Aziz Al-Turi endeavours to be as accurate as he can when he explains the situation of his village, Al-Araqeeb, and the narrative that the Israeli authorities are forcing onto the Bedouins and the Negev Desert.
The French Jewish Union for Peace invited Al-Turi to a conference in Paris about the Negev and the situation of the Bedouins. His son, Saïd, 14, went with him. Seeing his father on stage, he told MEMO, "I too will fight for our rights, like my father and my grandfather did."
The Al-Turis' village of Al-Araqeeb is small and relies mainly on farming. It is also the focal point of the Bedouins' struggle against the constant Israeli land-grab of which they have been victims and the violence of the occupation authorities as they seek to wipe them and their villages off the Negev map, both geographically and culturally. Aziz Al-Turi is a father of five, and has named his youngest son after the village.
Israel's "Judaisation" plan
Al-Araqeeb is one of the 45 villages in the Negev not "recognised" by Israel. The authorities refuse to provide water, electricity, health and education facilities. Over the years, this particular village has become the symbol of the struggle for official recognition of all Bedouin villages. These form the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages, which advocates their rights to the authorities and the media.
The Bedouin villages run counter to Israel's plan to "Judaise" the Negev. Indeed, driven mainly by the US Jewish National Fund, "Blueprint Negev" seeks to attract 500,000 Jews to Israel within 10 years. The targets are young urban Jews, religious or not; Falashas; European or North-American Jews, who would like to make Aliyah (Jews' migration to Israel); and even Israelis who left the Gaza Strip settlements abandoned in 2005. The only issue is that this project is extended to the lands that Israel has been using to "put away" the Bedouins since 1948. "Blueprint Negev" has gone by different names over the years — including the Prawer Plan — and it started off by evicting the majority of the 100,000 Bedouins for whom the Negev is home.
Non-recognition of the villages is used by the Israeli authorities to justify the land grab and constant demolitions. "In 1986, Israel created a Ministry for the Development of Negev and Galilee," explained Al-Turi, "but it was not for us. Even if, as Israeli citizens, we pay taxes, we don't have access to public services. The occupation authorities only give jobs to Israeli-Jews. They keep destroying our village because they say it belongs to the state. Up until 2010, that had never been their discourse. Now, though, I find that I have become an invader in my own land. After the policy changed against the Bedouins, they've called it state land, but it's my land."
Little by little, Aziz Al-Turi's village has lost its inhabitants. "I went to court to defend my rights. In 1973, my grandfather asked the authorities to recognise our land. They still haven't replied. They want the old people to die, and the young ones to forget. But we will always fight for our rights. We need help, not for us but for the future generations."
The strategy used by Israel in the Negev is the same as used in Area C of the West Bank, where Palestinian residents remain powerless in the face of the never-ending demolitions of their homes. The Israeli authorities claim that the Bedouins are on the land illegally, as it is "state property". However, the Bedouins' ownership was registered as long ago as when they lived under Ottoman rule and the British Mandate government. The State of Israel, which only came along in 1948, does not recognise their title deeds.
What the Jewish National Fund does
Since 2010, Al-Araqeeb village has been demolished 125 times by the Israeli authorities; it is a sad record. Israel's bulldozers have demolished everything, from the trees to the water tanks. The village has almost disappeared, but the Bedouin residents have tried to rebuild it on each occasion.
"They renamed my village Giv'ot-Bar," noted Al-Turi. "That is the name they gave to the new village they are trying to build on the ruins of Al-Araqeeb. They are stealing our history. My grandfather bought this land in 1905. We have the Ottoman documents to prove it."
As far as Aziz Al-Turi is concerned, the Nakba (Catastrophe) hasn't ended. "During the 1948 war, the Israeli forces pushed more than 90 per cent of the Bedouins out of the Negev. They became refugees in Jordan, Gaza and in the Egyptian Sinai. Ten thousand remained in the Negev. Israel let them live there because they needed them. Why? They used them, as merchants, to carry food from Jordan, Gaza and Saudi Arabia. They also used them to get information about this land. The Negev represents 60 per cent of Israel. It's huge."
