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'Unrecognized villages'

Arab tents on the Israeli landscape - overlooked flags of injustice

When driving through the Negev in my air-conditioned car, I used to point to the black tents of the Bedouins perched on the barren ground and explain to my children about preserving the simple life of the past.

It turns out I was the one in need of instruction.

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The thousands of Bedouins living in what are euphemistically described as "unrecognized villages" know that any permanent dwelling they dare to erect will be razed by the authorities. Hence the deceptively nostalgic tents that dot the Israeli landscape.

Take Omer, for example, a booming little Israeli town that boasts the second-highest per-capita income in Israel. This suburb of the southern city of Beersheba plans to make room for hundreds of new families who will enjoy its new $5 million high school, the indoor and outdoor town pools, and its bucolic suburban life in the heart of the Negev. But there is a thorn in the town's expansion plan.

On the precise location specified for Omer's new neighborhood lives a tribe of 1,200 Bedouins. The Tarabin-a-Sane were transferred to the public land in Omer by the Israeli government from their previous homes in another area of the Negev developed in the 1960s.

For 30 years the Tarabin have been refused permission to build permanent houses. No road leads to their tin shacks and shabby tents. They have neither electricity nor sewers, nor are they hooked up to the municipal water system. The Tarabin were always viewed as temporary residents.

Bedouin routinely check garbage bins left out for collection on the curbs of Omer, searching for something worth having. Car theft and petty crime are rampant. Friction between the Tarabin and residents is a fact of life.

Omer's solution? Remove them - with one swoop, eradicating a social nuisance and freeing land for new residents who conform to the ethnic and socioeconomic profile of which Omer is so proud. An aerial photo published by the town superimposes the proposed new Jewish neighborhood on today's "non-existent" Bedouin village.

Time for eviction is drawing near. Consent has been secured from the state for a tract of public land where it proposes to relocate the Tarabin, giving each family a plot and financial compensation. The only trouble is, this time the Tarabin refuse to go. They want to stay on the land where the Israeli state arbitrarily transferred them a generation ago.

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When construction of the new sites began last year, Bedouins clashed with police. Last month there was another violent confrontation. In "new Omer," massive custom-made villas line new sidewalks. A 10-foot-high fence has been erected on the boundary along the perimeter of the municipal garbage dump. At the edge of the dump the Bedouin shacks begin.

For those like me who live in the center of the country, travails of the Bedouin are remote news stories that usually happen far from established urban areas, and it's easy to point an accusing finger at the insensitive inhabitants of Omer.

But if I scratch the surface of my own life in Israel, disturbing similarities crop up close to my home near Tel Aviv. Indeed, throughout the Holy Land the past is a Pandora's box.

A favorite spot to take my young children on a weekend outing was Park Canada on the way to Jerusalem. In February they played among blossoming white almond trees. Only recently, overhearing an offhand comment, did I learn that Park Canada is situated upon the ruins of three Arab villages bulldozed and evacuated in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Unaware of where they are sitting, people picnic today beside fallen walls of towns whose names have disappeared from the maps. The almond trees I admired once stood in someone's garden.

Adjacent to the hotel in Tel Aviv where I was married is Independence Park. Among its paths, bordering foreign embassies and luxury jewelers, are the remnants of a Moslem cemetery, the tombstones still visible.

I need not look so far. Around the corner from where I live, on the streets where my children bike, I came across the following commemorative plaque applied to the pastel wall of a neighbor's home: "Here stood the last house of the village facing west toward the Bedouin tents between Sidnei Ali and Kfar Shmariahu.... A lookout beam illuminated the path to Sidnei Ali and the dirt road upon which Arabs journeyed from Wadi Falik to Jaffa."

The lush poinsettias of my neighborhood are more reminiscent of Palm Beach than of Bedouin tents, and that old dirt road has become the highway connecting Haifa to Tel Aviv.

OLDTIMERS tell me that on the spot of today's retirement home and elementary school a tribe of Bedouins once lived; that after the 1948 War of Independence, these Bedouins were removed to another area of the country.

The Arab inhabitants of the village Sidnei Ali evacuated their village at the outbreak of hostilities in 1948. From my window I can just make out the mosque of Sidnei Ali on a sea cliff half a mile in the distance. Surrounded by an all-Jewish suburb and a bathing beach, its minaret suggests history lessons to those who lift their eyes.

I wonder if half a century from now, people walking on the boulevards of Omer beneath the shade of 50-year-old trees will have any hint that at the end of the 20th century a thousand Bedouins once lived there, before they were compelled to fold their tents and steal away.

Or whether there will be an altogether different scenario. That we can alter the momentum of a past we have inherited, and move toward justice.

*Helen Schary Motro, who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, is an American attorney living in Kfar Shmariahu, Israel.

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