Even veterans of human rights struggles cannot recall such a horror show as took place in the Negev Desert, 10km north of Beersheba, last Tuesday, when 1500 border guards, riot squad members and armed police, accompanied by bulldozers and helicopters, streamed in from all directions to uproot the small village of the al-Turi tribe in Araqib.
It was a violent showcase operation designed to display force and sow fear. All that remained of the village was twisted rubble, some chickens, geese and sheep wandering around, and pervasive feeling of shock and disbelief. A week after Tisha'a B'Av which mourns the destruction of the Jewish Temples, the village appeared like the Destruction itself.
Let us recall that the members of the al-Turi tribe, like the majority of people in the Bedouin unrecognised villages and towns, are the traditional landowners, who have resided there, tilled its hills and tended their flocks, for generations before the State of Israel was formed. At the beginning of the 1950s, they were forcibly relocated "temporarily" by the then military government. Their lands remained fallow for 50 odd years. About a decade ago they returned and built their village on their historical land, whose fate is a still pending in a current court case.
The al-Turi case is one of several historical land rights cases now underway in Israeli courts, in which indigenous Bedouins claim ownership over their traditional land which was nationalised decades ago. The most notable is the case of the al-Uqbi tribe, immediately adjacent to the destroyed village - a case with important implications for all indigenous land claims in the area. In that trial, the state position, which has rules the courts for decades, is finally seriously challenged. At the centre is the state's claim that before Israeli rule in the area in 1948 all Bedouin lands were "dead", that is, unsettled, unassigned and uncultivated. Such land, according to the prevailing law, have no owners, and is by default state land. Under this distorted logic, the Bedouins have been declared "invaders" on their own ancestors land, all around Beersheba.
Yet, the recent trials bring to the fore compelling evidence about continuous Bedouin occupation and cultivation of the lands around Beersheba. The new material shows that Bedouin lands were managed for generations by a well functioning traditional land ownership system, which allocated residential, agricultural and grazing lands, and adjudicated on land disputes, under the approval of the Ottoman and British rulers. While the Bedouin did not register their land in the British land title books (a fact used against them by Israel), no-one can seriously say that the lands around Beersheba were "dead". In some ways, the recent trials resemble the struggle of aborigines against Australia's "terra nullius" (empty land) doctrine, which was finally defeated in 1992 during the well known Mabo case. Following Mabo, a new category of "native title"' entered the Australian rule book and other countries, like Canada, South Africa, India and Brazil followed suit. The Bedouins are demanding that Israel too recognises traditional land ownership not the least in the Araqib area. It may be that the state of Israel feels threatened by the erosion of its legal hegemony in the historical land cases over Araqib, and has therefore decided to act violently, while it has the legal power to classify the land as 'public' and all buildings as "illegal".
Accordingly, since moving back to their land in Araqib, the al-Turis and their neighbours, the al-Uqbis, have been undergoing an ordeal that includes regular home demolitions and the annual destruction of their crops, which have been sprayed with defoliants and ploughed back into the ground. Now their entire village has been destroyed. Other tribes which used to live in al-Araqib but were forcibly removed, have also attempted to return to the area, but were driven away by the state. Recently the JNF has begun planting trees there to create a forest, and thereby deny any future attempts to recultivate and settled the once Bedouin lands.
So as history would have it, even if the dry letter of the law does not concur, it is the State of Israel which is invading the Bedouin land, and not the other way around.
But let us put history and legal arguments aside for the moment, and ask -- is there no other way? The answer is right before our eyes -- there is another way, and how! Actually in the last fortnight we have seen two events that illustrate just how criminal and unnecessary was the entire act of village destruction. They also demonstrate the extent to which the solutions are at hand.
The first event was the approval of the new Beersheba metropolitan plan. That plan recognises the existence of four villages -- Atir, al-Gharah, Rachame and Sa'awa -- which until a fortnight ago had exactly the same status as Araqib. Those villages were also deemed illegal and were marked down for evacuation and destruction. The villages joined the list of a dozen villages recognised or "established" in recent years -- one of them is the village of Tarabin, which is quite close to the village which was destroyed.
Now that the fear of destruction and evacuation is behind them, the residents of these villages can start to rebuild their future like other ordinary citizens. Undoubtedly, they will face extensive difficulties as Arabs in the Jewish state, but the profound threat of eviction will be lifted from over their heads.
The second event was the passing of the Family Farms Law, which legalises the status of 60 Jewish (and one Arab) family ranches and farms set up without planning approval in the Negev. Yes, the aim of the law is the Judaisation of the Negev, and it is true that the law makers tried their utmost to make it inaccessible to the Bedouin. But the fact that these farms were granted approval years after they were built, raises the possibility that small Bedouin communities, which have settled their land for many generations, can also be recognised in retrospect -- just like Jewish family farms.
What is needed then in the Negev is the implementation of a simple, but almost revolutionary idea in present day Israel -- civil equality. We must remember that the implementation of this notion has been demanded by Jews for generations. The Negev's future is predicated on such an equality, for otherwise the continuing conflict will deteriorate the situation of Arabs and Jews alike. There's no reason not to recognise Bedouin villages on the basis of equality with the Jewish population, and this will also enable equality in law enforcement.
As we have seen, the mechanisms and precedents for taking a different path already exist. The Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV) and other NGO's such as "Bimkom", the Centre for Alternative Planning and the Co-existence Forum, have been working on a range of master and detailed plans for the unrecognised Bedouin villages and towns. These plans should be implemented without delay. Simultaneously the plans for the removal of the villages need to be removed themselves and replaced by plans for legal recognition.
Yet, this may not happen under Israel's continuing shift to the right, and the re-enforcement of its "ethnocratic" principles of greater Jewish control, often violent, on both sides of the Green Line. If ethnocracy prevails over democracy, dangerous ethnic discrimination will continue to mould life in the Negev. The dangers embedded in such discrimination were summed up well by Supreme Court Justice Cheshin in a recent ruling: "Discrimination... is the worst of all evils... Discrimination gnaws endlessly at relations between human beings... continuing discrimination results in the collapse of nations and loss of sovereignty... What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others."
The Israeli government should take note, both in general and in the case of the Bedouins of Araqib. In the face of this senseless destruction it's high time to replace removal with approval - and the earlier the better!