(Photo by Walid Alobra for Negev RCUV: https://www.instagram.com/waleed_alobra_photo_/)

Last month NIF approved a $50,000 grant to support the 320 villagers of Wadi Al-Khalil, whose village was demolished by Israeli authorities a week earlier. This grant, which will provide residents with their basic needs, including tents and mattresses, puts on display the serious consequences of the Israeli state’s refusal to recognize some 35 Bedouin villages in the Negev. The grant came out of NIF’s emergency pool, a set of funds available to help the organization respond to unanticipated developments.

The authorities — hundreds of police accompanied Real Estate Enforcement Division officers and their tractors — had leveled every residential building in the village, 47 buildings that 80 families called home. Some residents burned their own homes, preferring to destroy their property with their own hands rather than hand it to the state.

Unrecognized villages, like Wadi Al-Khalil, do not appear on any official map, and are often not hooked up to Israel’s electric grid or water systems. What’s more, most buildings inside of them are considered illegal, which means that the state can demolish them and fine the builder. As of May 2020, the Center for Alternative Planning in Israel estimated that 15–20% of all homes built by Arabs in Israel are built without a permit.

The New Israel Fund’s strategy is to approach the issue from as many angles as possible, leveraging the power of civil society to help people in the short term and to resolve structural inequalities in the long term. Shatil, alongside NIF grantees +972 Magazine, Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), NIFC project partner Bimkom – Planning and Human Rights, Itach Ma’aki: Women Lawyers for Social Justice and many others, does work every day with these citizens to ensure that resolutions can be found that work for them.

+972 Magazine’s reporting, for example, has helped fill the information gap. Authorities said that the demolitions of Wadi Al-Khalil would clear the way for an extension of Route 6, Israel’s major north-south highway. But +972’s newsgathering suggests otherwise. Dafna Saporta works for NIFC project partner Bimkom – Planning and Human Rights, which works closely with unrecognized villages to develop zoning plans to submit to the government. She told +972 that the government has yet to finance this alleged construction on Route 6. “It’s not like the extension of Route 6 is being paved tomorrow,” she said. “It would have been possible to postpone and sit down with the residents, who have been there for decades.”

Itaach-Maaki, home to the Center for Bedouin Women Rights, provides counseling, legal assistance, and representation to dozens of Bedouin women every year. One of these women is Rasmia Abu Assa, a resident of Wadi Al-Khalil. She was still grieving for her nephew, Osama Abu Assa who had been murdered by Hamas, when authorities demolished her home. She disclosed to Itaach-Maaki that the bulldozers looked “like another horror movie or scene from a battlefield.”

Finally, the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), another NIF grantee, is advocating for a safe and agreed-upon location for rebuilding Wadi Al-Khalil. RCUV is a civil society organization — but it is also a democratically elected body. It is the only democratic representation for the unrecognized Bedouin villages. It serves as an address for their political desires and practical needs. The body lobbies for services in unrecognized villages, including education, public transportation, water supply, healthcare, and democratic representation.

In recent months, the needs of this community have been a particular focus for NIF as part of our response to the war. In the aftermath of October 7, NIF and our partners provided water tanks, food, first-aid kits, and educational materials to residents of these unrecognized villages, and compelled the state to recognize them as “populated” areas and provide some communities with mobile shelters for protection. As a result, more than 50 new shelters have been placed in Negev Bedouin communities, where prior to that there had been none, and many areas where people lived were considered “open areas,” meaning that Israel’s defense systems would not prioritize intercepting rockets heading to those locations.

As always, at NIF and Shatil, our goal is not just to make it through to tomorrow, and respond to every rights violation on its own, but to build a democratic space in which equal rights for all is the reality. We view the Negev as an opportunity to build a truly equal, just and shared society.