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In the Negev desert of southern Israel the village of al Araqib has become a symbol of long-simmering tensions between the authorities there and the native Bedouin population. Israeli security forces have destroyed the village four times in the past month. And authorities have said that they will continue to demolish any structure built there.
The Bedouin have refused to leave, and have vowed to keep rebuilding. Sheera Frenkel visited the village and sent this report.
SHEERA FRENKEL: Hundreds of people have gathered around the makeshift tables to break the day's Ramadan fast with the Iftar meal. The tin shack that protects them from the night's desert wind is the only structure in miles, which is just how Israeli officials want it.
Just over a month ago, tractors backed by Israeli security officials and volunteers left the rest of al Araqib in ruins. Sheikh Sayah, the 60-year-old leader of this community, says the village was destroyed in a matter of hours, just before sun-up on July 26th.
Sheikh SAYAH (Leader, Al Araqib): (Through translator) They began at 4:00 a.m. Just began destroying our houses, our lives. We never thought they would come like that, at that hour. What kind of person does such a thing?
FRENKEL: Al Araqib was quickly rebuilt, only to be destroyed again. So far, since the beginning of July, the Bedouin have rebuilt four times, and four times watched tractors raze their homes. The Israeli authorities left standing the single shack near the cemetery because it has special status as a religious site. Around it are the mounds of mangled metal and wooden beams that used to be the homes of 50 families, including that of Awad Abu Freh, a 48-year-old resident of al Araqib.
Mr. AWAD ABU FREH: All my family, we live here hundreds of hundreds of hundred years. Israel said all the time that the Bedouin are nomads, and you can see the cemetery. It's before hundreds of hundreds of years.
FRENKEL: The oldest grave in the cemetery is marked 1914, but the Bedouin here say that their families have been using it for centuries. It's part of their claim to this particular patch of desert, more than eight miles from any other development.
They were first moved off the land by Israeli soldiers just after the declaration of the Jewish state in 1948. When land surveyors arrived and found the area unpopulated in the early 1950s, they declared it state land. But Abu Freh says that nearly all of the families here returned in the mid to late-1950s, and that most of them hold deeds dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Mr. FREH: There is no wisdom. We are residents without - no army, no gun, anything. They can give us our land. It's only two percent of the Negev.
FRENKEL: Israel says that the Bedouin have always been nomadic, and that many of the residents have homes in the nearby city of Rahat, built by Israel expressly to relocate the various Bedouin clans strewn across the Negev desert. But more than half of Israel's Bedouin are still living in unrecognized villages. For them, al Araqib has become a rallying point in the long standoff with Israel.
Mr. KHALIL AL-AMOUR: No Bedouin can come and take another Bedouin land. They are very, very connected, linked to the land, so they can never give up the land. They can give up anything, but not the land.
FRENKEL: That's Khalil al-Amour, a Bedouin from the nearby village of el-Sirea that Israel has also slated for demolition. On the night of the Iftar, he joined hundreds of other supporters for a meal outside the ruins of al-Araqib. While most were Bedouin from neighboring clans, there were also Palestinian lawmakers and Druze religious leaders.
The plight of Araqib has drawn together Arabs from various sectors across Israel, says al-Amour.
Mr. AL-AMOUR: We feel hopeless and helpless sometimes. But we don't have the privilege to stop and to rest now.
FRENKEL: As he speaks, several other men from his tribe approach and decide to spend the night in al Araqib, in case the Israelis return with their tractors. Historically, the Bedouin would have taken up arms, they say. But for now, they draw their plastic chairs under tents, and keep an eye on the surrounding hills.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
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