Under Siege: One Bedouin Family’s Struggle to Live in Israel

On December 14, 2012, a version of this story appeared on Al-Akhbar English under the title Umm al-Sahali: Life in a Fading Palestinian Village”, and on December 15, 2012, another version of it ran in +972 Magazine.

Left: a brick-paved road and an affluent Jewish community.  Right: A dirt path leading to a Bedouin village.

Left: a brick-paved road and an affluent Jewish community. Right: A dirt path leading to a Bedouin village.

-Paul Karolyi

In the early 1950s, a Bedouin Arab named Atif Mohammad Sawa’ed (Abu Walid) bought a parcel of land from the Shafa ‘Amr municipality, 25 kilometers east of Haifa, hoping to build a home for his new wife and his family. The land he bought lies on a hilltop, no more than two kilometers south of Shafa ‘Amr in the Lower Galilee. It is a beautiful place, and at that time it was uninhabited. From the front steps of the home he built, you can see the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean, the urban sprawl of Haifa, and if you look north on a clear day, you can even see into Lebanon.

Haifa and the Mediterranean are seen from the hilltop in Umm al-Sahali

Haifa and the Mediterranean are seen from the hilltop in Umm al-Sahali

As the Sawa’ed family grew, so too did Israel around them. In the early years of Israel’s existence, the government instituted a policy of “Judaization” in the Galilee. On the recommendation of David Ben Gurion, who famously said that traveling through the Galilee did not feel like traveling through Israel, the government seized thousands of acres of land to found three new urban centers for new Jewish immigrants.  In addition to the cities, many new Jewish neighborhoods were founded.  The purpose of the plan was to negate the perceived threats of a demographic imbalance to the Jewish nature of the State.  Though the term “Judaization” has gone out of style, modern politicians still openly speak about defense against the “Arab Threat”.

The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel have a difficult choice. There is too much poverty to move into affluent, Jewish neighborhoods (the government and the residents of which are actively trying to stymie this anyways, see the “Admission Committees” Law and a long history not selling homes to Arabs), there are too many people already living in Arab municipalities, and the Israeli government refuses to sanction any growth in municipal lands.  The choice is between living in smaller and smaller homes, legal yet crowded; living with neighbors who are actively trying to remove you; or breaking the law by building permit-less homes.

In this time, 25,000 dunam of land, 6250 acres, were expropriated from Shafa ‘Amr. The confiscated land was initially designated for military use but was later developed for Jewish settlements. In 1961 there were around 8,000 people living there, in 2009, that number had ballooned up to over 35,000.  The Israeli government has not allocated enough land to Shafa ‘Amr to keep up with the growth of the population.  In 1962, Shafa ‘Amr was 10,731 dunams, and in 2009, it is still only 19,766.

The lack of available housing in Arab municipalities is a well-documented phenomenon. This is the story of how the restrictions placed on Shafa ‘Amr continue to directly affect Abu Walid and the Sawa’ed family.

For Abu Walid, the restrictions to Shafa ‘Amr’s expansion meant Umm al-Sahali – now a small town whose residents are predominantly Abu Walid’s extended family – became isolated. It remains one of many unrecognized villages in Israel. Two kilometers from Umm al-Sahali, a Jewish town called Adi was established in 1980 as a part of the “Lookouts in the Galilee” plan. The Jewish residents of Adi built stables for their livestock, playgrounds for their children, and all the other expected features of a modern, affluent, residential space. Adi is administered by the Emek Yisrael Regional Council. Its proximity to Umm al-Sahali means that the governmental administration of Umm al-Sahali’s land fell to Emek Yisrael as well, severing the link between the people and the land.

The northern border of Adi is shared with the Shafa 'Amr municipality.  As you can see, Umm al-Sahali is well within the dotted line.

The northern border of Adi is shared with the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. As you can see, Umm al-Sahali is well within the dotted line.

While Abu Walid’s land is in Emek Yisrael, there are no bus lines that take his children to school, there is no electricity in his homes, and there is no connection to central plumbing. The residents of Adi enjoy all these services. In fact, a power line was built through Umm al-Sahali leading from Adi to the central grid. It literally traverses Abu Walid’s land while skipping over his home.

The power lines from Adi lead down into the valley

The power lines from Adi lead down into the valley

In 1994, the situation got worse for Abu Walid’s family when the Haifa District Court ruled that six houses in Umm al-Sahali were to be demolished. Without offering Abu Walid an opportunity to appeal the decision or to make a plea for his case, the government set in motion a plan to remove them from this hilltop. Abu Walid says he is not sure why they want to destroy the houses. At times he hypothesizes that the land is too strategic to pass up “You build a tower here, you can see Haifa University, the Golan, and the mountains in Lebanon.” He vacillates between that opinion and an agricultural option, “maybe they want this land for farms or something.”

Regardless of the murky reasoning, it took four years for the demolition orders to be acted on. In 1998 the notorious rumble of tread on dirt that has become so familiar to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza could be heard on the road leading up to the peaceful hilltop community of Umm al-Sahali.

