The Ongoing Nakba: Amos Gvirtz and Aziz Al-Touri, a Jewish Israeli and his Bedouin friend in the southern Negev/Naqab desert

In July 2019 during a conversation with Amos, who I met during my first trip to the region in 2003 in his kibbutz, Shefayim, and listening to his friend, Aziz Al-Touri, near the Bedouin village of Al Araqib in the Naqab/Negev desert, I heard two major claims: from Amos that one’s life is concretely determined by where and when one is born, yet new directions are possible, and from Aziz that Bedouins are an inseparable part of this land and will remain here….

From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest sojourns in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning. I now begin making plans to return in fall, 2021.

My major intention is to convey perspectives expressed by the people I interview, as I understand them, allowing for translation problems, misinformation on the parts of all people involved, and my own biases and ignorance. The histories they present, for instance, I may not agree with. I feel accuracy in reporting what people tell me is more important than the accuracy of their statements. Rather than insert my disagreements with their statements, which could be regarded as an act of white, Eurocentric, male supremacy, I hope to provide open platforms for those I meet.

Hands on our hearts, how many of us can whole-heartedly say we are sure that we would have acted differently from most Germans at the time? How many of us would really have endangered ourselves by opposing the regime? I came to the conclusion that only if I could place morality and justice before all other considerations, and not allow my national or other loyalties to obscure my moral judgement, would I perhaps be able to give an affirmative answer to this tormenting question.

Amos Gvirtz, Don’t Say We Didn’t Know

PHOTOS

In July 2019 during a conversation with Amos, who I met during my first trip to the region in 2003 in his kibbutz, Shefayim, and listening to his friend, Aziz Al-Touri, near the Bedouin village of Al Araqib in the Naqab/Negev desert, I heard two major claims: from Amos that one’s life is concretely determined by where and when one is born, yet new directions are possible, and from Aziz that Bedouins are an inseparable part of this land and will remain here.

AMOS GVIRTZ

For a little more detail: Amos was born into a secular Jewish family. Altho he attended a conventional Israeli school, he could never master the rote learning about Judaism forced on him. He hated this education, would cry because of it, had nightmares.

He said, paraphrasing, central facts are imposed on us, who our parents will be, what country we’re born into, our religion, the historical period, our social environment. When we mature and have more control over our lives, we can open our eyes and comprehend larger realities. A key question is first whether we will ever experience this moment, and if we do what we will do with this potential revelationI am a Jewish Israeli, Aziz a Palestinian Bedouin, and, I noted, they were born in the same century and in the same general region. Most Jewish Israelis believe what they’re told and taught, same with most Bedouins. His government and military apparatus are trying to remove Aziz and the Bedouins from their ancestral homelands.

The legal system imposed on the Bedouins by Israel prevents fair litigation. As Amos said, the context of this struggle is the legal system controlled by Israel that legalizes removal and relocation of the Bedouin people. Similar to your country’s treatment of Native people, he pointed out.

Criminalizing the victim—Amos’ term for Israel’s treatment of Bedouin, by selectively making laws, Israel converts victims into criminals.

Amos claims that in Israel racism is governmental, to be distinguished from popular racism which he feels by comparison is minor—i.e., the state policy is racist, supported by the people thru elections and lobbying; different from racism in the U.S. which is more populist and widespread, with aspects of racism in government.

Amos explained that during the Ottoman period the government required Bedouins register their lands for tax purposes. Who wants to pay taxes? Amos asked, laughing. So there was very little registration. Thus when Israel demands proof of ownership there is nothing on paper. Furthermore, I suspect Bedouins do not share western concepts of ownership. Rather, shareship. Much like American indigenous people and probably more traditional people everywhere.

