THIS LAND IS MY LAND.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND

The smell of fresh homemade bread,  Arabic horses galloping far away, but close, making tornados in the sand. Rhythmic tribal dance that keeps your foot going. Curious eyes and a hope for the future. Even in the most destructive and dark space. With no water and electricity. No road system or health clinics, the Bedouins lit their candles, cook their food and eat together on the floor.


TEXT AND PHOTOS:  KRISTIN LYSEGGEN
Negev, Israel 2011

 

While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is constantly on the world-press’ agenda, little close to nothing is mentioned about the fate of the almost 200 000 Bedouins living within the Israeli borders. The Israeli authorities started relocating and "urbanizing" these indigenous tribes already in the 70´s and successfully moved half of the Bedouins into townships before most people in the West had even heard about them. Now the Bedouin culture and tradition are about to vanish. Many villages have already disappeared underneath the Israeli bulldozers. Though most of the indigenous tribes are thousands of years old, and many villages existed before the State of Israel, they do not appear on the map and are denied basic services like water and electricity.

I still sometimes eat with my hands. And then I lick the hummus off my fingers and smile. But when I am writing this my eyes get wet. I had never been in the desert before. And when I walked barefoot under the stars to the outdoor toilet at the camel ranch in Dimona, I could easily imagine myself building a little hut there. I felt so content and relaxed. No internet, no traffic, the only sound was of the camels chewing sideways.


This was a few days before I started my work photographing and interviewing the Bedouins in the Negev, my second trip to Israel and the West Bank in six months. I had learned that the Israeli government had demolished hundreds of Bedouin homes and I wanted to come back and document the abuse. I knew I would have difficulties getting in and out of Israel because I was a freelancer with a press card. But I had no idea that I would be forced to show my passport to police in the streets twice, because I was walking next to an Arab. I did not know that the non-Jewish Israeli citizens had a special stamp showing their religion in their passports. I had no idea that the forests the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is growing in the Negev is probably not a green contribution to the world, but a plan to occupy the land of the Bedouins and re-settle half a million Israeli Jews.


After my first trip in March 2011, I had promised myself never to go back to Israel. Three intensive weeks with my American (Jewish) husband, traveling from Haifa in North Israel to the West Bank in the south where we visited an old refugee camp before witnessing a huge building site of illegal settlements (they were building a whole town when we came). As we drove up the hill circled by new white bricks it felt as we were ploughing  through the biggest settlement, overlooking the valley and Bethlehem on the other side of the valley. This was not the typical simple tinder block housing usually pictured when showing settlements in the occupied territories, but two to three bedroom and baths condos with high ceilings and large outdoor patios.  This land´s troubles and tribulations which were so apparent in every street, in every home, in every newspaper, on both sides of the check points, had left us with a severely sad taste in our mouths.  When we coincidently ended up in the middle of a Purim celebration in the ultra orthodox area in Jerusalem called Mea Shearim where  kids were throwing stones and china putts at us, I was not prepared for what would come next; a large grown man stopping in front of me, landing four large spit clusters that were slowly making their way down my dress.  After a lot of yelling we realized the safest bet was to get the hell out of there in a hurry. This particular area has become so violent especially towards women and Arabs that not even the police want to go near. The rubbish skips were running wild too,  no one in the public service would want to take any risks. I cannot tell how much I wanted out of Israel. Especially since I spent our last four days in a hotel room in Tel Aviv being food poisoned. With a constant agenda on war and terrorism, watching teenagers walking on the beach in swim trunks, slippers and machine guns, it was easy to imagine that if you had to live there, you would really want to escape from reality. I wanted to escape to my social democratic North.


