Forty Years in the Desert




Forty Years in the Desert by Ben Ehrenreich

A one-day strike in Israel

July 22nd, 2013 reset - +

Image: Bedouin home bolldozed in village of Atir; photo cc Tal King

IT WOULD BE A LONG DAY. The drive from Jerusalem to Beersheba took two hours — longer, because by the time we arrived in that dusty, grimly sun-bleached desert city, Israeli police had already blocked all roads leading to the demonstration. A one-day strike had been called to protest the so-called Prawer Plan, which was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet in 2011 and passed in its first run through the Knesset last month. The bill has to survive two more votes in the legislature, but if it does — and it is expected to — the law will forcibly displace tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel from their officially “unrecognized” communities in the Negev desert, or the Naqab, as it is called in Arabic. Protests were planned in Yaffa, in Jerusalem, in Palestinian cities and towns all over the north of the country, as well as in Gaza and the West Bank, but Beersheba — think Riverside, without the glamour — was the site closest to the communities facing eviction, so we started there.

It was not yet 11 am and already over 90 degrees. We had missed the main demonstration, but perhaps 300 people, most of them students and residents of the imperiled villages, had stuck around. They stood huddled at the edge of the street beside a small and nearly shade-less park. Across the road was the campus of Ben Gurion University. The protesters clapped and chanted joyously. The several dozen green-bereted Israeli Border Police — six of them on horseback — who surrounded them seemed to only add to the crowd’s enthusiasm. “Take to the streets my people,” they chanted, “Free your land!” (It sounds a lot better in Arabic.) An old Bedouin woman standing no higher than my ribcage waved a Palestinian flag, her white headscarf almost transparent with sweat.

The horses charged, their riders swinging. The crowd scattered. Before it was over, 14 people had been arrested. The police handcuffed their captives to a fence on the median strip of the road facing the park. When a white van idled between the officers and the crowd on the sidewalk, I saw a flurry or elbows and fists through the windshield, and, when the van had pulled away, a young Palestinian stood hunched with his shirt half off. They shoved him into an unmarked Mazda and sped away. Another woman’s head was bloodied.

The police linked arms and pushed the remaining protesters some yards back from the street. It was okay — they could chant and clap there too, and did so, their high spirits unabated. Only now there were nearly as many police as demonstrators: the paramilitary Border Police, some armed with M-16s; grey-uniformed Yasam, or “counter-terror” units; and at least a dozen muscular men in dark tee shirts with pistols stuffed into their jeans. An armored white tanker truck arrived, a water cannon mounted on its cab.

When the tension had dipped and the police had begun rubbing their noses with sunscreen and passing each other bottles of water — it is Ramadan, so the protesters went without — I spoke with a young woman named Alia Saleen. She was from Al-Araqib, one of the 36 unrecognized villages targeted for demolition. Although it is entirely within the boundaries of Israel, Al-Araqib has no electricity, no running water, no sewage system, no infrastructure whatsoever. Its residents have been repeatedly expelled since 1951 — their homes demolished by Israeli security forces more than 50 times, Saleen said, since 2007. They now live in the village cemetery, the only place, she said, that the Israelis have not destroyed.

One of those demolitions, in 2010, came shortly after Netanyahu worried that the Negev might become “a region without a Jewish majority.” The Prawer Plan would provide the solution to this demographic emergency: the evacuation of the area’s non-Jewish residents. There is also, as it happens, money at stake. One day before the Monday protest, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved a $150 million development project for the Negev, part of a long-term plan to bring high-tech industry and ethnically approved suburban development to the southern desert. No one likes to see real estate go unsold. If it all goes through, Saleen and as many as 40,000 others will be relocated to all-Bedouin townships like the nearby city of Rahat, of which she said, “The place looks like a chicken coop. People don’t have space to live.”

Noon came and went. The temperature continued to rise. The protesters, unwilted but reduced in number, kept clapping, chanting, jumping. The mounted policemen tethered their horses to trees on the far end of the park. I began to eye the condensation dripping from the barrel of the water cannon. A policeman with a bullhorn told the crowd to disperse. “Death,” they shouted, “before humiliation.” The heat took its toll. Soon there were only about 20 people chanting, and the police were drifting off too, the two groups claiming every inch of the meager shade cast by the park’s few stunted trees. Under some trees, cops smoked and chatted into cell phones beside reclining protesters. It’s a small country. A hot one, too. When I left the old woman was still chanting. So was Saleen.

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We hit the road again and drove three hours north out of the desert and through the green hills of the Galilee to the town of Sakhnin, which on March 30, 1976 had provided the impetus for a previous general strike, one celebrated by Palestinians every year since as Land Day. The strike had been called when the Israeli government announced plans to confiscate about 5000 acres of Palestinian land in Sakhnin and a neighboring community. (The Prawer Plan targets an area 40 times as large.) Six unarmed residents of Sakhnin were killed that day by the army and police.

We made it as far as the main junction outside of town. Several hundred young men and women filled the sidewalks on all sides of the intersection. “I am invisible,” their T-shirts read, “because you refuse to see me.” At 5:03, they stepped into the highway, blocking traffic. Five minutes later, they cleared the road and returned to the sidewalk. After another five minutes they shut down the highway again. The few police officers present looked on, confused. They tried to shove the crowd back, but, outnumbered, quickly retreated.

Reinforcements came. The police cleared one lane, then another, slowly siphoning off the traffic until small groups of protesters sat down on the asphalt, singing and chanting. Soon the riot squad arrived, four Yasam officers on horseback and ten on foot, armed with tear gas launchers, M-16s, and clubs. The cavalry went one way, the infantry the other. The horses charged and the rest of the police came running from the other direction, throwing concussion grenades, shooting tear gas canisters into the lanes of idling cars. Rocks clattered to the pavement. Onions too, lots of onions. Who was throwing onions? It didn’t last long. Within minutes, 15 people had been arrested and it was the police who were blocking the road. Smoke poured from the field beside the highway where a tear gas canister had lit the brush aflame. It was still burning two hours later, when we finally headed south again.

The next morning, Israeli police bulldozed Al-Araqib again. It was, according to the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, the 53rd time. 

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Ben Ehrenreich is spending the year in Israel and the West Bank and reporting for LARB. His last dispatch was "A Literary Gathering in the South Hebron Hills."

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