He explained further how Israel forces Palestinians (not only Bedouins) to either demolish their own homes or, if Israel demolishes, pay all fees, for the demolition crew and the police and army. This smells like Jews who, he said, after the Kristal Nacht had to pay huge sums of money to help German insurance companies pay the damage that neighbors of the Jewish business had caused. I have learned that during the holocaust the Nazis forced Jews in Warsaw and other sites of Jewish imprisonment to build their own walls, and, most sinisterly, dig their own graves. The parallels are breathtaking. I wonder if anyone has extensively researched the topic and written about these parallels. The big one of course is ghettoization. The crucial element underlying this is othering, or regarding the other as subhuman. Unworthy of human rights because subhuman. Is this generational trauma?

Amos has discovered moral depths outside of traditional religion. I believe he considers himself a socialist (maybe a humanist), close to traditional communist (he lives on a kibbutz which has socialist roots), while opposing the doctrinaire and often-brutal methods of many Communists regimes like the Soviet Union and China. Strongly dedicated to nonviolence, Amos is a founder of Palestinians and Israelis for Non-Violence, former Israeli representative of International Fellowship of Reconciliation and co-founder and former chairperson of the Committee Against House Demolitions. In 2019 he published his first book Don’t Say We Didn’t Know, available free on Kindle.  He maintains an email list with the same title, which is how I stayed in touch with his thinking and advocacy since meeting him nearly 20 years ago. He remains active with the Negev Co-Existence Forum supporting Bedouin people.

Most importantly, Amos is able to pierce the curtain of Israeli denial and deceit that envelops most Israeli Jews, the current right-wing government and its many supporters within the country and elsewhere like my country. When I asked him how he pierced, despite the resistance of many fellow Jewish israelis, he threw up his hands, and said something like, how could I not? I joked that maybe he’s the crazy one, not his fellow Jews. Laughter.

He leaves me with the question of how do people embedded in their personal and collective histories claw their path out from the obfuscating haze of denial, confusion, fear, and self-interest?

Amos Gvirtz

AZIZ AL-TOURI

Aziz Al-Touri

Aziz, a member of the Committee for the Defense of al-Araqib, was born into a Bedouin family, linked inextricably to the land, generations of his family living not as nomads, the usual image, but as semi nomads, as agriculturists, as shepherds and dry land farmers. His ancestors have lived in the same general area for centuries.

Everything dramatically changed in 1948, the year of Nakba, and the founding of the Israeli state. Successive Israeli administrations with a series of laws attempted to assert control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and from the Lebanese border to the Egyptian. Israel uprooted Bedouin communities, forced them to move, and requires they live in towns which are equivalent to refugee camps, Native American reservations, and South African apartheid townships (known as Siyāj).

Aziz recounts this poignantly. Paraphrasing, the Israelis ripped out our trees, usually fruit trees like olive, and planted forests, usually water-sucking eucalyptus, over our land and declare it state land; we lose our land rights. We need permits to enter these lands. If we try to feed our animals and lack a permit, Israel can confiscate our animals. Israelis divorced us from the source of our livelihoods and forcibly, often violently, try to push us into towns they create. Or they declare our lands “closed military zones,” and we cannot enter. We would be divorced from the land, forced into unskilled labor.

Previously, we raised everything we needed, animals like sheep, goats, chickens, and vegetables, fruits, and olives.We had eggs and made cheese. We never worried about food. In the towns, separated from our lands, now we need cash to supply our needs. My family requires each day around 100 shekels ($25) for bread, milk, other food. How else could we earn money than by working for Israelis?

Consider my uncle. He rents land from a Jew. Ten years ago, he could rent one dunam (1000 square meters or ¼ acre) for 6 months to plant his wheat and barley. This would cost him 100 shekels ($25). Now it’s 200. And this is Bedouin land, confiscated by Israel. The Jew wants to become a businessman, increase his income.

This usually means the men leave their homes for their jobs at 6 in the morning, return tired, dirty, and hungry 12 hours later. They need to shower, to rest. There is no time for their children, their wives, their homes and land, if any land remains. No time to tell and listen to stories. Relations within families deteriorate. Couples do not have time for discussions, for raising children, for making love. What happens when my wife becomes frustrated, or I do? Sleep with someone else outside the family perhaps?

