UMM AL-HIRAN, Israel – Israelis are once again locked in a bitter settlement dispute with their Arab neighbors, but this time the conflict is not unfolding in the West Bank, but in Israel's southern desert.
After years of legal battles, Israel's Supreme Court last week cleared the way for the government to uproot the nearly 60-year-old Bedouin Arab village of Umm al-Hiran, a dusty hill of ramshackle dwellings without proper electricity or water hookups, and in its place build "Hiran," a new community seemingly catering to Jews that is expected to feature a hotel and country club.
The project has reignited a simmering conflict between Israel's Bedouin community, which says it is a victim of discrimination, and the government, which says it is trying to bring order to a lawless area and give a better quality of life to the impoverished minority.
Israel says the hundreds of villagers are sitting on state-owned land slated for development and is offering them free plots in a Bedouin township just down the road. But villagers say the plan is cut-and-dry Israeli discrimination — part of a broader demographic battle over the land.
"Why are the Jews allowed and we are not allowed?" said villager Salim Abu Alkiyan, a husband to three wives and father of 14 children, who has been fighting evacuation orders in court for more than a decade.
The Supreme Court says authorities should consider giving some villagers discounted plots of land in the new development, but the villagers believe a large Bedouin population wouldn't be tolerated there. A group of religious Jewish families with ties to the West Bank settlement movement are living in a temporary encampment in a nearby forest waiting to move to the future Hiran.
Liad Aviel, a spokesman of a government office for Bedouin affairs, said authorities are offering the villagers alternate housing in the nearby Bedouin township of Hura, and not in Hiran. Mixed Bedouin-Jewish communities are nonexistent, save for a smattering of Bedouin families who live in overwhelmingly Jewish communities.
The development plan is part of a larger settlement program the Israeli government has in store for its barren Negev desert. In 2002, it approved the founding of 14 new Israeli communities in the region, including Hiran, which Israeli leaders have said will strengthen "national resilience."
For decades, Israel has been trying to convince scattered, off-the-grid Bedouin villagers that it is in their interest to move into government-designated Bedouin townships, where the government can provide them with water, electricity and schools.
The matter has moved slowly. This is Bedouin country, where road signs warn of crossing camels, and Bedouin Arabs tend to resolve their internal disputes in tribal courts. Government officials negotiate the issue with the formerly nomadic tribes over tiny cups of traditional bitter coffee.
Villagers say they want to maintain their rural lifestyle, and they demand the government officially recognize their villages and hook them up to the national water system and power grid.
Advocates for the Bedouin say it is unfair that Israel is trying to consolidate dispersed Bedouin encampments while subsidizing individual Israeli families who have set up dozens of small farms throughout the Negev desert. One such farm, which has an animal hotel and pet graveyard, is a short drive away from Umm Al-Hiran.
Arab activists are gearing up to fight the planned evacuation, whose date has not been announced. The leader of a newly invigorated Arab party in parliament recently marched from Bedouin country to Jerusalem in support of the unrecognized villages, and Arab activists say they are considering renewing the street protests waged two years ago that led the government to table a large-scale Bedouin resettlement plan.
"Umm Al-Hiran is the spearhead," said Majd Kayyal of Adalah, a legal center defending Arab rights in Israel. "If this goes through, it will be easier to demolish the other villages."
Israel's more than 200,000 Bedouins are the poorest members of the country's Arab minority, which also includes Christian and Muslim urban communities. Israeli Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country's 8 million people, are citizens but often suffer discrimination and tend to identify with Palestinians in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza Strip. On Friday, Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories mark the anniversary of the "naqba," or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of people fled or were displaced during the war surrounding Israel's establishment.
The case of Umm Al-Hiran is a saga of alternating loyalties and suspicions between the formerly nomadic Bedouin and Israel, stretching back to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. Israeli military officials relocated a section of the Abu Alkiyan clan multiple times, moving them in 1956 to their present location.
Why they were moved there is the subject of debate.
Villagers say Israel moved them to Umm Al-Hiran — very close to the West Bank border — to clear up space for military use, and entrusted the villagers with guns to protect the Israeli border area from enemy infiltrators from the West Bank, then ruled by Jordan.
According to a 1957 Israeli government memo, the clan was involved in weapons smuggling and gathering intelligence for the Jordanians, and the clan was moved to their present location, where Israel believed it could keep a close eye on them. Salim Abu Alkiyan rejects those claims.
Unlike other unrecognized Bedouin villages with longstanding land claims, the Bedouin of Umm Al-Hiran were leased government land but were never given ownership of it. They have rejected Israeli offers of free land in a nearby township in exchange for leaving.
"When you can have land for free with no strings attached, why would you accept less land for free with some strings attached?" said Avi Briggs of Regavim, an organization supporting what its website calls a "Jewish and Zionist agenda" with regard to land issues in Israel. The group supports the government's relocation plan.
Abu Alkiyan says the roughly 600 people in his village would be willing to be a part of the new Hiran development, but doubts the new community would accept them. He says they would also be willing to move to a new location where Israel could ensure their rural lifestyle, but says Israel has not made such an offer.
Abu Alkiyan, who owns a furniture store in Hura, says he refuses to move there, claiming that it is stricken with violence and that his rural village is safer and more suited to his way of life. For two hours each evening after work, he takes his flock out to pasture, he said, playing a video on his smartphone of a group of white goats amid clumps of green.