Bedouin women on the front lines of the fight against apartheid

Bedouin women and girls protest Israel's reforestation and expropriation of their land, Sa'wa al-Atrash, Naqab, Jan. 12, 2022. (Oren Ziv/

Women and girls increasingly become on the front lines of the Bedouin resistance against Israel's expropriation of their land, which is just beginning. Desert Bedouins Nakab/Negev Intensify Their Fight Against Israel's Judaizing Policy, Expropriation Of Their Land, And Against Jewish National Fund's Reforestation Project (Jewish National Fund), which assumes the development of forests in place of unrecognized villages. Women and girls from villages threatened with destruction took to the streets and stood together with men to face the bulldozers.

Anyone who has followed the generational struggle to recognize and regulate the status of the Palestinians in the Naqab (Hebrew Negev) desert could not help but notice this phenomenon: with each protest, more and more women and girls took to the front lines.

Twenty-six women, along with dozens of male activists and protesters, were arrested during last week's demonstrations in the village of as-Sa'wa al-Atrash. The demonstration was a gesture of opposition to plans to plant forests on Bedouin agricultural land. This is a plan developed by the JNF. Most of the women were released under house arrest, with the exception of one young woman, 25-year-old Nawal Abu Kaf, whose detention was extended until last Sunday. Abu Kaf, a student counselor at Sapir College, was arrested and beaten in full camera light. According to eyewitnesses, she stood next to other activists, Jews and Arabs, and did not use violence.

The women also took to social media to talk about their case in Arabic, Hebrew and English. They took to the media stage alongside combat veterans, politicians and members of the Unrecognized Villages Committee, composed of representatives of unrecognized Bedouin villages, which does not include a single woman.

People don't understand the reality of Palestinians in Israel

Aden al-Hajuj is an 18-year-old volunteer of the Ajik Association, teaching English to children in the village of Umm Batin. Last week, she found herself at the center of a demonstration, talking to the camera in fluent English about what was going on around her. The video went viral on social media.

Al-Hajuj is fluent in English because she lived in Canada, where her mother completed her doctoral studies. As she says, despite the distance, she never stopped following the experiences of her village and the entire desert where she was born and raised, where she will always return. “The discourse in Canada around Israel is biased,” says the activist. “People don't understand the reality of the Palestinians in Israel, and certainly not the reality of the Bedouins. So we had to be vigilant and become ambassadors for the cause.

- The world needs to hear and see what is happening with this military state, the so-called only democracy in the Middle East, that tramples on the rights of anyone who is not Jewish, he continues. “A lot of people follow me online. They have the right to understand what my family and I are going through, to understand what Israel is really doing on the ground. As with the fight for Shaykh Jarrah, without social media and without the al-Kurd sibling livestreams, everything would go smoothly and the world would buy into the Israeli narrative as if we Palestinians were criminals and invaders in territory that is not ours - adds al-Hajuj. “On the contrary: I was born here, my father and grandfather have been here since before the state was established. The invaders are Jewish National Fund bulldozers.

An activist wants to train other girls to have the courage to speak up because they have the tools - phones and internet. And what he calls the "simple truth": the knowledge that "the society that was here before the establishment of the state will stay here and continue to resist dispossession and oppression."

The involvement of girls and women in the protest against the JNF reforestation project is a continuation of the revolution that the women of the Nakab Desert are leading, both politically and socially. For years, men and conservative movements opposed the presence of women on the front lines of mass events, on the grounds of "modesty". In most cases, they wanted the women in the protest tents to be behind a sheet separating them from the men. Feminists with a liberal agenda who opposed polygamy and underage marriage were not welcome.

At the same time, it was the women of Nakab who took upon themselves the difficult task of empowering other women. They started working in non-governmental organizations that promote employment, education, financial independence, the advancement of young women to universities, and especially education and social welfare.

But with each achievement, the appetite for more grows. Every feminist realizes very quickly that the availability of higher education cannot be separated from access to public transport in an unrecognized village. That it is impossible to fight falling out of the education system without fighting for the right to open a school in the village. That women will not be allowed to work in Israeli Be'er Sheva, even as cleaners, if their tribe does not have a kindergarten or nursery. All these matters are closely related to the status of the Bedouins and their struggle for land.

Women are everywhere and always have been

Hanan As-Sanah, an advocate, feminist social activist and executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, has been active in women's organizations for more than two decades. For many years we met at every anti-femicide or anti-demolition demonstration, but many of these demonstrations were attended by only a few women, usually well-known activists and coordinators of various NGOs. Does he think anything is changing?

- This is definitely a trend. Slow but steady, he says. – In 2011, we organized one of the first women's protests outside Naqab against house demolition. There was an argument with the men: how to get women to Jerusalem to demonstrate in front of the Knesset? We proposed a women-only demonstration. They couldn't oppose it. We organized six full buses. Each bus was seated by a local committee representative or senior tribal member as escort. We couldn't find a single brave woman who could stand on stage. Only men spoke, it was shocking. Then Umm Fares from the village of Zarnuj came up, covered from head to toe - and spoke, very loudly.

Women are everywhere, says activist.

