Khader Abu al-Kian’s dusty village of Atir has never existed on any official map, and now it is disappearing before his eyes.
For decades he and his fellow Arab Bedouins eked out a meagre existence in the Negev desert, largely under the Israeli government’s radar. But soaring property costs and a housing crisis are driving a new appetite in Israel for land and development opportunities, and even the harsh Negev looks good.
Israel has already invested around $5.6 billion to construct military bases in the Negev and will build 10 new communities there. The Bedouins will have to make way, a plan they say shows that Arabs are second-class citizens in Israel and is a betrayal given their past efforts to help build up the state.
The bulldozers have already been through Atir, demolishing homes and orchards, but Abu al-Kian, 70, refuses to leave.
“For 41 years I worked on this land, in the fresh air, for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Jewish National Fund, planting trees and putting out forest fires,” he said, wearing a white scarf on his head cinched with a black cord.
“I have citizenship, but they still destroyed my house. Now I have only the shirt on my back. It’s like they’re saying to me, ‘Just leave and go to hell’,” he said, his voice shaking.
The majority of Israel’s 1.6 million Arab citizens dwell in cities and small towns in the north and centre. But 200,000 Bedouins live in the southern desert, half in government-built townships and half in 42 ramshackle “unrecognised” villages without running water, electricity or sanitation.
A draft law, which will likely come to a final vote after parliament returns from recess in October, expects to have to move some 40,000 Bedouins from many of the unrecognised villages into the seven townships, although some villages will stay.
The “Prawer Plan” will compensate many Bedouin with a combination of land and cash and bring them into “the 21st century” by significantly improving their standard of living, according to a government-sponsored report on the draft.