Source: @rcuvnegev

Wadi al-Khalil is a desert village forty-five minutes south of Tel Aviv in the Negev (al-Naqab in Arabic) desert.  The area is ancient, boasting some of the oldest discovered surfaces on earth, and is home to Bedouin farmers and herders.

Desert Royalty

Bedouins are desert royalty, having lived across large swathes of the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and across historic Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq since around 850 BCE. They are the stuff of legends. Their network of camps and settlements was so pervasive that the Roman Empire recognised their identity as a single people, the ‘desert dwellers.’ Every occupying army thereafter afforded this indigenous population recognition and status as being rooted to the land – except for the state of Israel, who assumed full control of the Negev in 1949.

Prior to the founding of Israel there were approximately ninety-five Bedouin tribes living in the Negev. Since 1949, there has been a deliberate effort by successive Israeli governments to take over Bedouin territory and corral the population into ever smaller parcels of land or expel them. Of the original ninety-five tribes only nineteen remain, living in an area called Siyag, which stretches from the city of Be’er-Sheva, colloquially referred to as the ‘Capital of the Negev,’ to the Ghazah fence line. Eleven of the nineteen tribes were moved to Siyag (eight already lived there) on the assurance the move was temporary. To date none of the eleven tribes have been given permission to return to their ancestral homelands.

With the Bedouins off the land the government passed various pieces of legislation enabling the state to take possession of it, including the 1953 Land Acquisition Law, the 1965 Planning and Building Law, the 1969 Land Rights Settlement Ordinance and the 1980 Negev Land Acquisition Law. It was a sort of legalised theft carried out by ministers and judges.   


The Siyag has an eerie similarity to Indian Reservations found in the United States. While not as autonomous, it is a territory held in legal limbo, stripped of proper judiciary oversight and with no effective representation for its population. Between 1968 and 1990, seven townships were built in Siyag eventually housing 100,000 Bedouin. But the townships were plagued with socio-economic problems and suffered disproportionally from unemployment, overcrowding, poverty, crime, and poor health. They were little more than ghetto-style holding pens. Most troubling are the inter-tribal hostilities triggered by the fact that the townships are built on unceded land and populated by forced migration. Tribe is pitted against tribe in ever shrinking spaces, while the all-important association with place is bastardised beyond recognition.

By the late 1990s few Bedouin considered the townships acceptable places to live, and approximately 120,000 remained in some forty-five villages outside of the townships. All the villages were ‘unrecognized’ by the state – one of the villages is Wadi al-Khalil.

Wadi al-Khalil

The village of Wadi al-Khalil is a community: forty-seven homes, three-hundred people. Its inhabitants are farmers, mainly wheat and olives, and herders, mainly sheep and goats. They live a simple life and ask little of outsiders or the government. They produce their own electricity using twenty-first century solar panels and draw water using two wells.

This is the largest home demolition in a single day since the demolition of Al-Araqeeb in 2010.”

On Tuesday May 7th they left; wives said their good-byes, children hugged their fathers. One last look at home and then they left to nearby villages, to family and friends, to safety. The men and elders stayed. The odd grandmother too. Night fell.

Wednesday May 8th and I am speaking with Yeela Raanan, an Israeli from the Regional Council for the Unrecognised Villages in the Negev (@rcuvnegev). Yeela has been at Wadi al-Khalil since 7am, when the police arrived, a few hundred of them donning stab-proof vests and truncheons. Some carried automatic rifles, others stun grenades. It was a show of force, a desire to intimidate. Now, I understand why the wives and children left the day before.

Source: @rcuvnegev

 “The police came in cars and buses, and there were a dozen bulldozers. Also, diggers with jack hammers to break open concrete” Yeela says. There is a lot of noise in the background: metal treads grinding, heavy machinery moving.

You know some of them [Bedouin] set fire to their own homes this morning as an act of defiance.” Yeela’s colleague sends me some photographs as we are speaking. I wonder if it is defiance or desperation. There is a low-level, white metal building, black smoke billowing out, orange-red flames hissing inside – all under a peaceful, clear blue morning sky. The kind that normally makes you glad to be alive.

Source: @rcuvnegev

We have been pushed back twice by the police, but we are staying here to witness and record what is happening” Yeela continues.

The demolition team, civilian subcontractors, arrived with the police. They wasted little time in readying themselves for the day’s work; a record tear-down of forty-seven homes, including outbuildings, two hundred and sixty structures in total. The apparent premise for erasing the village? An extension of the north-to-south Highway Six. A plausible reason? No, these so-called infra-structure projects are discriminatory in nature, only impacting non-Jewish areas. With a record number of illegal settlements approved across the West Bank this year, there is a clear, consistent, and undeniable pattern of forced displacement and deliberate land theft.

Source: @rcuvnegev

The demolition of dozens of illegal buildings in the Abu Essa cluster in the Negev is an important step of sovereignty and governance.” Office of the Minister of National Security press release, May 8th 2024. 

I ask about the homeowner’s possessions.

What’s important will have been removed by the owners. What hasn’t been removed is put into containers, placed onto trucks, and removed by the police. If the owners want them back, they must pay.”  

(Source: @rcuvnegev)

As the demolition continues, I am sent a video. It is shot from behind an elderly woman, seated in a plastic chair, the type that would be found on a patio, only this one is on a plain of dusty soil. In front of her is a yellow bulldozer demolishing a building. She watches in silence. Next to her is an orange bag.  I’m not sure what is in the bag.

Healing  From Hate

It’s been a terrible day. People have lost their homes. They have no place to live.”

I am speaking with Yeela’s colleague, the one who sent me the photographs earlier. He sounds drained.

I’m upset. We notified the press, and only one Hebrew channel came to Wadi al-Khalil and reported on what happened.”

He touches on the discriminatory nature of what unfolded today – the unhealthy, self-absorbed “superiority” that has become part of the country’s psyche, the “racism” championed by right-wing, nationalist demigods which is fast taking root across the population.

“It’s really depressing.”   

I ask if he finds himself at odds with friends and family, if they ‘get’ what is happening.

It can be difficult. I don’t talk about it too much, only when I know how the other person thinks.”

I realise before Israel can heal its relationship with the Bedouin, it must heal itself, rid itself of its apartheid system and colonial tendencies, and work towards atonement. Disturbingly, I’m not sure many Israelis understand that, outside of Yeela and her colleague.

The last message I received from Wadi al-Khalil was: The operation has ended. One of the last buildings they demolished was the mosque.

Tonight, three hundred people are homeless.

©2024 Sul Nowroz – staff writer