Eyewitness Account of the Preventable Umm Al Hiran Tragedy

On Wednesday, the 18th of January, I was an eyewitness to an unnecessary tragedy, fueled by a series of wrong decisions and indifference. Two Israelis are dead, one a Bedouin resident of Umm Al HIran and the other a Jewish police officer. Homes have been demolished, two MK’s and others have been injured. Mutual anger and distrust threatening the very fabric of Israeli society has been increased.

Having just read the opening verses of the Book of Exodus last week, the demagoguery and fear mongering that has taken place since Wednesday would make Pharaoh proud. One would think that recalcitrant and greedy Bedouin refused wildly generous compensation offers to leave their illegal homes because Arab leaders were inciting them. In fact, hundreds of police with guns drawn made a pre –dawn raid to secure the village for demolitions because the State wasn’t willing to commit to solutions that they supposedly agreed to orally.

5:05 am Wednesday, January 18th

I arrive in Umm Al Hiran. The negotiations went on last night until midnight, but broke up without results. The police told the residents they would come today to carry out the eviction/demolition orders. I send out two tweets, “In Umm Al Hiran. The call to prayer, people moving like shadows and waiting. Waiting. Light in the house of 100 year old Musa.” “People asking me, ‘Who is coming.” Huge force concentrated at Shoket Junction. They are coming.”

Despite the outrageous claims of incitement from Arab leadership, the feeling in Umm Al Hiran over the past few weeks is that they are alone. For days the residents have been begging me, “Talk to MK’s, talk to diplomats, call on activists….” In the remaining minutes before the impending invasion, I need to tell them the truth, “We are alone. There will be only a few activists coming.”

There are those who will say our very presence was incitement. No. At 5:30 I ask the village leaders what we will do when the police come. I don’t get much of an answer, except, “What is most important is that we won’t employ violence.” Pharaoh taught us last week in the first verses of Exodus that the true inciters are those that sow fear of powerless minorities. We also met the midwives. Our ages debated whether they were Jewish or Egyptians who were not deceived by the incitement of their leaders, preserved their humanity, and stood by the Israelites. Too many times in our history we were alone when they came to expel us from our homes. Nobody should need to stand alone against the entire might of the State.

5:45. Tens of vehicles and hundreds of police invade with drawn weapons. There is more than one officer for every resident. They push me to the side as I stand with the picture of 100 year old Musa Hussein Abu Al Qian, one of those slated for eviction. I shout, “This man could be your grandfather or great grandfather.” In 21 years I have seen our security forces at their best and at their worst. I know that the police units that deal with the Bedouin are among those with the shortest fuses, and the quickest to use violence.

Hundreds of police officers invade Umm Al Hiran in the early morning hours
Hundreds of police officers invade Umm Al Hiran in the early morning hours
The investigators are still sorting out what happened next. Many were quick to claim that Yaaqub Abu Al Qian intentionally rammed his car into police officers, killing Erez Levi before being himself killed. The police now acknowledge that shots were fired at the car before it headed towards the soldiers, corroborating the testimony of many eyewitnesses and indicating that Yaaqub may have lost control as a result. The autopsy seems to indicate that he bled to death because he was denied medical care. I did not see that incident. I can only say that, if many criticized senior officials for passing judgement on Elor Azaria before the investigation and trial were completed, where there was much more definitive footage, it is unacceptably irresponsible that Israel’s police chief and Internal Security Minister did not wait to claim that Yaaqub intentionally tried to harm officers. Unfortunately, the Knesset yesterday voted against establishing a commission of inquiry.

I was an eyewitness to the attack on MK Ayman Odeh. He approached the police, with his hands in the air, and announced that he was an MK. Officers, undoubtedly furious, and even more aggressive than usual because a fellow officer had been struck, said that they didn’t care. They began pushing and striking. Some officers began lashing out with their rifles. I and many others were pepper sprayed. Stumbling after Oudeh in retreat, sponge covered bullets whizzed past my ears. MK Oudeh was shot in the back by one of them, and fell to the ground.

MK Ayman Oudeh after being shot in the back by sponge tipped bullets
MK Ayman Oudeh after being shot in the back by sponge tipped bullets
We were pushed outside a perimeter. We helplessly watched the bulldozers demolish home after home. I continued to hold up 100 year old Ahmed Musa’s picture, and also tried to engage the police with words of Torah and from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.


