Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

Unwanted citizens

Al-Ahram Weekly – 10 January 2002

When the Arab village of Al-Naim got its first junior school two years ago — a caravan — the teacher spent the first day explaining to her 35 new charges what a toilet was. It was the first one they had ever seen.

Al-Naim, a huddle of 100 rusting and battered corrugated tin huts and ragged tents fashioned from Colombian coffee sacks, could be located in Afghanistan or the remoter parts of Ethiopia or Yemen. But its 700 inhabitants are all Israeli citizens living a few miles from Haifa, one of the country’s most modern and vibrant cities.

The village has existed here, in the blue hills of central Galilee, for more than 150 years — a fact the Israeli authorities have done their best to conceal. You cannot find the village marked on any map, nor will you find a road sign to direct you there.

The only way to reach it is by following a metalled road to the well-signposted Jewish hilltop community of Ash’har, built 16 years ago. There, a few dozen neat suburban houses with tiled roofs and immaculate lawns are set around a large children’s playground.

Opposite the entrance to Ash’har, a small track leads over the brow of the hill to the rocky slopes below. Just out of view of the Jewish residents are the homes of Al-Naim.

My guide, Khaled Khalil, surveys the miserable sight before him. ” In Arabic, Al-Naim means ‘paradise’,” he says, before joking with barely concealed anger: “Look, we have stumbled on paradise.”

Al-Naim is one of Israel’s “unrecognised villages,” dozens of Arab communities that the Jewish state refused to make legal after the 1948 war. Draconian planning laws have been used over the past five decades to victimise the inhabitants, turning them into villages of unwitting criminals so that their homes can be demolished and their lands appropriated to provide space for new Jewish settlements.

Fuar Naim, aged 75, says the government campaign of persecution has been relentless. “It started in 1948 when they took away our livelihood — our herds of goats, cows and sheep. Then, in the early 1960s, they erected a fence around our homes, telling us the land was a military zone and that any animals that strayed outside the fence would be confiscated.”

The 4,000 dunums (1,000 acres) that the Bedouin had farmed for generations shrank to a paltry 800 — hardly more than the ground on which their homes stood. Most were forced to give up their livestock, becoming casual labourers or unemployed.

Worse was to come. “One day in 1963 the army entered the village and arrested all the men,” says Naim. “We were taken to the jail in Akko [Acre] for five days, none of us knowing why we had been arrested.”

When they were released, they returned to find their homes gone, demolished by army bulldozers, and their wells opened and pumped dry. “Four children died while we were gone because they had fallen into the empty wells,” he says.

The villagers set about creating temporary shelters of wood, metal and sacking hoping that soon they would get permission to rebuild their village. Nearly 40 years later, they are still waiting.

Today, the families live in tents or corrugated huts that provide almost no protection against the severe winter conditions experienced in the hills of Galilee. There are no toilets and water is supplied by a network of illegal pipes criss- crossing the village from two large tanks that must regularly be filled from a water point near Ash’har. Electricity is available for a few hours each day from a generator.

It is not a life they choose. If they connect to the national electricity, water or sewerage system, they and the public utility companies face prosecution for breaking the law.

“We cannot build homes here or make repairs because they would be illegal,” says Fuar’s nephew, 38-year-old Mohamed Naim. “In fact, if we make any changes that only encourages the authorities to go to court to get a demolition order against the new building. All we can do is carry on living like this.”

The goal of the persecution has not been disguised. Successive Israeli governments have wanted the inhabitants of Al-Naim — and the three other Bedouin villages of Demaide, Husseini and Kamani nearby — to move to Wadi Salami, a planned town for Arabs. The villagers refused. Many of those who were persuaded to give up their land and move now describe the town as a deprived and congested prison.

Khalil, of the Association of Forty, an organisation campaigning on behalf of the unrecognised villages, says conditions in Al-Naim are the worst outside the Negev, where the Israeli state has tried to force more than 60,000 Bedouin to relocate by depriving them of almost all services.

“It is so bad here because the government earmarked this land for Jewish development,” he says. “They were really determined to succeed and kept up enormous pressure to make sure the inhabitants moved out.”

The villagers had reason to hope that their lives might return to normal after a government decision taken under legal pressure in the 1990s to recognise Al-Naim, along with eight of the Galilee’s other largest Arab villages.

But in the three years since Al-Naim was recognised the only significant change has been the arrival of the caravan for the school courtesy of the local Misgav council.

Khalil says that recognition has been an empty promise. “Although the village is officially legal, in practice this means almost nothing. Under planning laws, the land is classified as an agricultural zone and so residential buildings on it are still illegal. Any houses they build can be demolished. In effect the village is legal but every house in it is illegal.”

He added: “Al-Naim’s main problem is that it falls under the jurisdiction of the Misgav regional council, which was established to look after the area’s Jewish settlements. No one in the council is in a hurry to help the Bedouin here.”

The biggest hurdle is the Jews living in neighbouring Ash’har, who will agree to planning changes only if the villagers are forced to move further down into the valley. They say they do not want the Bedouin living next door to them.

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