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The War For the Negev Comes to Um al-Hiran

In the first of a series of dispatches from Arab society in Israel, where—and how—should the Bedouin live?

Elhanan Miller
May 09, 2017
Photos: Elhanan Miller
Yasser Abul Qi'an (far right).Photos: Elhanan Miller
Photos: Elhanan Miller
Yasser Abul Qi'an (far right).Photos: Elhanan Miller

It’s the sense of betrayal that hurts residents of Um al-Hiran most.

Um al-Hiran is one of 40 unrecognized Bedouin villages scattered across the northern Negev Desert that Israel seeks to relocate to seven permanent towns established between 1968 and 1996. The Abul-Qi’an clan, which has produced both IDF combatants and jihadists who died fighting Assad’s forces in Syria, was still convalescing from the death of Yaqub Abul Qi’an, the 45-year-old schoolteacher who was shot dead by police as he was driving his jeep in the early hours of Jan. 18, when Israeli forces descended on the village to demolish his home and seven other structures.

The Abul-Qi’an clan founded Um al-Hiran in 1956, after being moved from their lands in the northwest Negev by the Military Rule, which governed Arab society in Israel until 1966. While government dubs the haphazard Bedouin dwellings an illegal land grab, refusing to connect most of them to electricity and running water, residents claim their villages predate the state and struggle to produce land-ownership documents from Ottoman and British archives. According to Israeli government statistics, some 70,000 Bedouins live in unrecognized communities, a third of the total Bedouin population of the Negev.

Israeli policemen stand guard as bulldozers demolish homes in the Bedouin village of Um al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli policemen stand guard as bulldozers demolish homes in the Bedouin village of Um al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

“My father would always tell us: ‘If you don’t fight the state, it will be good to you,’ ” said Nour Abul-Qi’an, Yaqub’s 21-year-old son. “We saw how that ended. They attacked him and killed him in cold blood.”

Three months after his home was demolished, Nour still sleeps on a mattress on the rubble of his former dwelling. As we spoke recently, he was busy spreading a tarp over his late father’s goats, then filling their trough by powerfully sucking on a black hose to draw water from a rusty tank.

“It was the first event of its kind, but I don’t expect it to be the last,” he said.

The deaths of Abul-Qi’an and policeman Erez Levi continue to make headlines in Israel. Initially, Israeli police and Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan accused the teacher of belonging to ISIS and intentionally trying to run over the force that came to guard the demolition process. At Levi’s funeral, police chief Roni Alsheikh called Abul-Qi’an a “scoundrel terrorist.” His body was held by the government for a week on condition of a quiet, family funeral, similar to Israel’s demand of the families of Palestinian stabbers across the Green Line.

But by late February Erdan had changed his tune, calling the event “an isolated incident in which a policeman and a citizen were killed.” While the deaths are still under investigation, Israeli media is reporting that the likelihood of a terror attack has all but been ruled out.

Next to Abul-Qi’an’s animal pen, tall tin panels hide the construction site of Hiran, a Jewish community set to accommodate 12,000 and spread over Um-Hiran’s current homes. The Bedouin residents refuse relocation to the nearby Bedouin town of Hura, demanding either to be included in the new Jewish municipality or be given their original lands further north, near Kibbutz Shoval.

“We want a place to live, like any other Israeli citizen,” said Yasser Abul-Qi’an, a local resident. “The state has declared war against its citizens, making us human targets, but we have no other country to go to.”

“We’re extremely angry,” he continued. “All the policemen and officers who came here [to demolish the homes] knew every woman and child in the village. They ate and drank in our homes. They knew Yaqub too.”

In a nearby home, Mariam Abul-Qi’an boiled tea on her stovetop. She moved to the village seven years ago when she married Ra’ed Abul-Qi’an, the unofficial community spokesman. A schoolteacher and mother of four working to complete her master’s degree in public policy at Ben Gurion University, Mariam said she fears her home may be demolished next.

“I don’t want to think about that,” she said. “I’m extremely attached to this place. I live in fear for my children. How will we manage without a home?”

Mariam was raised in Segev Shalom, one of seven recognized Bedouin towns, which she moved to as a child from a hamlet on the Egyptian border that no longer exists. She said life in Um al-Hiran is both rewarding and challenging.

“Bedouin women are cooped up, not allowed to leave their homes,” she described her life in Segev Shalom. “Here, we’re all one big family. There are no borders and we can take walks in the open nature.”

On the other hand, Mariam now lacks all the amenities she previously enjoyed in Segev Shalom, such as running water and connection to the national electricity grid. In her modest home, she must wait for hours to fill the water tank on the roof to get running water. To bathe her infant daughters, she boils water on the stove, then mixes is with tepid water, and pours it over their heads with a bucket. The pipeline from Hura, 5 miles away, was laid only two years ago, and neighbors connect to the main point by rotation.