The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the residents of Umm Al Hiran would have agreed to leave their homes located where Israel moved them in 1956, had the State been willing to commit to any one of the numerous solutions they suggested. In December, advanced negotiations broke down when the State decided to force the issue by issuing eviction/demolition orders a few at a time. The week before the demolitions the State sent a letter making it clear that everything discussed orally was off the table. Finally, a day and a half before the demolitions, the State finally made a concrete proposal in writing, but for much less than had been discussed orally, and indicating that the Bedouin must take it or leave it. Either they sign immediately, or the bulldozers would arrive in a day and a half. Intervention nevertheless led to renewed negotiations that continued up until midnight the night before.

I am not sure whether the sides were as close to an agreement as they seemed to be, or whether it was all smoke and mirrors because the government never had any intention to commit to an acceptable solution. (Our Prime Minister has promised settlers upset about Amona that he has ordered an increase in the demolition of Arab homes in Israel and the Occupied Territories.) I only know that, rather than agreeing to continue the talks, the police were sent in a few hours later.

There are those who will say our very presence was incitement. No. I already wrote that the village leadership wanted no violence. Pharaoh teaches us that the true inciters are those that sow fear of powerless minorities. In last week’s portion we also met the midwives. Our sages debated whether they were Jewish, or Egyptians who were not deceived by the incitement of their leaders, preserved their humanity, and stood by the Israelites. Too many times in our history we Jews were alone when oppressors came to expel us from our homes. In the last few weeks, and in those pre-dawn hours, the residents of Umm Al HIran felt almost entirely alone. Nobody should need to stand alone against the entire might of the State, and we were determined that they would not be.

We can’t bring back the dead. However, this tragedy has actually created a window of opportunity. While the demagoguery that has abounded since the tragedy is reminiscent of the fear spread by Pharaoh in last week’s Torah portion, the media has also given us the chance to tell the story of Umm Al Hiran and the Negev Bedouin. It is infuriating that blood has to be shed for people to take notice, but that is the reality. A week and a half ago almost nobody had heard of Umm Al Hiran. Now it is a household name in Israel. Op-eds previously being rejected are now being accepted. My previous Times of Israel blog piece that had received almost no attention suddenly reappeared on TOI’s list of most read and shared blogs. For a brief amount of time, the public is focused on this issue.
If we are to utilize this window we must not only ask what happened, but try to understand why it happened. How can we put an end to this ongoing tragedy that has now claimed the lives of Yaaqub Abu Al Qian and Erez Levi? What can we do about the increasing mutual anger and distrust threatening to rip apart the very fabric of our society?

In 1920 the pre-State Zionist movement listed some 2.6 million dumam (4 dunam to an acre) as belonging to the Bedouin in the Negev. Today the State no longer recognizes the Bedouin proofs of ownership that the Turks, British, Zionist Movement and early State recognized. There remain some 650,000 dunam that have never been adjudicated. This is only 5.4% of the Negev. However, the Bedouin have very little chance of winning any claims as long as their ownership system is not recognized. There are 35 “unrecognized villages” that either existed before the State, or, like Umm al Hiran, are where the State put them. Bimkom, Planners For Planning Rights, Professor Oren Yiftachel and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages created a professional master plan showing how it is possible to recognize all of the 35 unrecognized village according to top international standards.
However, there are many who have turned the holy goal or “redeeming” the Land of Israel into idolatry by making it more important than God’s Image in every human being. For others, 2000 years of oppression linked to the fact that we were stateless drives them to feel that we can’t relinquish even 5.4% of the Negev.

In the 1950’s we concentrated the Bedouin in a triangle between Beersheva, Arad and Yeroham. Since the 1960’s Israel has been attempting to move Bedouin out of villages into townships filled with poverty and social problems because they remove the Bedouin from traditional sources of income and destroy their way of life. While the Begin Prawer plan that would have led to the destruction of tens of villages, tens of thousands of additional citizens being forced into townships, and the loss of most of the remaining Bedouin lands was frozen, the government continues to implement it without legislation.

As I wrote in my previous blog, Israeli Bedouin citizens Musa Hussein (100 years old), Amna (98)and Ahmed (74) remember the day in 1956 when an officer by the name of Haim Tzuri traveled with the Abu Al Qian family to show them the borders of the land that Israel was prepared to give them in return for the land they were expelled from. He promised orally and in writing, in the name of the State, that here they would have lands to live on and agricultural lands. However, Israel never recognized the villages the tribe built, and is not planning a Jewish community called HIran on the rubble of Umm Al Hiran.

