Amra is separated by a fence from the Jewish town Omer near the city Beersheba, the main city in the Negev desert.
At about 10.30PM every night, al-Menm tells IPS, Israeli forces lock the entrance to the village, effectively imprisoning the approximately 4,000 residents inside until guards unlock the gate in the morning.
Menm describes this act as collective punishment of the villagers for not leaving the land. "We are citizens of the state of Israel, and this is how they treat us. We pay taxes, we vote, and yet we don't have running water or electricity, and they have not provided our community with schools or any services."
Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Bedouin communities in the Negev desert have been under siege. Yet as home demolitions and Israeli military attacks in the occupied Palestinian territories grab headlines, some in the Bedouin communities inside Israel say their situation is comparable -- if not sometimes worse -- than that in Gaza and the West Bank.
IPS spoke with Faizal Sawalha of the Regional Council on Unrecognized Villages of the Negev (RCUV). Sawalha said that there are approximately 76,000 Bedouins currently living in 45 "unrecognized" villages scattered across the Negev desert. Even though they are citizens of the state of Israel, the people in these villages are denied basic social services such as schools, medical clinics or paved roads, and not one village has electricity, gas, or running water.
What happened recently in Taweel abu Jabral is a regular occurrence across the Bedouin villages in the Negev. Three weeks ago, Menm tells IPS, hundreds of Israeli police and security services came with dogs, bulldozers and weapons during a home demolition operation. "There is violence almost on a daily basis. They come and harass us. What can we do against them? How do we protect ourselves, as citizens of the state? Does this look like the democracy of the Middle East that they talk about?"
Sawalha tells IPS that recently the Israeli government has offered to "solve" what they call the Bedouin problem.
"The core of the Israeli government's plan is to take over the entire land. The Bedouins here in the Negev live on less than 2 percent of the land, and they are 27 percent of the population. What Israel sees as the solution is to make (the Bedouins) live in urban areas, in towns and cities.
"And of course, urban places do not suit their lifestyle -- these are agricultural people, they want to live on their farms and herd their sheep. Over the years, the Israeli government established seven urban towns specifically for the Bedouins of the Negev. But they did not provide the Bedouins with any means of living, so many of them are now unemployed."
Menm says that in these deeply poor communities, education is a luxury. "My children have to cross a valley in which there are sewage and garbage dumps just to get to the nearest school, which is 15 kilometres away. Many of our children end up dropping out of school, especially the girls."
East of the Israeli town of Beersheba lies the unrecognized village of Wadi Niyam. An acrid, stinging smell permeates this area, where hundreds of tin-walled shanty huts perch on the stubby, dry hillsides. Sawalha tells IPS that 17 chemical plants were built west of this village in the 1970s in an area called Ramat Hovav. North of the village, an enormous electricity plant emits an audible hum, and to the south, Israel has built several military industrial parks.
Ibrahim Abu Affash, a 54-year-old resident of Wadi Niyam and father of 15 children, tells IPS that his community suffers from dozens of illnesses brought on by the close proximity of these industrial areas, especially the chemical plants.
"The Israeli Ministry of Health confessed to the people that this area is very polluted and toxic," Abu Affash tells IPS. "We suffer from serious cancer problems to the simplest illnesses. Nearly all of the children here have asthma. The women have regular miscarriages. We have skin problems, such as rashes and lesions, eye diseases, stomach problems, nauseous reactions to the toxic smells.
"Two weeks ago, one of the chemical plants at Ramat Hovav had an explosion, and toxic gases were released into the air. The authorities evacuated all the industrial workers in buses, but they did not inform this village until nearly two hours later. We did not have any buses to evacuate us...most of us just stayed inside, even though our homes are made of tin and scraps. We put pieces of cloth on our faces."
Abu Affash says that his community is unique. "Unlike other Bedouin and Palestinian villagers, we want to move from our village. Israel conducts regular home demolitions here. We don't want to stay here. But they won't give us any decent place to live."
The residents of Wadi Niyam have gone to the Israeli High Court of Justice three times to try to encourage the state to take action on their increasingly difficult situation.
Abu Affash waves a hand at the enormous electricity plant next to the village. "We recently went to the Israeli High Court to ask for electricity for our small school. Instead of connecting the school to the electricity plant, which is only 300 metres away from it, they brought in gas-powered generators. And when we told them that we needed a new school to accommodate the increasing number of children in this village, the High Court agreed.
"So they came back to the village, and instead of building a new school, they built a wall in the middle of the old school, dividing it into two schools." Abu Affash laughs. "They said this was a temporary school, but the old school has been 'temporary' since 1948."
"Hopefully," Menm tells IPS, "with attention from the media, we can begin to change our situation. This is our ancestral land and we want to live in it, wherever we choose. We should be treated as equal citizens. Israel claims it is a democracy and there is equality, but we are never treated as equal. It seems to me that Israel is united against the Arabs. We have been forced to leave so many times from our lands."
In Sawalha's opinion, the policies against Bedouins in the Negev exist to serve a single purpose: to continue the oppression against the indigenous populations in order to "judiaise" the entire land. "It doesn't matter where you are; as an Arab in the West Bank, in Gaza, or inside the state of Israel, the indigenous people continue to suffer from the policies of the state."
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Albion Monitor September
4, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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