“Beit Zayit — is that a recognized village?” 4 Portraits from the March for Recognition with Ayman Odeh

This morning, I joined the final of four legs of Ayman Odeh’s first initiative as the head of the third largest party in the Knesset: a march for recognition. The stated goal of the march was to “raise awareness about the unbearable reality in which residents of the unrecognized villages live, and to deliver an operational plan to the Knesset for recognizing all of the [46] unrecognized villages in the Negev.” [Original Hebew and Arabic here]. It began on Thursday in the unrecognized village of Wadi a-Nam, in Al Araqib on Friday, and in Beit Jibrin on Saturday. I joined the march on its final leg, which began in Abu Ghosh and made its way into Jerusalem. Here are four portraits of people I met while marching.

1. Aziz Al-Touri, Al Araqib: ”They want to take our land– and then they try to sell us the camel’s milk.” 

Aziz al-Touri is one of the few faces I recognize (aside from MKs Dov Khenin and Ayman Odeh) as the march of around 50 people leaves Abu Ghosh. I go to greet him:

Salamu Aleikum.”

Wa-Aleikum al-Salaam.”

“My name’s Mori. We’ve met before, with Arik.”

“Arik Asherman?”

“Yes, a few years back.”

“Of course! You remember the house where you sat then? Destroyed. They destroyed everything inside of the cemetery. We are sleeping in tents. They’ve destroyed Al-Araqib 82 times now. Every time there is a chance to march, to raise awareness, I take it.”

“I’m glad to be here for that reason, also. There’s not even a bit of logic or justice in what the government is doing to you.”

“It’s good you are here. The reason my kids don’t hate Jews is because of people like Arik Asherman, Haia Noah, Gadi Algazi.”

[Author’s note: Aziz did not speak in hyperlinks. Still, worth checking out, for the curious].

We walk in silence for a few minutes. It is beautiful out.

“You know,” Aziz says, “Camel’s milk has everything a person needs to survive, all the nutrients needed for a human body to thrive. You can go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 days eating just camel’s milk and libbeh, a special bread that we make.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Aziz replies. He takes a deep breath, and continues, “They want to move us into cities. They want to take our land. And now, they open ‘camel ranches‘ -where most of the employees are Bedouins- and they try to sell us the camel’s milk.

How can they?”

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2. Mohammad Abd al-Hadi, Iqsal: “Beit Zayit– Is it recognized?” 

Another man, handsome and in his late 20s or early 30s, hears me speaking Arabic and comes over to say hello. He introduces himself as Mohammad, and says he is from Iqsal, in the North, but that he teaches Computer Science in a High School in an unrecognized village in the Negev.

“What were your main reasons for coming?”

“Solidarity with the Naqab [Negev]. I know what it it like in these villages that aren’t connected to water or electricity. It’s simple, really. There are over 400 unrecognized villages in the Negev, and all that the residents are asking is for 46 to be recognized.”

“What does the government and Prawer propose?”

“To concentrate everyone in a handful of cities, maybe 3 or 4, that’s it. To take away people’s way of life, while at the same time, there are “Havot ּBodedim” [“Lone Farms” built by/for Jews] throughout the Negev, not to mention the small Kibbutzim and Moshavim…”

I like speaking to Mohammad, a lot. We chat for much of the way, on and off, about different accents, and another walk he and his friends took, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and teaching. I tell him a bit about where I am coming from, and as we pass Beit Zayit, I point and say:

“I was born here.”

“In Beit Zayit?”

“Yep.”

“How big is it?”

“I dunno. Maybe 2,000 people?”

“Small,” Mohammad says, and then looks at me, grinning, “And is it recognized?”

We both laugh, loudly. It is a good joke, but it is also a sad one that points at the absurd reality of this place, wherein Bedouin villages go for decades and decades without running water, while the very question that a Jewish village outside of Jerusalem would be unrecognized is enough to elicit immediate laughter.

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3. Tzurit Caspi, Kastel: “After these elections, I said — That’s it. I have to do something.” 

Tzurit doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter. She’d heard about the march, and wanted to come along on the march, but she couldn’t find the details. Then, this morning, she saw a group of people wearing Keffiyehs and carrying signs with names of unrecognized villages written on them, passing through her home town, Kastel, right outside of Jerusalem.

“I ran inside, changed into walking clothes, and joined!”

“That’s amazing!”

“I feel a bit lost here. I haven’t been to a lot of protests or demonstrations, it’s not exactly my line of work.

“What is your line of work?”

“I am a kindergarten teacher.”

“I think it’s awesome that you’re here. What made you decide to come?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking for a few years now that I need to start getting active, and then, after these elections, something snapped, and I said, that’s it. I have to do something. So, this is the first thing I am doing.”

“Was there a moment, a few years ago, that led you to want to get more active?”

“To differentiate a thousand differentiations, seeing the play Cabaret had a major impact on me. Less about the specifics, and more about the experience of going about your life and minding your own business, while injustices are happening around you. But it was only now, after these elections, that I am actually searching for what to do and how to do it.”

Throughout the march, I saw Tzurit constantly in conversation with residents of the villages, members of Hadash, and other marchers. She was kind and thoughtful and genuinely concerned. Meeting her was one of the many hopeful moments of the day.

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4. Ayman Odeh, Haifa: ”We are demanding recognition for all of the unrecognized villages.” 

And here is Ayman Odeh, whom I had the privilege to meet for the first time today, talking to press during the march:

Onwards.

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