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Israel orders demolition of mosque in Negev Bedouin community

Aug. 25, 2008 1:24 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 25, 2008 1:24 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - The Israeli government ordered the demolition on Thursday of a newly built mosque and community center in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi Al-Na'am in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

The mosque, which is to double as a community center, was built was built with environmentally sustainable straw bale and mud plaster on a steel frame. Local activist Mahmoud Jarbeau, a Bedouin resident of Wadi Al-Na'am who served for nine years in the Israeli military, oversaw teams of international and Israeli volunteers who built the mosque over the past several months.

According to Jarbeau, the mosque cost 70,000 Israeli shekels to build, and if it is destroyed, he and his volunteers will rebuild it. "Despite the difficulty of collecting the money, we will try again," he told Ma'an.

Jarbeau said the mosque was designed along the lines of the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia. His vision was to build both a place of worship and a center for the preservation of a Bedouin heritage that is increasingly threatened by Israel's policy of forced urbanization.


The choice to build the structure with natural materials was based on economic, environmental and strategic concerns. "It's inexpensive and it's sustainable. Sand, clay, water, straw - these are the materials that are available to people here," said Tess Lehrich, an Israeli Jew who has been working with the Beersheva-based Bedouin-rights organization BUSTAN.

"Using natural materials is important especially in the unrecognized villages," said Ra'ed Al-Mickawi, the director of BUSTAN. "When they receive a demolition order, they can be rebuilt easily."

Forced urbanization

Last Thursday, witnesses said, civilian-clothed representatives of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior descended on the town, delivering a demolition order for the mosque and several other new structures.

As of Sunday afternoon, the demolition squad had not yet arrived.

"It's never certain. They never say when they'll come when they issue a demolition order. So, it's a feeling of uncertainty that we're struggling with," said Al-Mickawi.

The story of Jarbeau and the mosque is sadly indicative of Israel's policy towards the non-Jewish residents of the Negev. Wadi Al-Na'am, home to an estimated 8,000 Bedouin, is one of 45 unrecognized villages in the Negev. Though they are full Israeli citizens, the 84,000 Bedouin residents of these communities receive virtually no public services.

Retroactively rendered 'illegal' by the 1965 Planning and Construction law, the unrecognized villages also face the constant threat of demolition. The international Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) reports that 227 demolitions took place in 2007. Earlier this month the nearby village of Twail Abu Jawal was destroyed for the 17th time in three years.

According to a report by COHRE and BUSTAN, "the inhabitants of the unrecognized villages are not granted a license to build any structures and cannot be connected to any basic services or facilities such as water, sewerage, electricity or telephone networks, services that other Israeli citizens take for granted."

Wadi Al-Na'am itself is sandwiched between Ramat Hovav, a massive industrial complex of 19 chemical processing plants and a hazardous waste treatment plant. Also nearby is a large power plant that supplies power exclusively to the recognized, Jewish settlements in the region, completely bypassing the Bedouin town.

While the Negev is home to some of the wealthiest Jewish communities in Israel, the residents of Wadi Al-Na'am are workers in the chemical plant and goat herders. Others collect scrap metal to sell, or rely on government social benefits. While they make up 25% of the population of the Negev, they own less and 2% of the land, say COHRE and BUSTAN.

The only alternative available to the Bedouin is relocation to government authorized townships, urban communities, where by definition the Bedouin are forced to leave their ancestral lands and give up their traditional way of life.

Uncertain future

The fate of the Wadi Al-Na'am mosque is for now uncertain. Aside from plans to rebuild, Jarbeau says he plans to appeal to Ghaleb Majadele, the only Arab member of the Israeli cabinet. Neither Jarbeau nor BUSTAN have any concrete plans for a legal challenge.

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