Restless: The Struggle of the People of Atir and Umm al-Hiran


Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: Israel and the Occupied Territories

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: Israel and the Occupied Territories

The crisis facing the Palestinian Bedouins of Atir and Umm al-Hiran is one which cannot be underestimated by the international community. The people of Atir and Umm al-Hiran have been fighting an uphill battle against the Israeli authorities and governmental land planning officials to end their plans to demolish their villages which is to be replaced by a Jewish-only settlement ‘Hiran’.

Expulsion, displacement and dispossession has come to encapsulate the members of the Palestinian Bedouin population who remain in the Negev/District of Beer el-Sabe. This is the fourth time the Palestinian community have had their villages destroyed. However the latest demolition and uprooting the residents of Atir and Umm al-Hiran will have wider consequences for both the Arab-Bedouins (2% of Israel’s population at 200,000) and Israeli politics and society.

The impact will be two-fold. Transferring the Palestinian Bedouin community of Atir and Umm al-Hiran will the catalyst for the removal of the other unrecognised Bedouin villages (36) and towns across the Negev. The implication of the state’s legal victory is that if the people of Atir and Umm al-Hiran can be evicted from their land, then the residents of other towns and villages can be evicted as they are all residing on state land where they are considered to be illegal trespassers. The demolition of Atir and Umm al-Hiran illustrates that the majority of Israeli policymakers and authorities are happy to evict not only Palestinians, but its own citizens (The Palestinian-Bedouins have both the right to vote and hold Israeli passports) on grounds which can only be described as discriminatory. Moreover, transferring and concentrating Palestinian-Bedouin communities, including that of Atir and Umm al-Hiran, will invite future problems and consequences. If the removal of the residents of Atir and Umm al-Hiran is to be the catalyst for the systematic removal of other Bedouin communities, the population increase in towns such as Hura will create and exacerbate severe socio-economic issues. Hura is one of seven Bedouin townships in Israel, all of which are at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic index. To move the villagers to a town characterised as being over-crowded, lacking in adequate state services, and has dismally high levels of unemployment and poverty will have consequences.

Dumping the evicted residents in a place characterised by these issues will invite problems. They will have limited access to health services, abysmal transportation services (already dire in Atir and Umm al-Hiran), welfare and education and there is constant fear amongst refugees and asylum seekers, the residents of Atir and Umm al-Hiran, already consistently refused effective power grids, sewage networks and adequate infrastructure, will also face the denial of their housing rights and increasingly limited access to basic needs. The parallels in the way the Israeli authorities conduct themselves across different ethnic and religious group is startling. The case of Atir and Umm al-Hiran and its demolition will be a microcosm of many wider issues effecting Israeli society and politics; it embracement of segregation; its endorsement of a democracy conditioned on ethnic, religious and national identity; and that the coalition government supported by various local bodies is willing to sabotage cooperation and compromise between different communities trying to solve divisions.

Non-governmental actors such as the Jewish National Fund must be held accountable. Since 1963, after the Israeli government reduced the amount of land farmed by Atir and Umm al-Hiran by transferring part of it to the JNF, the organisation has, through a policy of forestation and presenting itself as a environmental organisation, reduced land for years. Beyond the Green Line the JNF have used sub-contractors for projects which happen at the expense of the communities there. The role of this organisation in destroying Atir and Umm al-Hiran, which will set a precedent for the demolitions of dozens of Palestinian-Bedouin villages and towns, must be brought into the spotlight of international affairs.

The policy of concentrating different Bedouin communities together will worsen the cycle of drug trafficking and crime within the urban townships and create tensions between the different tribal groups. An attempt to transform a pastoral, agricultural community into an urban proletariat stripped of land rights will not work effectively and worsen security for Palestinian-Bedouins and Israelis alike. It is an ineffective policy which will create pockets of socio-economic stagnation which when coupled with political grievances will create tensions between the state and its subjects. A surge in crime, drugs and lawlessness in urban areas will increase the security budget, give the local Israeli authorities a headache and strip a community of its historical and cultural connection to the land it has lived on for hundreds of years. The systematic targeting of the residents of Atir and Umm al-Hiran creates problems for the Israeli authorities, not just the citizens it persecutes.

In eliminating the Palestinian-Bedouin presence in Atir and Umm al-Hiran, fomenting religious nationalism (as exemplified by Jewish youths hired by demolition contractors chanting to evicted residents that “This is the new Zionism!”), suffocating cooperation between like minded people and communities and harassing human rights defenders, Israel only damages its international reputation. It is well know that the leaders of Umm al-Hiran, most notably Ra’ad Abu al-Qi’an, have expressed their desire to stay where they are as a part of the new Hiran town in a cooperative Arab-Jewish town. By sabotaging cooperation and non-violent means through which human rights defenders and activists are pursuing the ending of the Israeli authorities plans, they plant the seeds for violent resistance and risk permanently damaging relations between Bedouin citizens and the Israeli government.

The Israeli authorities presents Israel as a state which violates the human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, but those of its own citizens who, in the case of the Palestinian-Bedouin communities, do not object to being part of the new settlement but object to their exclusion and eviction from a land which they want to share. The plan to “contain” the population so that it would not affect the interests of settling Jewish citizens in the area will alienate the Bedouin populations from the Israeli state and institutionalise segregation within Israeli society.

These are dark times for Israeli society. The case of Atir and Umm al-Hiran is a small piece of the crisis occurring within Israeli politics as it shifts towards a state that embraces segregation and promotes the creation of homogenous enclaves. Such a future will have dire consequences for the stability of the Israeli state and the security of its diverse communities.

Matthew Williams