Six months later I still found myself flying from the US to Tel Aviv on a one-way ticket.  This time I was going to work. I wanted to investigate a story I knew little about; the demolition of the Bedouin villages in the Negev.  I landed in Tel Aviv only a few days after Abbas had handed in the application for a Palestinian State at the UN and one day after the Jewish New Year. On 28 September 2011. I rented a car at Tel Aviv airport and headed south. Eventually I saw a sign in the dark; “Be aware of camels" and knew I was on the right track.  Found the Camel Ranch, got a hut, and asked the owner how he wanted payment. He gave me keys and a cup of Bedouin style tea and said: slow down, desert time now. I lived a rich, but simple life for the next five days.  Then I left the camel hut and drove to ‘the capital of the Negev’; Beer Sheva, where I was going to meet with my translator and guide, Momtaz who was working as a coordinator for Dukium (The nonprofit Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, a group made up of both Jews and Arabs). They were more than willing to help me to get in touch with the people in the various Bedouin villages.
Some people call it the ´Green Plan´. Others call it ´Ethnical cleansing´. The Bedouin story is so long and complicated, it took me weeks.. months to ponder after my trip, to flesh out this story. " - The Bedouin´s have a very uncertain future. Most of the 45 Bedouin villages in the Negev will never be recognized, but eventually be demolished,  and the indigenous people will be forced to move to one of the 7 townships in the Negev.  Unfortunately these townships have the highest crime rate and unemployment in Israel",   Momtaz said. I have later heard that people are comparing these places to the South African townships during the Apartheid regime. For the next couple of days Momtaz took me to various Bedouin villages and filled me in on their situation. We went off the map, with my little rental car which wasn't exactly made for the bumpy rocky roads along the sand dunes. Even though you could see some of the tents and shacks from the highway, most of them were to be found only by people who had been there at least two or three times before.  Their protective looks,  children running towards the car,  Suluki´s barking, covered women looking out from behind the shelters, cows, horses and goats, roosters screaming, but as soon as we sat down in their tents the tea and food would immediately be on the table.


When I was on my own, I drove along the highways, scouting out the  township of  Rahat, excited and shy by what I saw, but only knew too well I was sticking out in the crowd. Mosques, engines and kebab stores, the arabs grilling the meat in the back yard or on the pedestrian, men hanging around smoking, muslim women shopping, it was hard to believe I was still in Israel.  Driving off the highways with palms and flowers, all looking so neat.  This was like entering a time machine to somewhere I had never been. If anything, it reminded me of Morocco without the tourists. Rahat is now the second largest Arabic city in Israel, Nazareth being the largest.
"- Rahat was built in the 70´s, when the tribes had no land, the solution was to built a city for the Bedouins. 55% is younger than 18 years, we have a low budget, one bank for 50 000 and in the Jewish town Omer outside Beersheva, there are 5000 citizens and three banks. Public transportation only started to run here last year, Momtaz later explained. Momtaz also introduced me to many Bedouin women and men who were demonstrating in a large tent in Beer Sheva, outside the Ben Gurion University in the Negev. I met members of various Human Civil - and  Women Rights Organizations,  Knesset-member Talib El Sana, various Shechs (head of the villages), a German PhD social anthropologist, and other professors and activists.  Most women and men were shaking my hand and inviting me to their homes in the desert. - "It is simply about moral,  Thabet Abu Rass, said to me. Thabet,  a lawyer representing Arab minorities in Israel. " - Indigenous people should be treated equally in the democratic State of Israel. But the Palestinian Bedouin Arabs who are Israeli citizens are not. The villages, the ones who are finally recognized by the State, are still waiting for water 8 years after being recognized, while a Jewish settlement get water right away.  This is not how you treat people. Even if you have an enemy who needs water - you give it to him." 

 

I also met the human rights activist, Nouri al-Okbi, who told me he was born in Al Araqib. He had testified in court that the Israeli government confiscated 82 hectares of land from his family, without compensation, when they were expelled in 1951. I was later invited home to his family in Hura, one of few recognized Bedouin villages in the Negev where the family had resettled. He told me that he had recently showed evidence in court that the Jewish National Fund had bought land near Al Araqib from Bedouin owners, which proofs that the land must have been recognized as Bedouin-land in the past.
 
Poor Townships and Human Rights Watch

Already in 1963 Moshe Dayan, who would later become the Israeli Foreign Minister, said this in an interview in Haaretz; " We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat. (….) 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. (….), he would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. (…) Without coercion, but with Governmental direction, this phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear. " And so it went. The Israeli authorities started to "urbanize" the Bedouins. The word ´urbanize´ needs to be qualified though; not only does it go completely against the Bedouin culture which is more than 4000 years old, but it precludes any kind of lively hood that this culture has lived successfully for thousand of years.  According to the Human Rights Watch who published a 130 pages long report about the Bedouins in Israel in 2008, called "Off the Map", Israeli employs systematically discriminatory policies in the Negev, it is tearing down historic Bedouin villages before the courts have even rules on pending legal claims, and is handing out Bedouin land to allow Jewish farmers to set up ranches.  They said in their report that "although the villages do not appear on official maps, some existed before the state of Israel was established in 1948. Others sprang up after the Israeli army forcibly displaced Bedouin tribes from their ancestral lands immediately following the 1948 war. Israel passed laws in the 1950s and 1960s enabling the government to lay claim to large areas of the Negev where the Bedouin had formerly owned or used the land. Planning authorities ignored the existence of Bedouin villages when they created Israel's first master plan in the late 1960s.

