Salah Sawaid remembers when this huddle of shacks was surrounded by open fields. Today, his views from the grassy uplands of the central Galilee are blocked on all sides by luxury apartments – a new neighbourhood of the ever-expanding city of Karmiel, here in northern Israel.
“We are being choked to death,” said Sawaid, Ramya’s village leader. “They are building on top of us as though we don’t exist. Are we invisible to them?”
His fears for the future have grown rapidly in the past few months, after a court ruled that the Bedouin village must be bulldozed to make way for Karmiel’s further expansion. The decision, the culmination of what Sawaid called “betrayals” by successive Israeli governments, ended a decades-old legal battle by the villagers to remain on their land.
Salim Wakim, the lawyer who represents the 45 families of Ramya, said the only avenue left was “popular struggle”.
Yoav Bar, an activist from the nearby city of Haifa, is among a small group of Jews who have supported the families. “The apartheid here could not be more apparent. You look at Ramya and the homes in Karmiel and you see how democratic Israel really is if you are not Jewish.
“Ramya is living under a siege, little different from the one against Gaza. It is designed to force them to leave.”
The contrast between the lives of the 180 inhabitants of Ramya and their neighbours in Karmiel is stark indeed.
Although the modern apartment buildings are now only metres away, the people of Ramya are living in a different era. They are denied connection to the electricity and water grids and other public services. Generators provide power for a few hours a day, and makeshift, above-ground pipes channel in a trickle of water.
Their 45 homes, classified as illegal by the Israeli authorities, are tin shacks or modest breeze-block huts. Anything else would be certain to be demolished, said Sawaid.
And yet the village’s purchase of the land was registered in the 1930s – before either Israel’s founding in 1948 or Karmiel’s creation 16 years later.
“We have the tabu [title deeds] for this land,” said Sawaid. “And yet Israel refuses to recognise our right to live here. They have made us criminals. They say we are squatters. It is nonsense.”
The homes and goat sheds in Ramya are set to be bulldozed to make space for Karmiel’s continuing expansion. Photo: Jonathan Cook
Karmiel, today with a population of nearly 50,000, was built in 1964 on agricultural lands Israel confiscated from several communities, including Ramya, that belong to Israel’s Palestinian minority – the remains of the Palestinian people who avoided expulsion during the 1948 war.
Today, one in five Israeli citizens belong to this minority, a group that the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has described as “the forgotten Palestinians”.
The official aim in establishing Karmiel was to “Judaise the Galilee”, a government campaign to reverse the Palestinian minority’s demographic hold on Israel’s north by encouraging Jews to migrate and settle. They were offered incentives in subsidised land and housing.
Palestinian citizens have long claimed they suffer systematic discrimination and are denied basic rights. Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal centre for the Palestinian-Arab minority, said the discrimination was especially acute in relation to land.
Israel has nationalised 93 per cent of the country’s territory for the benefit of the country’s Jewish population, taking much of it from the Palestinian minority through mass confiscations, she said. Palestinian communities are left on slivers of privately owned land.
In addition, dozens of Palestinian communities inside Israel, such as Ramya, are not recognised by the state and the inhabitants’ “presence in their homes has been made illegal”, according to Bishara.
‘For Moshe, not Mohammed’
Bar and other activists joined the struggle to save Ramya after Israel’s high court ruled last year that the Bedouin must leave within 90 days. The group staged its first demonstration in December in front of Karmiel’s municipal building, followed by weekly protests in the city’s main shopping area.
The villagers have been handing out leaflets in Karmiel explaining their story to passers-by, in the hope they can win public opinion to their side.
But Dov Koller, a Jewish resident of Karmiel who helped set up a solidarity forum for Ramya, said most people in the city either did not care about Ramya’s plight or were opposed to living with the Bedouin villagers: ”The difficulty is that most of Karmiel’s residents don’t think equality is important for Arabs. Most of them are racist.”
The families in Ramya are being evicted so that a new neighbourhood of Karmiel – named for former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – can be expanded. Apartments marketed to the Jewish population will be built over Ramya’s homes, as well as the Bedouin goat sheds and a small plot of arable land the villagers have so far managed to cling on to.
Wakim said the racist policy of the municipality and the Israel Lands Administration, a government agency in charge of state land, was especially apparent in this case.
“Often Israel enforces demolitions against unrecognised villages on the grounds that it has refused to zone the land for development,” he said. “But here the motive is not even hidden. This land is zoned for development. It is just that the government wants Moshe to live here, not Mohammed.”
‘They are building on top of us,’ says Salah Sawaid. ‘Are we invisible to them?’
