quian was a terrorist, Netanyahu and his government are pandering to the most racist elements in his constituency.
And why now? After all, the final court ruling against Umm al-Hiran was nearly two years ago. On Wednesday, the day of the demolitions, for the first time in over a week, the ongoing criminal investigations against Netanyahu didn’t lead the local news reports. What better way to distract a resentful public than to deflect attention from the corruption and conflict of interest scandals. They know quite well that by stating by calling Abu-Quian a terrorist, they are casting suspicion on and inciting hatred of all Bedouin.
Netanyahu insists that these demolitions prove that “everyone in Israel is equal before the law.” But that argument is infuriatingly manipulative: Netanyahu’s government hasn’t been in any hurry to demolish the illegal settlement of Amona in the West Bank, which, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled, is illegal, was established on private land stolen from its rightful owners and must be demolished. And I can’t help but wonder: Is the sudden urgency to demolish the homes in Umm al-Hiran—which follows last week’s demolitions of homes in the Arab town of Kalansua in central Israel—little more than a way to placate the settlers and pacify Netanyahu’s most extreme right-wing flank?
With good will, compassionate sensitivity and expert professional planning, solutions to the problems of the unrecognized villages could have been found. Maybe, just maybe, they still can be found.
No one had to die in Umm al-Hiran this week.