“The other day there was a hyena near the water counter, so I was too scared to connect our pipe. I ran away,” she recalled.

Electricity is produced exclusively by solar panels, which provide barely enough energy for the refrigerator, lighting, and the microwave. Turning on the iron is a rare luxury. Houses are heated and food is cooked using expensive gas canisters, which residents exchange weekly.

Despite the hardships, Mariam Abul-Qi’an claimed she would never trade her rustic lifestyle for that of a Bedouin town.

“Urban life doesn’t suit us,” she said. “We have sheep, cows, camels. We can’t give up our space. What would we do on a plot of land?”


The struggle over land in the Negev between Jews and Arabs is so intense that consensus on data regarding the extent of Bedouin expanse is almost impossible to attain. From a minuscule Beersheba office, Attia el-Assam heads the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev. Founded 20 years ago, the organization was created to “unify our struggle, since we suffer from the same problems and have the same goals,” said el-Assam, a member of Israel’s Islamic Movement.

‘Urban life doesn’t suit us. We have sheep, cows, camels. We can’t give up our space. What would we do on a plot of land?’

Following the establishment of the state, 90 percent of the Bedouins in the northern and western Negev were displaced by the military and relocated to the triangle between the Jewish cities of Beersheba, Dimona, and Arad, el-Assam’s narrative goes. But the state never marked the new Bedouin settlements on its official maps, unlike the Jewish towns that sprung up in the area. Thus, the unrecognized villages were born.

In 1968, the state founded Tel Sheva as the first official Bedouin town, just east of Beersheba. But according to el-Assam, few Bedouins chose to move there. “They never asked the Bedouins what they want or how they see their future,” he said. “Architects from central Israel said they know what the Bedouins want better than the Bedouins themselves.” One such architectural decision produced homes with oversized skylights, since “Bedouins like to gaze at the stars at night.”

El-Assam is a resident of Abu Tlul, a village of 4,500 which dates back to the Ottoman period. The state finally decided to recognize it in the early 2000s, along with nine other communities. But since then not much has changed.

“The state has done nearly nothing,” he said. “It built schools, although schools already existed. That’s all it did in almost 17 years.” Aside from the government-built schools and clinics (obtained following appeals by residents to the Supreme Court), none of the homes in the newly-recognized communities are connected to electricity or water.

According to el-Assam’s statistics, as many as 52 percent of Negev Bedouins live in unrecognized or semi-recognized communities, where there is no possibility to build legally. “People are born, they get married. Where will they build their homes?”

The Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages encompasses 46 communities, the smallest of which with 500 residents and the largest, Wadi Na’am, with 15,000.

“Doesn’t a village like that—approaching the size of a city—deserve recognition, at a time when the state recognizes Jewish communities in the Negev for a small group of families or even individuals?” he wondered.

But ask Amichai Yogev, who heads the Negev department at Regavim, and you’ll get an entirely different story. The watchdog, which tracks illegal Arab building across Israel and the West Bank, cites no less than 1,700 illegal Bedouin “residential clusters” throughout the Negev. According to Yogev, who moved to the Negev with his family for its cheaper housing costs, the Bedouins have taken over no less than 150,000 acres of state land.

“They’re trying to twist the state’s arm into recognizing their village,” he said of Um al-Hiran, noting that its residents were moved to their current location as a punitive measure for reporting IDF maneuvers to the Jordanians in the early 1950s.

According to Yogev, the residents of Um al-Hiran are being offered privileges enjoyed by no other Israeli citizen: the choice between purchasing a plot of land in the new town of Hiran, or receiving one free in nearby Hura as compensation for being uprooted.

“It’s totally unreasonable for residents to expect permanent recognition by the state, which has already given them above and beyond,” he said.

Yogev also rebuffed as hollow nostalgia the Bedouin insistence on maintaining their traditional lifestyle.

“This traditional lifestyle hasn’t existed in ages,” he claimed. “The real historic heritage is nomadic. Fine, let them migrate from Saudi Arabia across the Negev to Jordan. Since the late 1960s, they’ve begun to settle down and build permanent homes. Go see how many Bedouins actually live off livestock and herding: very, very few.”

But such talk only makes people like Mariam Abul-Qi’an angrier. “I feel like the state sees us as a burden, constantly trying to get rid of us. But we won’t vanish from Israel,” she said. “It would be better for it to consider peaceful coexistence. Otherwise, you only create hate. When you keep hitting people, eventually they’ll hit back.”


This is the first dispatch in a Tablet series, Israeli Arabs at a Crossroads: The Negev. The second appears tomorrow.

Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.