– They always have been. As an active part of the crowd, but sometimes also on the stage: in al-Arakib, in the big demonstration in Wadi an-Na'am, in the demolition of Qasr al-Sir, in Umm Zarnuk, in opposition to the Prawer Plan, in the demolition of Bir Hadaj as-Sanah enumerates. – They were in front of the stage, less often on the stage. They cannot be removed today. Men also understood the strength of a woman with seven children standing in front of soldiers and a bulldozer.

Finally, he adds: today I don't have to organize buses. Women arrange their own transport.

Bedouin women on the front line against apartheid

Raising children in the shadow of this tragedy is activism

Huda Abu Ubaid distinguished herself as a leader of the protest against the Prawer Plan in 2013 and today heads the lobbying and media department of the Negev Coexistence Forum. He shows me a photo from 1987 of women and their children demonstrating against the expropriation of land belonging to the village of Lakiyya. "I was born in 1988 and I recognize women in the photo who are still at the center of the struggle," she says. “There is no doubt that what is happening with young women here is a leap forward, but it is nothing new. Every Bedouin in the Nakab Desert knows that he is in the line of fire and will have to resist someday.

"Let's look at a strong woman, Fida Abu Kardud, a single mother whose house was demolished in 1994," Abu Ubaid tells me. – She went to Jerusalem and set up a protest tent that stood in front of the prime minister's office for three months until her village, Abdah, began its struggle for recognition. They called her the Iron Lady. And she didn't even have an Instagram.

According to Abu Ubaid, women's organizations and civil society organizations were more active in raising awareness than political movements. Political parties, as well as the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, which coordinates political activities among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, are always reluctant to celebrate the achievements of popular protest on the ground. Meanwhile, the revolution that young women in the Nakab Desert are leading in terms of education, employment and livelihoods gives them the power and tools to speak out and protest. And while Abu Ubaid is aware that there are attempts to bring these young women down to earth, such as claiming that they only have time to protest because they are single, or that they are the daughters of northern women and are not really Bedouin, he rejects them. "We've become accustomed to these claims that are designed to divide women and diminish our power," she says.

Social media, especially Instagram and Tiktok, "are tools that have not been available to girls before," continues Abu Ubaid. “The protests in Shaykh Jarrah, which many of the girls follow, gave the impression that we are in the same story in the face of the establishment and that we too can make our voices heard.

Sabrin al-Asim, a journalist for the local radio station Voice of the Negev, which she founded herself, believes that the role of women in the protests has intensified after a wave of house demolitions in Umm al-Hiran a few years ago. Women saw the demolition and decided to act.

- Raising children in the shadow of this tragedy is already activism in my eyes - says al-Asem. - In this suffering, there is no other way out than to become an activist with high political awareness. When your home is your kingdom and they come to destroy it, women can no longer keep silent. Documenting and filming everything that happens has empowered women. Many women have received special training on how to document and what their rights are in the face of the police and demolition forces. A woman with a camera is a strong woman - that's what everyone has learned.

Go viral

I went to Sa'wa al-Atrash, a relatively large village compared to other unrecognized villages in the desert. I was looking for girls whose photos were scattered on social media. In one of the buildings, I found a large crowd where activists of the left-wing Hadasz party were gathering. They came from the north to side with the Bedouins in their struggle; Hadash activists were the only women in the crowd.

Janin al-Azrak, a shy 17-year-old, rose to fame after photos of her being arrested during protests went viral. Her father, who was not present when she was arrested, wondered how his daughter had come to be at the center of the storm.

"We used to not need women in demonstrations," says her father Sulaiman. “When we fought against Prawer [the name of a 2013 government plan to expel tens of thousands of Bedouins from their land], men went to protest centers. Now the bulldozers have come to our house, to our land, what should I do? The women had to go out and do something. They came with soldiers and police, which means they came ready to arrest our girls as well. And since when are girls arrested?

Janin says she went to the demonstration because a message was sent to her classmates' group chat that her friends were being attacked. “We all stood together in the class and screamed,” he recalls. “Suddenly we were attacked by the police. They pulled me out of line - for no reason, I didn't do anything special. Two big policewomen pulled me after them and shoved me into the car. I didn't know what was going to happen to me or where they were taking me. At least they didn't hit me. Later I found out that my colleagues had been beaten up.

In the face of bulldozers

I went to talk to the girls of the al-Atrash family, whose land was at the center of the storm. The women of the family - aunts, sisters and many children - gathered in the living room of the modest home to explain what had happened to them.

Rania and Sujud al-Atrash, cousins ​​and friends of Jenin, stood together in a demonstration, facing bulldozers and JNF personnel. “After they took Janin into custody, two male policemen came and attacked me. They pushed me towards the police car and put me in handcuffs,” says Rania. “They left me alone for an hour in the jeep and from there they took me to the police station where they pushed me into a prison cell where I spent four hours alone. They cursed me and shouted at me for no reason, and when they brought in more detainees, they pushed me against the wall every time I spoke to others. I didn't know what they wanted from me or what I had done to them.

Rania says she was not afraid even though she was first arrested, taken to the police station and brought before a judge. She says she felt detached from the whole situation, as if she was watching a horror movie from above.

– I slept in prison and thought about Thursday's exam all night – she recalls. “I knew if I stayed there, I wouldn't take the exam. My father paid 5,000 shekels and a lawyer arranged for me to be released under house arrest for 10 days. I have to be a good girl until next Sunday.

The original text was published on the +972Mag portal. Translation: Wojciech Lobodzinski.