In Israel's desert, a fight for land

70,000 Bedouin live in villages that are officially unrecognized by the Israeli government.

The first Friday prayers at Tel Malah's new mosque were supposed to be a joyous occasion.

"We used to have to travel 12 kilometers [7.5 miles] to pray," said Khalil Abu Massad, a local resident. "The idea was that now we would have our own mosque."

But with the community's dispersal an official objective of the Israeli government, it was more than a question of convenience. The Bedouin village of 3,000, situated on desert hills turned green from the winter rain, is comprised mostly of shanties with corrugated roofs and yards of goats, camels and small olive trees. The mosque was made from concrete, a sign of permanence, and for Israeli authorities, a challenge.

On Feb. 5, two days before the Friday service but well after an order to stop building, Israeli bulldozers turned the new mosque into a heap of rubble and twisted metal, touching off outrage among Israeli Muslims and condemnations from some Jewish leaders as well. Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and member of Knesset, termed the demolition "a disgrace."

For the state of Israel, as well as for the 70,000 Bedouin living in 46 unrecognized villages, there is more at stake here than the mosque. The Tel Malah dispute comes as the cabinet prepares to approve a new plan for the Negev Desert that officials, analysts, and Bedouin activists say will boost efforts to move the Bedouin out of their 46 unrecognized villages and estimated 62,500 acres of land and into seven townships and a handful of planned communities.

The reason given for the demolition was that the mosque was built without a permit. But since Tel Malah, which has no electricity, water, or services, is unrecognized by authorities, there is now no legal means of obtaining a permit.

David Cohen, the official who decided on the demolition, said he would not have granted one and would instead have encouraged residents to relocate to a town that already has mosques.

Mr. Cohen, the southern district director for the Interior Ministry, says he tolerates most illegal structures but could not overlook this construction because it was outside the area previously used by the community. "We saw this as a deliberate attempt to expand the area they are using," he said. "They refused to stop." In a show of defiance, activists began rebuilding the site. Cohen, for his part, says he is ready to demolish it again.

The Negev plan includes changes in the law to make demolitions easier and, at the prompting of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the establishment of 30 new family farms for Jews only.

Taleb Sanaa, a Bedouin member of the Knesset, calls it "a declaration of war against the Bedouin citizens." But Cohen sees the plan as a means to stop the "incursions" of Bedouin onto lands claimed by the state. He says that due to a high natural birth rate, expansion by Bedouin is taking place at an "astonishing rate."

Bedouin activist Atiyeh Asim says the expansion is a result of "natural growth" and adds that the government facilitates the expansion of Jewish towns. "We have children and we want to live," he says. "The main problem is that the government wants the land we are on. It wants to concentrate the Bedouin, the way the Americans did to the Indians."

"We do not demand reparations for [the Israeli town of] Mitzpe Ramon and we do not want to kick out the people who live there now, but we say: Let us have the land we are on now and do not take it from under our feet," he says.

Cohen, however, says there is "no chance" the state will recognize the 46 communities. "From an economic point of view, the state simply cannot run after every extended family and set up roads, water, electricity, and sewage. We are not going to draw up master plans for every group of a few hundred people. And there is no way that we will allow the region to be transformed into an assortment of [Bedouin] clusters that will grow together over time."

In Cohen's view, the solution lies in moving the Bedouin into seven existing towns and seven new areas that are being planned. He sees this being done by use of both the carrot and the stick, with an improvement in infrastructure, services, and economic opportunities making a move more attractive.

Reuven Aharoni, a Haifa University expert on the Bedouin, predicts that Israel will fail to move more Bedouin into towns. "The main problem is there is no employment for them," he said. "There are also cultural reasons such as not being accustomed to living in crowded town conditions and tribal leaders not wanting changes that would erode their standing."

In Tel Malah, Abu Massad, the local resident, welcomes a visitor into what he calls his family's diwan, or court. "All of the villages used to drink from this well, but now we cannot even see it." The well is in an area that is now part of the neighboring Israeli Air Force base, built during the 1980s, he says. "My ancestors drank from that well from the beginning," he says.

Cohen says that the residents of Tel Malah were compensated when the airforce base was built and they moved away. But in recent years they came back, he says. Residents deny having left. "The government will have to decide what do with them," Cohen says. "I am very skeptical that Tel Malah will ever be a permanent settlement. There is definitely a very big question about it."

Abu Massad says he recently found a notice from the government saying his diwan is to be demolished. "There is no security here," he says. "They can come at any time and tell you, take your kids out of the house, we are destroying it. But I won't ever move to a town. I am only comfortable here. Even if I have to sleep in my car, I'll never leave."

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