Following the many demolitions, the majority of the people of Al-Araqeeb have decided to leave; it has become too difficult to live under this ongoing threat, especially for the children. Most of them have decided to move to Rahat, the largest Bedouin town located a few kilometres away.
"They created terror in Al-Araqeeb," explained Al-Turi. "In 1948, Israeli soldiers killed 22 youths and destroyed many houses. I didn't know about this story until 2010, for it was only in 2010 when the Israeli forces came again to destroy more houses that the elders of my village started to talk. 'It is like in 1948,' they told us. Then, my uncle told me the whole story. He said he couldn't leave the area without a visa. They didn't say anything until 2010 because they wanted us to grow up with open hearts and minds, with no hatred toward Jews."
There are no road signs from Road 40 to the muddy path that leads to Al-Araqeeb. The village is older than the state itself; its cemetery was built in 1914. Yet, the Israeli authorities couldn't care less. "I'm an Israeli citizen but I don't feel there is democracy in Israel, or at least not for us. Only for the Jews. Democracy means a way of life, not just the right to vote. They have confiscated my land, destroyed my house, cut off my trees. Why? Because I fight for my rights. They have put me in jail because they said I built an illegal house, but it's on my land. How is it illegal? I own sheep on this land, I have planted trees on this land, I have built a house on this land and I have had children on this land. How can I make this house legal? It seems impossible, since our village is not recognised by the Israeli authorities. We have no school, no services, no water, no help…"
Bedouins in the Negev must abide by the same laws as Jewish Israeli citizens, but they are exempt from military service. They pay taxes but do not enjoy the same rights and services as the Jews in the state. The authorities do not recognise their ownership of the land, and that is how they try to justify the lack of basic necessities such as water, electricity, roads, schools, healthcare… The government is trying to gather them together in "towns made for Bedouins", far from their traditional habitat and way of life.
In this region, the Israeli authorities have uprooted olive trees and planted pine trees and eucalyptus, funded by the Jewish National Fund. According to Aziz Al-Turi, the Jewish National Fund is evil.
"It confiscates our land to plant their trees. You know what they keep saying: 'We don't sell the land to Arabs. This land is only for the Jews, for their future use.' After 2000, the policy against the Bedouins changed from bad to worse. The JNF basically erased the Arab history, the Bedouin culture in the Negev. Helped by the Land Office of Israel, they confiscated Bedouins' lands to plant trees. How can they erase our history? Palestine is the country of four kinds of trees: olive tree, fig trees, vineyards and cactus. These represent our Palestinian landscape. The JNF started to plant trees around our wells and houses and the stones started to fall off. The JNF is part of the Israeli project for the Judaisation of the country."
The JNF describes itself as an environmental group dedicated to the reforestation of the land. In reality, by planting their trees, they divest Palestine of its natural flora and the indigenous people of their livelihood, which is based on farming. Even though it works for the state, in many countries the JNF is registered as a charity. Hence, all donations received are eligible for tax deductions.
In Al-Araqeeb, the JNF has uprooted over 4,500 lemon, fig and olive trees, to make space for its eucalyptus plantation. The water needed for these trees is brought by water trucks, even though the authorities have forbidden the inhabitants of Al-Araqeeb from bringing water to their village and confiscated their trucks when they demolished it. "The Israeli authorities keep saying that bringing water into this area is forbidden but they refuse to provide us with it," Al-Turi pointed out.
The Bedouins of Al-Araqeeb have always refused to sell even one small plot of their land to the Israeli authorities. They have systematically rebuilt their village after each demolition, and the olive trees which have not been completely uprooted are now sprouting again. "I still live in Al-Araqeeb. In a little house; some people might call it a tent, but I call it my house. Before 2010, my son had a laptop, we had computers. Now, there's nothing left. They even confiscated our clothes. We live in fear of seeing them coming back and destroying our house. They say we are a nomadic people. This is completely untrue. We used to live in proper villages, we had wells, a cemetery, etc., so it's a lie to the world to say that we are nomadic people. The whole thing is a political issue, not a religious one. I'm so glad that I was able to meet here [in Paris], and in Israel, Jews who are eager to help us."
Standing just behind Aziz Al-Turi, his son Saïd nodded in agreement.