 

The Bedouins constitute 25 percent of the population in the Northern Negev, but occupy less that 2 percent of its land.  Israeli officials contend that they are simply enforcing zoning and building codes and insist that Bedouin can relocate to seven existing government-planned townships or a handful of newly recognized villages. The government-planned townships are seven of the eight poorest communities in Israel and are ill-equipped to handle any influx of new residents. Many - if not most - Bedouins have rejected relocating to the townships, which have minimal infrastructure, high crime rates, scarce job opportunities, and insufficient land for traditional livelihoods such as herding and grazing. In addition, the state requires Bedouin who move to the townships to renounce their ancestral land claims - unthinkable for most Bedouin, who have claims to land passed down from parent to child over generations. On September 11th, Israel approved a plan to relocate 30,000 Bedouin from unrecognized villages, a plan known as the Prawer plan, which aims to relocate from their homes in southern Israel to settlements recognized by the state.
Demolition Al Araqib One week in the Negev and I was about to witness the 28th demolition of the village of Al-Araqib. The entire village had been erased first time in July 2010 and more than 300 people had become homeless. Nearly half of them were children under 16 years old.  According to several Human Rights Organizations including Human Rights Watch,  Israeli authorities had carried out these demolitions despite the pending legal claims to the land that Al Araqib residents are pursuing in Beer Sheva District Court. 

 

Noam Tirosh and Yusu, both working for Dukium had taken me up to a hilltop that day, overlooking what many Bedouin villages near Dimona, (the city infamous for its nuclear plant,  a well known kept secret when Israel tested their nuclear weapons with South Africa during the apartheid regime) to try and make it easier for me to understand the Bedouin story. " - On a very clear day,  you can see the whole siege area here, the "Bedouin triangle" more or less within the cities;  Dimona,  Arad and Beersheba. The Israeli authorities forced the Bedouins to move into this controlled and concentrated area after 1948, Noam said as we stood there in the heat with no breeze.  " -  What we are trying to do is to tell the government to let them stay in their villages and help them building health services and schools there instead, like in a kibbutz. You shouldn't have to be forced to move to a city, with high crime and unemployment to get the services that you need. This is a very complicated story and usually too complicated for the media to report on. It was on this day, when Noam and Yusu had taken me on that desert safari explaining the story of the Bedouin Land Grab, that we had to throw all that we were holding in our hands (fresh coffee at the petrol station near by) and drive as fast as we could to Al-Araqib village.
Yusu´s phone rang, she looked immediately frazzled, said something in Hebrew and Noam overheard the conversation and said: " - Let’s go, the police is knocking down the tents in Al Araqib!"   As we were driving on the highway, speeding back towards Beer Sheva, Noam kept saying " - shit, we won’t make it.. it only takes a minute or two to knock the tents down.. they are already there with  bulldozers and police vans, a whole army."  Then Noam asked me to slow down at the next street light,  then do a quick taxi turn to the right,  onto a "road" into the desert again. Behind the clouds of foggy sand we saw a train of white vans coming towards us from the village. " - Oh no, we didn't´t make it!,  Noam said frustratingly knowing that Al Araqib had once again been erased from this earth. We stopped the car and started photographing the police vans as they were driving slowly towards us heading out of the desert.  One of the police men were waving at us, smiling and posing for the camera,  as if making people homeless was just a fun thing to do...  we parked the car outside the cemetery (that they are not allowed to destroy) and heard the residents upsettingly discuss, waving their arms and pointing at what was left of the tents on the ground.  Azize, the son of the Shech (head of the village) was clearly upset, calling various people to inform.  Knesset member Talib El Sana, came only a few minutes later,  we all had lunch in the cemetery among heated Arabic discussions about their next move.  " - We will never give up, but fight and rebuilt our village of Al-Araqib, Sheikh Siyakh al-Turi  said. We were here before the State of Israel and we will stay here and fight for our land that our forefathers for generations have lived on. If we let Israel authorities get their hands on our land, they will build a forest here, and we cannot let that happen. "  As more men kept showing up to support Al Araqib, more food came on the tables made out of plastic milk crates. They had put up a two or three tents near the cemetery and a run down mosque,  this area was sacred and they were more safe there.  Men waving their arms,  shouting in Arabic at the same time eating frantically while pointing at the food and tell me to keep eating the home made bread, tomato salsa and what looked like fried rooster legs, all of them men and me.  When the men finished eating, they gave space for the others and went to the end of the tent to pray. Then they laid down on the mattresses and fell asleep.  We went to photograph the pieces of wood, material and fabric left from the demolition.  Yusu filmed Noam talking about the incident on camera.
 