Eviction dressed as gentrification
Palestinian activists have noted a wider pattern of recent evictions enforced against Palestinian citizens still living in close proximity to Jews.
In the half-dozen so-called “mixed cities” in Israel – rare communities where residence is not segregated based on ethnicity – Palestinian citizens are being forced out under cover of gentrification programmes, said Bishara.
The homes of some 30 Palestinian families living in al-Mahatta, a neighbourhood of Haifa whose population has been declining for decades under pressure from official bodies, are to be demolished so the city’s port can be expanded. The last families in the nearby historic Wadi al-Siyah area are also facing eviction.
Similar stories are emerging in the cities of Acre and Jaffa.
Documents leaked to the Israeli media in December showed plans by the World Zionist Organisation – an international umbrella organisation of Zionist groups – to step up the Judaisation programme in the Galilee. The aim is to bring in 100,000 Jews over the next few years in what WZO officials termed “preserving our hold” on the region and creating a “demographic balance” – code, said Bishara, for trying to enforce a Jewish majority.
The Israeli Haaretz newspaper objected: “A state that encourages members of one people to settle in any region, while at the same time imposing harsh restrictions on the growth of the other, is acting in a racist manner.”
Secret expropriation of land
Ramya’s land was secretly confiscated in 1976, when the government of the day, led by Rabin, ordered the expropriation of much of the remaining agricultural land held by Palestinian communities in the Galilee.
Large protests led to Rabin sending in the army, which shot dead six unarmed demonstrators, an event still commemorated by Palestinians around the world each year as Land Day.
Although the general confiscation order was eventually rescinded, Wakim said the secret expropriation of Ramya’s lands remained in place.
Sawaid said the villagers first learnt that there was an eviction order against them 15 years later, in the 1990s, when the late Ariel Sharon, who was then housing minister, wanted to rapidly expand Karmiel.
He had decided to launch another wave of “Judaising the Galilee”, using Karmiel to house some of the hundreds of thousands of Jews migrating to Israel following the fall of the Soviet Union. The residents of Ramya were ordered to leave to make room for the new arrivals.
At the time, Adi Eldar, the city’s mayor since 1989, dismissed the villagers’ claims, suggesting that, even though they had settled in Ramya decades ago, they were still nomads at heart. They were, he said, “used to wandering. They are here today and there tomorrow”.
Leviah Shalev, a spokeswoman for the municipality, said neither Karmiel nor Eldar were responsible for the government’s Judaisation policy.
“The official policy was to bring Jews to the Galilee. But we do not take a view about who lives in our city. Jew or Arab can buy a home here,” she said. According to the municipality, about three per cent of residents are “Arab”.
Koller, however, said Karmiel’s claim of treating Jewish and Palestinian residents equally was a lie. “If that is true, where are the Arabic-language schools, where are the traffic signs in Arabic, why is there no mosque here?” he said.
“The truth is that Karmiel officials cannot legally stop Arab families from buying a home here. But they do everything possible both to make sure they feel unwelcome and to prevent Jews from selling to them.”
In a sign of the growing opposition in Karmiel to Palestinian citizens buying homes, the issue took centre stage in recent local elections, with the main candidates raising fears of an Arab “takeover” of the city.
In 2010, Eldar’s deputy, Oren Milstein, set up an email “hotline” on which residents could inform on Jewish neighbours who were intending to sell to a Palestinian family. Milstein claimed he had managed to stop 30 such sales.
In the same year, Milstein also established a group of 150 volunteers called “the City Guard”, supported by the local police, that was authorised to demand that anyone entering Karmiel present their ID. Leftwing activists described the group as a “racist militia” trying to keep Palestinian citizens out.
‘Distortion of the truth’
Shalev, Karmiel’s spokeswoman, added that the Bedouin of Ramya had been offered a solution in 1995, when land was set aside for them in a special area near Karmiel. “The problem is not caused by us but by disagreements between themselves about how much land each family owns.”
Wakim said the municipality’s claims were a “distortion of the truth”.
“The offer was not implemented at the time and is now totally unsuitable for the community’s needs. Twenty years on, there is another generation of villagers and they need a housing solution too. Where are they supposed to live?
“The real problem is that Karmiel won’t let them live where they already are, as a recognised neighbourhood of the city and with the chance to build proper homes without the threat of demolition.”
Koller said that Karmiel had tried to create what he called a “ghetto” for the families. “It is described as ‘a special neighbourhood for minorities’. No Jewish families in Karmiel would agree to live in those conditions.”
The Israel Lands Administration, the government agency responsible for managing state lands, was unavailable for comment for this report.
• Article first published in Al Jazeera