For the sixth time in a decade, farmer Ismail Mohamed Salem watched Israeli bulldozers raze his home in this disputed Bedouin village.
Hours later, he sat next to the rubble and vowed to rebuild — yet again.
“This is my land,” said Salem, 70, as his grandchildren lay sleeping on straw mats next to the demolished structure, now a 20-foot pile of twisted aluminum, broken concrete and splintered wood. “Why should I leave?”
Salem’s home was among 45 demolished early Tuesday as part of a long-running dispute between Arab tribes in the Negev desert and the Israeli government.
Bedouin residents, who are Muslim, say they were forced off their land nearly six decades ago and are pushed out again whenever they return. Israeli officials say the property was taken over by the state in the early 1950s because it was abandoned and has been slated by the Jewish National Fund for a massive national park.
Destruction of Arakib village — the largest such razing in years —- left many of the 300 Arab-Israeli citizens homeless in 100-degree temperatures and raised fears that Israel is resuming a crackdown on what it calls “unauthorized” Bedouin shantytowns that dot southern Israel.
The long-running Bedouin saga is often overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
These tribes once wandered modern-day Jordan, Israel and Egypt in search of pastures for their animals. But the nomadic way of life began coming to a halt for most after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when national borders were formed. Most fled to Jordan and Egypt after Israel’s war for independence in 1948, leaving about 10,000 Bedouins in Israel.
As usual here, the dispute today is over land ownership. Bedouin families around Arakib say they own about 4,600 acres of the desert, insisting that they paid taxes during the Ottoman period and British Empire. Gravestones in the cemetery show some families have inhabited the area for at least 140 years.
In 1951, Bedouin leaders say, they were forced by Israel’s military into settlements along the West Bank border.
“They told us we could come back in six months,” said Nori Uqbi, a community activist who is suing the government to regain control of what he says is his family’s land. “But it was all a lie.”
Instead, he said, the villagers were never allowed to return and have been prevented from cultivating the land.
In 1999, several dozen families rushed back and began building homes when it appeared that Israeli authorities were trying to reforest the area and seize the land. After that, confrontations — both in the courthouse and on the ground — have occurred regularly. Bedouins built homes, and Israeli bulldozers demolished them. The government sprayed crops with chemicals to kill them, but farmers plowed the dirt and replanted.
Israeli officials say the property in question was taken by the state because inhabitants were unable to produce deeds.
Authorities characterize Bedouins as “squatters” who refuse to pay rent, cultivate land that does not belong to them and raise animals without obtaining the necessary livestock permits.
“The families continued to plant on the state lands and expanded their invasion by building structures without approval, blatantly trampling the law,” the Israeli Land Authority said in a statement Tuesday.
Much of the area, which is adjacent to the ancient city of Beersheba, is due to become a park that would include bike paths, hotels, an amusement park and other tourist attractions.
The Israeli Defense Forces also use the Negev — a largely inhospitable terrain that makes up about 60% of Israel’s land mass — for training.
For years, Israel’s proposed solution for dealing with the Bedouins in the south, who now number about 140,000, has been to move them into seven cities in southern Israel. Though poor, the communities offer basic infrastructure, such as water, electricity, schools and sewage.
About half of the Bedouins have opted to move to the cities, but the rest are living in about 45 villages and encampments with no government services.
“They are trying to move us all onto reservations,” said Uqbi, referring to the seven communities. “But there is no economy, no jobs, no place for agriculture.”
In 2008, a state-appointed commission recommended that the government recognize most of the “unauthorized” villages and provide permits for the homes.
Large-scale demolitions in Arakib stopped about four years ago, residents say. But seated under a canvas tent Tuesday, looking out over the piles of debris left by the bulldozers, village leaders said the cycle appears to be starting again. And by late afternoon, the desert dunes began to echo with a familiar rhythmic thud as hammers pounded nails into fresh wooden frames.