Some 50 years after Israeli authorities gave them the land, the Bedouin of Umm al-Heiran village face eviction to make way for two modern towns.
Located in the Negev desert, the village is home to some 150 Arab Bedouin families — 1,000 inhabitants — who live in small, concrete buildings, relying on solar panels for electricity and raising livestock.
But more than half a century of calling Umm al-Heiran home now looks set to end.
On November 10, the Israeli cabinet approved the establishment of two new communities in the Negev — Kesif and Hiran — that will almost exclusively cater to Jews.
In order to make way for the two new towns, the Bedouin village, which is currently unrecognised by the authorities, must first be removed.
“In order to build Hiran, (Israel) will accelerate the demolition of the unrecognised village of Umm al-Heiran in the Negev and evict its residents,” said Suhad Bishara, a lawyer for the Arab-Israeli rights group Adalah.
The village is on some 7,000 dunams (70 hectares) of land an Israeli military governor gave to the Bedouin after the tribe of Abu al-Qiyaan was displaced in the 1950s.
Israeli plans to remove the village were first raised 10 years ago, and since then, the residents have been fighting a long legal battle with Adalah’s help.
The Supreme Court has for now frozen demolition orders on Umm al-Heiran’s structures pending the filing by December 15 of additional documents by Adalah.
But should the court rule against them, their case will be lost.
“I was born here, it’s my home and it’s all I know,” said Abdel Rahman Abu al-Qiyaan, a 49-year-old father of more than a dozen children.
“We can’t fight the state if it decides to evict us, but we just have to wait and see what happens,” he told AFP.
“We built this village and developed its agriculture. Where will our children go?”
The villagers say they have no problem with Jewish Israelis moving into the area — as long as they themselves are not forced to leave.
“This is a racist decision — why can Jews live here but not me?” Abu al-Qiyaan asked.
The government says Umm al-Heiran’s residents are to be moved to the nearby Bedouin village of Hura, which is already home to some 300 families.
Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel would provide “basic services” to Umm al-Heiran’s residents, but that illegal construction would not be tolerated.
“There is no citizen in Israel who can build a house without a permit,” Gendelman told AFP.
“We say to the Bedouins: we are with you in the provision of basic services, we are with you to resolve the land issue, but building must be done legally.”
Ghiyahib Abu al-Qiyaan, 73, remembers the day when Israeli forces moved the family onto the land which would become Umm al-Heiran in 1956, eight years after the creation of the Jewish state.
“I was about 16 years old. Israeli patrols came and evicted us from our homes (in nearby Zubala) to make way for a kibbutz, and put us here without shelter, in the desert,” she said.
“But we built and we’ve made it our home with the land they gave us.”
Bishara said that while the military’s actions were documented at the time, they were never enshrined in an official agreement.
Israel’s legal position “is simply one of ‘we gave them the land, and we can take it away’,” she said.
Israel is trying to regulate the ownership of land inhabited by Bedouins in the Negev, in many instances since before the foundation of the state in 1948.
On Thursday, an official announced that the government would drop another plan related to Negev Bedouins, the so-called Prawer Plan, that would have seen some 40 unrecognised Bedouin villages in the same area demolished and the evacuation of between 30,000 and 40,000 people.
Around 260,000 Bedouin live in Israel, more than half of them in unrecognised villages without utilities. Many live in extreme poverty.