When I was young, my parents taught me that promises are meant to be kept. We read in Psalms, “Adonai, who may dwell in Your tent, and who may dwell on Your Holy Mountain? S/he who….Who gives his/her word and, come what may, does not retract.” (15:4)

In 2010 Israel’s planning authority voted to begin a process of turning Umm Al Hiran into a recognized community. However, the Prime Minister’s office intervened in favor of the Greater Arad Development Plan that included creating Jewish Hiran on the rubble of non-Jewish Umm Al Hiran . In August of 2015 JNF bulldozers began creating Hiran

I previously explained that, although the just solution would be that the promises to the Abu Al Qain tribe be honored, they were and are willing to live in a mixed community, return to their original lands, or move to a new location allowing them to continue to be a village. Under pressure, they even gave in and agreed to move to Hura, if they would get the entire “neighborhood 12” on the outskirts of the township. It seemed that the government was willing to consider the latter two proposals. However, the government eventually said, “You must move to Hura now, and then we will continue talking.” For some strange reason, Umm Al Hiran residents feel that, if they move without an agreement in hand, the government will never speak to them again. Had they been willing to commit to any of the very reasonable suggestions, the issue would have solved a long time ago. Last week’s tragedy would not have happened. Rather than do so, Israel began issuing eviction/demolition orders.

As a result, Ahmed now lives in tin shacks in what might some day be a neighborhood with infrastructure in the Hura township, while the Hura Municipality has gone to court to oppose bringing in more people when they have a waiting list of some 2000. Last week’s tragedy took place when the State was carrying out the next batch of orders, and additional orders go into effect in February. Several orders were not carried out last week, and are currently in effect. They include the home of 100 year old Musa.

When we pray on Yom Kippur, “Do not cast us away in our old age.” Some apparently don’t think that includes non-Jews such as Musa, Amna and Ahmed.

We are a people that has know much suffering. What do we do with it? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote back in the 19th century that the “abomination of Egypt” is that the Egyptian thought that because they had the power they had the right to do with us what they wanted. Years before Herzl and the First Zionist Congress, he said that the verse, “Do not wrong or oppress the non-Jew living among you, for you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) is saying, “One day you will have a state.” However, Rabbi Hirsch says that the Torah is warning us not to repeat in our state what was done to us.

What will we do with this window of opportunity? Will something positive come of tragedy? Will we be inciters like Pharaoh? Incited or indifferent, like the Egyptian people? Will we stand against pharaonic orders as did the midwives?

I wrote in my previous blog, that it wasn’t too late to pull back from the brink. Even after this tragedy, I still believe that to be true. If the State decides to accept any one of the suggestions the residents have made, two of which the State itself supposedly agreed to, the residents of Umm Al Hiran will sign immediately. As our Prime Minister carries out his promises to settlers through demolitions from Qalansuwa in the center of Israel to Umm Al Hiran in the Negev, to the Jordan valley in the Occupied Territories, Israeli Arabs are coming together,and many Israeli Jews are asking questions as well. Perhaps history will recount that this was when all Israelis began to critically examine the pattern of discriminatory planning policies leading to home demolitions rooted in a desire to limit a much as possible lands inhabited by non Jews. , We refused to do this after the Orr Commission of Inquiry highlighted these same policies in their investigation of the bloody events of October 2000, but this time could be different.

The past cannot be changed, but the shared future envisioned in our Declaration of Independence is still possible.

The eviction/demolition order for 100 year old Musa can be carried out through Tuesday, and it can be renewed, Additional orders for additional families go into effect in February.  Yaaqub was his son. Whether it turns out that Yaaqub had intended to attack officers or lost control of his car after being shot and bled to death, he wouldn’t be dead if the police hadn’t invaded his village.  They wouldn’t have invaded if the State had been willing to accept one of the possible solutions.  There wouldn’t have been a need for a solution, if there hadn’t been a decision to build a Jewish community to replace a non-Jewish one. There wouldn’t have been such a decision, were the Jewish and democratic state a bit more democratic towards its non-Jewish citizens.   I look at the picture of him in tears, and recall our tradition;s teaching that God always takes notice of the tears of those unjustly wronged. Created in God’s Image, so should we.

100 Year Old Musa Hussein Abu Al Qian

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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