Something wholly unexpected happened next. The community rallied behind Abu Walid’s family. And not just the Palestinians living in Shafa ‘Amr, but also the Jews living in Adi who had developed close relationships over the years with their neighbors in Umm al-Sahali. So, when the bulldozers started knocking down buildings, people came out in droves. What started as protests turned into riots when the police showed up. Hundreds of people were arrested, and at least 40 were injured in a crossfire of tear gas, rubber covered-steel bullets, and live ammunition. Though the protests eventually stopped the demolitions, three homes were destroyed that day.

Not only did the community turn out to protest the demolitions, but its members stuck around to help rebuild as well. All three homes that were destroyed that day have since been reconstructed.

This home was rebuilt following the demolitions in 1998.

This home was rebuilt following the demolitions in 1998.

In the fourteen years since, the political climate surrounding the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel has changed.  Resistance to Israeli discrimination has grown and the movement has become better organized.  The Palestinian minority’s nationalist spirit was galvanized by the events of October 2000 when IDF soldiers and Israeli police were called in to quell solidarity protests held in concurrence with the Al-Aqsa Intifada.  In the ensuing clashes, twelve Palestinian citizens and one Gazan day laborer were killed.  The murders of the thirteen victims have never been investigated and no perpetrators have been brought to justice.

Since 1998, Abu Walid has been concerned less with national politics, and more concerned with finding suitable housing for his family. Despite petitions from residents requesting permits for new houses and to legalize the rebuilt structures, the Emek Yisrael Regional Council refuses to recognize Umm al-Sahali or allow for its expansion. “There are men, 30 years old, living in the houses they were born in,” Abu Walid said. “They cannot get married or start a family.” The 80 residents of Umm al-Sahali, still predominantly the extended family of Abu Walid, live today in 13 small houses.

Earlier this year, Abu Walid’s son, Sayid Sawaed got married.  Out of desperation, he and his new bride built a small structure out of aluminum siding near his father’s home. They don’t even call it a house because it is not a permanent structure. They prefer a word that translated best as “shack”. The ironic thing about Sayid’s new home is that however shabby and dilapidated the outside appears, the interior is awash in modern luxuries.  He has fitted out his new living space with leather furniture, numerous kitchen appliances, and even a flat screen TV.  The problem is not the money.  They clearly have the money to build proper homes.  The government simply refuses to permit them.

The exterior of Sayid's new home.

The exterior of Sayid’s new home.

Sayid was proud to show off the interior of his home.

Sayid was proud to show off the interior of his home.

The flat screen TV may seem out of place in a rural village with no connection to the power grid, but Abu Walid and his family have figured out other ways to get electricity. At first they purchased large portable generators. Each home was outfitted with a generator and, though it was far from perfect, it was enough. Unfortunately, the city council of Adi had some complaints about the noise from the generators. The city council appealed to the Regional Council and the generators were quickly seized.

Abu Walid told me his story on a tour of Umm al-Sahali. Pointing to a small building in the distance, he said, “Do you see that? That is a stable for horses. The people of Adi have electricity and air conditioning for their horses and we have nothing.”

Abu Walid finds a way around every restriction the Israeli government places on his land. When their generators were seized, the people of Umm al-Sahali outfitted each of their thirteen houses with a functioning solar panel. . They have struggled for fifty years to find these types of creative ways to get around the intrusions of the government.  After the most recent developments; however, the days of resilient workarounds may be over.

One of the many solar panels in Umm al-Sahali.

One of the many solar panels in Umm al-Sahali.

Following the construction of Sayid’s makeshift “shack” in the spring of 2012, the Haifa District Court once again ordered the demolition of houses in Umm al-Sahali. This time seven of the 13 were condemned. Abu Walid, as head of the village, took his brother and went to the Emek Yisrael Regional Council to appeal the decision. They had several meetings with various officials, but the council members, but they defended the court’s decision and sent Abu Walid home.

Unlike in some other unrecognized villages in the Naqab, the government has not offered the Sawa’ed family access to alternative housing. “They must want me to leave. Why should I? I own this land,” Abu Walid says.

My visit to Umm al-Sahali coincided with the planned date of the first demolition.  Since Tuesday, November 14, Sayid and his wife live in fear of waking up to bulldozers with orders to destroy their home. They don’t know when it will happen; it could be a week, a month, or even a year. But they know it is coming.

Abu Walid believes that Umm al-Sahali should be absorbed by the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. With roads leading into town, bus routes near his home, and power lines, Abu Walid could finally get his kids to school on time and keep some lights on at night for them to do coursework. The Shafa ‘Amr municipality is on record approving this plan, and the Arab High Follow-Up Committee supports it as well.

Unfortunately, the Israeli government will never accept this proposal.  It would mean expanding the borders of Shafa ‘Amr and allowing for growth in an Arab municipality. In its refusal to make this prudent zoning adjustment, Israel displays the policy that maintaining a favorable demographic balance is higher on the list of state priorities than the protection of the welfare of its citizens. Abu Walid described how it felt to have his proposal stifled.  He said “I just want freedom on my land.  I don’t care how it happens.  This is an occupation and it should be settled.”

The human rights of 80 people are being violated on because the Israeli government refuses to allow for an expansion of the Shafa ‘Amr municipality. This bureaucratic quagmire in Umm al-Sahali is “Judaization” in another form, just a new way of countering the perceived “Arab Threat”. With these terms in mind, it’s no surprise that Abu Walid insisted, “Umm al-Sahali is like Gaza inside Israel.  We are living under siege.”