Mental Examination

During almost three weeks with great help from Dukium, Momtaz guiding me around, we covered miles of sand,  rocky roads,  recognized and unrecognized villages, all with different tribes, different ways of living, different hospitality towards strangers, different food, clothes and agriculture.  Some of the villages were located near the highways, some of them hard to find, and some were located near factories containing dangerous smoke that had been proven to cause the residents cancer.  " - The Bedouins cannot move to another land, if they try they will get evicted on the spot. They cannot move to the Bedouin townships because it is too expensive to buy a house there with no room for their agricultural ways of living, even though they are giving a small compensation for the loss of their land that is not enough to buy anything. " Anyway, if they did buy something the ownership claims only lasts for 49 years.  It is a lose lose situation", Momtaz explained.
 
On my second trip to Israel I had fallen for this dry and sandy land.  With its warm and hospitably people, engaging discussions on politics, soft mules,  tribal music, sharing every meal of the day, the sound of wind and silence….  Now that I didn´t want to leave, I eventually had to buy a plane ticket and continue my travels to the North when the most absurd situation occurred in Tel Aviv;  Two of my friends from the Negev want to take me to the airport to say goodbye. We walk along the beach in Tel Aviv, it’s dark when a guy with motorcycle helmet stops me and ask what I am doing there alone "with those people". I told him "we are on holiday and they are my friends" where as he responded; you should not walk in the dark with people like them" I said excuse me but what right do you have to humiliate me like this, I am a journalist and they are my dear friends" . In the next second, he walks up to my friends, demand their passports and say to me; " don't worry, ill check their papers out and we´ll see if you´ll be safe". I was shocked. My friends looked like any other Arab or Jew, in modern clothing, black curly hair, although they were of Bedouin origins  they had university degrees and good jobs too.

I wanted to yell at the police man, but my friends asked me not to, as they were always afraid to get in trouble. They know they do not have the same rights as their fellow Israeli citizens.  After a fish dinner in Jaffa, they took me to Ben Gurion Airport and said goodbye. 

 

Then another bizarre incident happened; I was questioned, searched,  scanned and stripped for many hours, and at the end I missed my plane that I was hopeful to get one four hours earlier.  They forced me to take down my trousers in a separate room,  started to massage my arms, my scalp and pulling gently in my hair, the woman called it a "mental examination". The Security personnel later gave me a "compromise" as they called it, after what felt like the longest interrogation;  "You go on the plane to Oslo now as the last passenger checking onboard and we keep scanning in your equipments (camera, laptop and hard drives) which will take a long time, and we will send it to you in the mail to Norway when we have finished. Or you can stay here in Israel. It is a free country. " No way I was going back to Norway without my gear.  I knew I would never see my stuff again, and I knew I had a responsibility to make sure no one would get hold of my sources on this trip and other trips.  So there I was;  a journalist with an international press card treated by Israel airport security like a high alert terror suspect.


Instead I thanked them for the massage, said no thanks to the compromise, gathered my stuff that was spread out on various metal benches, ordered a cab and found a hotel with a good internet connection in Tel Aviv.  I later got hold of a man called Dysvik who worked at the Norwegian embassy in Tel Aviv who could confirm that this was “normal procedure, and that Israel is spying on other countries through both tourists and journalists leaving the country. This is a very unfortunate situation, and happens too often, regrettably they are making it hard for  journalists to do their work”, Dysvik said on the phone.  I sent my hard drive with UPS before I managed to get fairly out ok from the Ben Gurion airport's domestic terminal as a "landscape photographer". 

 

On the plane I got extremely sad, thinking about the story Henni and Tara had told me about their grandmother in Gaza. When she was dying, the whole family had driven all the way from Beer Sheva to Gaza to try and get in early in the morning. 12 hours outside the wall, and the soldiers told them that they would not get in after all, but they could try again the next day. The next day they waited in the car for hours, before the soldiers eventually let some of the family in- only the women. Henni had to wait in the car.  He never saw his grandmother again.
My incident that day was to live with. I got home in one piece, and would spend the next days with friends at a transgender conference in Trondheim. But I felt incredibly sad. Sad to think of the people who cannot walk in the street with a friend from Scandinavia without being rakishly harassed, without having to show their passports. I am sad to think that the people who had cooked and shared their lives with me, who experience so much racism will probably also soon become homeless.