ISRAEL — Mid-August 2016. 5AM. I am lying in my bed in my small room in my students’ apartment in Be’er Sheva, a big, quite city in southern Israel, in the middle of the desert. The air conditioner in the room is broken. Hot is an understatement!! 5AM and I have not yet closed my eyes, it is not clear whether it is due to the heat or my anxiety.
The phone rings. Oh no, It’s Atia. It is happening. It is actually happening. I answer, trying to sound awake. “Are they there?”
I hang up and the phone rings again. It’s Michal. “Be ready, I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.” Ten minutes later, Michal and I are in the car on our way to Al-Arakib.
Michal and I have been involved for several years in the struggle of the village of Al-Arakib. The village was established during the Ottoman period, and is located in the Negev – southern Israel, a desert region in which 30 percent of the population is indigenous Arab Bedouin. Half of the Bedouin live in unrecognized villages, so they are not connected to electricity, water or infrastructure. The other half live in overcrowded and poor urban settlements that the state has built for this population. Lose-lose.
In 2010, the state decided that it was necessary to plant a forest exactly where the village of Al-Arakib is sitting. The villagers, men, women, and children- amazing, strong and inspiring, refused to leave their land and move to Rahat, a city full of crime and violence, and decided to stay and fight for their homes. Then The Israeli authorities destroyed all the houses in the village. The villagers immediately tried to rebuild everything. However, since then, the authorities have been coming once a week and demolishing all the new structures. Since then, the village has been demolished more than a hundred times!
The only hope the residents has, is the Israeli court. There has been a long court case concerning the village. Until a decision will be taken, the court has ordered that the forest should not be planted. This is because once a forest is planted, there is no way back, trees cannot be uprooted (but people can). And indeed since the decision in 2010, not a single tree was planted.
So, Michal and I are in the car. The day before, the villagers had informed us that the authorities would arrive the next day to begin preparing the land to plant the forest. We were shocked. How come? There is no legal justification for this! We convinced ourselves that there is no chance that they will pull it through. These are just empty threats.
That was yesterday. And today, we are on our way to Al-Arakib. Michal is driving, Leonard Cohen’s CD is playing. That is the only CD Michal has in here small dusty car. Usually we sing along, but today we were completely quite. Only the deep voice of Leonard Cohen was heard.. I thought of the girl Arakib, a five-year-old beautiful girl named after the village, who knows nothing else but it. I thought of the long last seven years of struggle, of the sacrifices, the detentions, the money spent, traumas, pain and sorrow. I think, was everything for nothing?
After 20 minutes, we arrived to the dirt road leading to the village. Even after hundreds of times I have been there, I still havn’t got used to the spectacular views. When you enter the village you feel like you arrived to the end of the world. It is in the middle of nowhere. You see only landscapes of sand and sand all around you. It is such a powerfull place. But soon enough we started seeing the dozens of bulldozers, and police cars disturbing the peace. About one hundred people- villagers, friends and people who came to support, were all standing behind the police line and staring at the bulldozers preparing the land for planting. It was terribly hot, hotter than hell. People were crowded together to find a little shelter under the few small tries there. Some cried silently, but everyone was quite. Usually when we get there we spend 30 minutes just greeting, kissing and hugging everyone. But today we just came and stood with the crowd silently. My eyes crossed with Atia’s – the Chief’s san, and one of the leaders of the struggle. He tried to smile, but I could see the despair in his eyes, and big sadness took over me. Could this be the end?
Suddenly, Salim, a 16-year-old boy, ran quickly and bypassed the line of police officers who separated the villagers from the bulldozers. He ran so fast that the cops did not even try to get him. Then he stopped and stood in front of one of the bulldozers. The driver continued to drive towards him. The whole village was standing on their feet and shouting, “Stop driving!” “Salim! Move!”. At the last minute, when the bulldozer was nearly on him, Salim moved. In the same second, five police officers grabbed him by his hands and feet and dragged him into the police car.
From that moment on, there was a complete chaos, everyone, police officers and residents were shouting and running in every direction. I heard the screams of Salim’s mother ripping through the air. Everywhere I saw policemen grabbing and dragging more and more people into the police cars. I realized that I had to document what was happening. I took my cellphone and began to film. I never saw such violence, I was crying and filming. I shot the police beating men and women and children, dragging them on the floor, yelling at them and cursing them.
Suddenly a police officer came up to me and said: “Come with me, you are detained” “What? what for?” “For interfering with a policeman’s work” “How exactly did I interfere with your work?” “You can ask all of these questions at the police station”.
I followed him to the car, where three more detainees were already waiting and we drove together to the police station in Rahat. There, after a whole day of waiting in a crowded room, they interrogated as all, and then released us. When we came out of the police station, the whole village was waiting outside together with many other activists, Jews and Arabs. After all the hugs and kisses, they told us that after we were arrested, the bulldozers stopped working and left. To this day, they have not returned. The struggle of the villagers for recognition continues, and the police file against us is still open.