“The Negev affords me the pleasure of watching a wasteland develop into the most fruitful portion of Israel by a totally Jewish act of creation.” –David Ben Gurion, Memoirs
In the middle of the night on August 10, residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Arakib sent a panicked text message to Israeli activists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israeli police helicopters were buzzing overhead, surveying the scene ahead of what was likely to be a new round of demolitions. Three activists staying in the village had been nabbed during a night raid. Having already witnessed the razing of their homes twice in the past two weeks, the residents of Al-Arakib expected the third round of demolitions to arrive tonight, on the eve of Ramadan. During Ramadan, when the villagers fasted all day, the police and Israeli Land Adminstration reasoned they would be too weakened to rebuild — it was prime time for destruction.
I arrived in Al-Arakib at 3 AM with a handful of Jerusalem-based activists. A local couple hauled out mattresses and blankets and poured us small cups of coffee. “I’ve had enough of sleeping,” the man grumbled as he reclined next to his wife. He seemed grateful to have company. I laid down and stared at the desert sky, listening to the man describe in a lulled tone the experience of watching his neighbors’ homes crumple under the teeth of bulldozers again and again. As he trailed off, I heard a low droning sound in the distance. Were they here already? I looked around at the others. No one to register the slightest sign of concern. Finally, I slipped into a light slumber.
Two hours later I was torn from my sleep. “They’re here!” someone shouted in Hebrew. I leapt from my mattress and scrambled up a dune until I reached the center of the village. A phalanx of one hundred riot cops had assembled in a tight formation. They were bristling with assault weapons and centurion shields. Flanked by bulldozers, the police quickly ringed the activists and journalists, who numbered about two dozen, and began forcibly pushing them away from the site of the demolitions. Their intention seemed to be to prevent any brave souls from standing between the bulldozers and the homes they sought to destroy. Dispatched by a faceless network of clerks and engineers in air-conditioned offices to do the dirty work of the state, the police performed their duty with cold efficiency.
As the bulldozers trundled around the village, tearing tarps from plywood pylons, crushing tin roofs, and dragging the shattered structures into hulking piles, the villagers watched with resignation. Seated on her bed in the naked desert, a girl wiped a few tears from her eyes, grimacing at the sight before her. On a nearby hill, a man quizzed his daughter on surahs from the Quran before sending her to collect mattresses from beneath the dusty waste of what used to be their sleeping quarters. An old woman stood impassively by a flock of birds perched on the collapsed remains of her house. Dispossession and homelessness have become nearly mundane in Al-Arakib.
The villagers remain devoted to the nomadic Bedouin tradition. (Why else would they resist with such tenacity the Israeli government’s plan to resettle them in one of the Indian reservation-style “development communities” the state has created for them?) However, they have established a permanent presence in the areas around their village that pre-dates the foundation of Israel. Al-Arakib’s cemetery, for example, contains the graves dating back to the end of the 19th century. Yet the Bedouins’ historical claim to the Negev has not convinced the state that they deserve legal recognition. Nor have their attempts to demonstrate their loyalty by serving as front-line combat soldiers in the Israeli Army. In the eyes of the state, the Arabs of the Negev are at best quasi-human.
In 1953, the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion (original name: David Gryn) moved to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev. A self-described messianist who rejected the existence of God while simultaneously describing the Torah as his political guidebook, Ben Gurion saw the Negev as a blank slate for realizing his revolutionary fever dreams. In his memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small settlements throughout the Negev. Just as he disdained the cosmopolitan spirit of Tel Aviv’s urbanists, Ben Gurion was disgusted by the sight of the open desert, describing it as “a criminal waste.” In the place of sand dunes, he imagined a Jewish replica of Northern Europe.
“When I look out of my window and see a tree standing [in the Negev],” Ben Gurion wrote, “that tree gives me a greater sense of beauty and personal delight than all the vast forests I have seen in Switzerland or Scandinavia… Not only because I helped to grow them but because they constitute a gift of man to Nature, and a gift of the Jews to the cradle of their culture.”
With the ethnocentric Ashkenazi outlook of Labor Zionism, Ben Gurion held deep contempt for non-European cultures. He denigrated the Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Arab countries as “savage” and as “a primitive community” that reveres pimps and thieves. But he at least acknowledged their existence in Israeli society. In his writings about the Negev, Ben Gurion did not once mention the presence of the tens of thousands of Arab Beduoins whose villages abutted his kibbutz. To him, their culture was void; they lived in a “wasteland.” They were obstacles to his utopian vision, not human beings.
Today the Israeli government remains committed to fulfilling Ben Gurion’s fantasies even though the Israeli public has completely turned its back on the Negev. “It seems that the fantasies grow stronger especially when the Jews do not move to live in the desert,” the Israeli blogger Eyal Niv wrote. “The more the Jews back away from the desert, the more their leaders toughen the force, frequency, and cruelty of the expulsion of its other residents.”
In the areas in and around Al-Arakib, just 5 km north of the city of Beersheva, the Jewish National Fund is in the process of planting the “Ambassador Forest.” The forest will cover the land inhabited for over 100 years by the residents of Al-Arakib and prevent them from ever returning. The “Blueprint Negev” plan of the Jewish National Fund, an organization that claims to be acting “on behalf of Jewish people everywhere,” can only be realized through harsh military force, the razing of villages, and ultimately, ethnic cleansing. The meting out of these practices against citizens of Israel should raise serious questions about the country’s claim to uphold democratic values.
After the Israeli Police completed their third demolition of Al-Arakib, the villagers collected the remains of their homes and, with the assistance of a few international and Jewish Israeli activists, began rebuilding again. Without any recourse from the state or its courts, they have no other option but to start over from scratch. And they have nowhere else to go.