Another factor is leadership. Previously our “big man” or sheikh was the person who best cared for the community, not who owned the most land or had the most money. The sheikh would ask, would you like a cup of coffee or tea? What can I do for you, how can I help you? This too is being destroyed as Israel separates us from our traditional ways.

In 2018 Hassina Mechai of the Middle East Monitor reported Aziz telling a conference in Paris: I went to court to defend my rights. In 1973, my grandfather asked the authorities to recognise our land. They still haven’t replied. They want the old people to die, and the young ones to forget. But we will always fight for our rights. We need help, not for us but for the future generations.

I went to court to defend my rights. In 1973, my grandfather asked the authorities to recognise our land. They still haven’t replied. They want the old people to die, and the young ones to forget. But we will always fight for our rights. We need help, not for us but for the future generations.

Aziz Al-Touri speaking at a conference in Paris, 2018, reported by Hassina Mechai of the Middle East Monitor

CONCLUSION

Aziz’s father, Sayeh Abu Madi’am, the sheikh of Al Araqib, had been in prison for arguing for his people’s human rights—10 months when I met Aziz.

After the demonstration and to reach the village where discussion and perhaps a ceremony (I wasn’t clear) would be held, Amos suggested young Mohammed, son of Aziz and grandson of the Sheik, ride with me to give me directions. Mohammed, 13 years old, in 7th grade (my granddaughter Eleanor’s age at the time) spoke adequate English to guide me to the site. I wish we could have had a fuller discussion—about his life in the village, how he handles the trauma of repeated home demolitions, etc.

Yossi, another Israeli at the demonstration, told me that SodaStream, a target of the BDS campaign, has moved out of the illegal industrial park of Mishor Adumim in the West Bank to Rahat in the Negev desert in 2015, near Al Araqib, and into an area near Lehavin Junction, presumably in “official Israel.” Yossi told us that he’d noticed new fencing around the new site which may mean eventual confiscation of Bedouin property.

Aziz and other villagers had planned a ceremony to remember and honor the imprisoned sheik, his father, Sayeh Abu Madi’am,in the evening, lighting a number of candles or some other form of lights for the number of days he’d been imprisoned. I hope Aziz and Amos were not disappointed or offended when I left around 7 pm (the vigil began at 4:30), but as I explained to Amos I hoped to return before dark, a long drive back to the Jaffa Hostel where I was staying. I explained, I have vision problems at night, making it up as a lame excuse, but then when on the road as the light waned I remembered that I do have vision problems in low light. I need my old glasses, which I’d left in the hostel.

As of July 20, 2021 when I write this, Israel has destroyed his village 186 times, the most recent during Ramadan in April 2021. The unrecognized village of Al Araqib consists of sheet metal huts, adjoining lands and cemetery. Aziz himself has suffered incarceration for his activism. Thanks to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality which brings Jews and others from Israel to support the Bedouins—and of course Amos himself—I was privileged to attend this strategically placed demonstration at a major crossing in the Negev and the later discussion with Aziz.

Al Araqib

LINKS

On the Map: the Arab Bedouin Villages in the Negev-Naqab: al-ʿArāgīb (Al-Araqib)
Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

Life in a Bedouin village that’s been destroyed 101 times
Skylar Lindsay (2016)

‘I became an invader in my own land’ — a Palestinian Bedouin’s struggle
Hassina Mechai (2018)

108th Demolition of al-Araqib – 12.01.2017 (video)
Negev Coexistence Forum (2017)

Destruction and Return in Al-Araqib
Forensic Architecture

Al-Araqib
The Electronic Intifada

al-Araqib
Zochrot

Al Araqib Photo Gallery
BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights (2011)

Why I Stopped being a Zionist
Amos Gvirtz (2020)

Articles by Amos Gvirtz

A Second Possibilitarian: Amos Gvirtz, Kibbutz Shefayim
Skip Schiel (2004)

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