It’s game over for the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in Israel’s Negev region. Government bulldozers may begin crushing the homes of the roughly 500 residents at any time. On the rubble will be built a new town called Hiran, complete with a synagogue and Jewish ritual bath. A group of religious Jews are living nearby, ready to move in.
The violent fate of Umm al-Hiran is a fitting end to 60 years of neglect and discrimination. The village was established in its present location by an official order of the IDF military governor in 1956. Even though settled in this spot by the state, they were still “unrecognized” and thus denied the basic services necessary for dignified life, such as electricity, water, roads, and sewage. They were also denied building permits so that their homes are “illegal.” The Jews who will replace them will live in “legal” homes with all the necessary services.
If you love Israel as I do, you’re saying to yourself, “Impossible! The courts would never allow it!” I’m sorry to say: Israel’s Supreme Court has failed, and then failed again, to protect Arab minorities from our sometimes-brutal discrimination. Umm al-Hiran is a prime example. Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, professor emeritus at Hebrew University Faculty of Law, and Professor Hanoch Dagan, professor in the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University, offered the following analysis of the legal proceedings [here’s a link – emphasis and translation are mine]:
“In April 2004, the state submitted claims to remove the villagers from the property. During these proceedings, the state claimed that the villagers were trespassers that had not received permission to settle on the land. The magistrate court, and in its wake the district court, ruled that the villagers are not trespassers but rather received permission from the state to settle in this place.”
Kremnitzer and Dagan quote from the Supreme Court decision itself:
“… the claim that [the villagers] must be removed … was based on the claim that the villagers are trespassers on the property, but in fact they received permission to be there … [furthermore] the planning bodies explained that there was no problem, in principle or in terms of public planning, to include the homes of the villagers in the town plan for a [new] town …”
So, we learn that the state claimed that the villagers were trespassers, but the court ruled that in fact they had permission. And we learn that their homes could have been included in the new plan. So why does the state plan to destroy the village?
It turns out that the villagers, who say that they did not know the state planned to destroy their village, did not submit their opposition to the correct government authorities at the correct time. And thus, we find that two mistakes were made. The villagers’ mistake was procedural. The state’s mistake was that after it put the villagers in this spot and denied them services for 60 years, it “mistakenly” declared them trespassers, and on that false assumption, planned to destroy their homes, expel them, and build a town for other people in their place. The court further argued that the government plan was “not unreasonable.”
Kremnitzer and Dagan: “… the laws of property in Israel (as in other states) place a special emphasis on the rights of one whose property is her home, and not just real estate. A person’s home is understood by the court, and rightly so, as an anchor of her identity and character … [Nonetheless, the court] adopted a severe and scholastic attitude towards the villagers for not submitting their opposition … on time. However, this mistake was much less severe than that of the state, which involved a positive act of attributing a crime (trespassing) to residents who were innocent (for they had received permission) … it is difficult to complain against the villagers who did not understand that the state’s plans for the [new] Hiran town involved the destruction of their village even though they established their lives there with the permission of the state and [even] as there was no logistical or other problem with them continuing to live there. Is it reasonable to treat people who are supposedly equal citizens of the state, to drag them from one place to another … and then after 60 years of settlement, to destroy their village to establish another one on its ruins?”
No, it is not. It is a betrayal of both Jewish and democratic values, an act of brutal discrimination, and a source of future hatred and violence that will plague us for generations.
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Note: The views in this article are the author’s own and do not represent any institution.
Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Bible, Jewish Thought, and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is also the chairperson of the Israeli Human Rights NGO Haqel – Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a BA in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the IDF from 1990-1993.