Ramyah: Arabs in Isrrael Resist Bulldozers

— Maxine Kaufman Nunn

EXPROPRIATION. FOR ME, the word usually conjures up pictures from the history books and newspapers of my American childhood. The holdouts, usually elderly, sitting on the front porch of a modest clapboard house, cradling a rifle, over a caption reading "X swears not to leave his/her land alive." Without the rifles, these pictures and the tragic specter of expropriation were revived for me when I visited Ramyah, a tiny Galilee village whose 100 residents stand fast on their expropriated land in spite of threats from the Israeli Land Administration (ILA) to forcibly remove them.

While the growing disappointment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with the Middle East peace talks is hardly surprising, and well documented, too often overlooked is the grossly unequal treatment which even those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel have received in the forty-four years since Israel's founding—as the state of the Jewish people," rather than of its citizens from all backgrounds. One of the most blatant expressions of this inequality is the massive expropriation of Arab-owned land, dating back to the birth of the state.(1)

The current struggle of the village of Ramyah, located on the outskirts of the growing city of Carmiel in northern Israel, illustrates how the large-scale expropriation of Arab land—or the implementation of previously "paper" expropriation—continues to this day, as part of the overall policy of encouraging Jewish and discouraging non-Jewish (i.e. Arab) population growth and economic development.

The Ramyah case also reveals another, related expression of the same policy: the phenomenon of "unrecognized villages." In 1965, when the National Planning and Building Law was passed, over 100 Arab communities, including seventy-six in the Galilee alone, were left off the official maps. An amendment added in the early 1980s prohibited the provision of services to the villages. This means no sewers, no schools, no water that isn't hauled in, no electricity except from privately owned generators —and worst of all, no permission to build, even to extend a house to accommodate a growing family.

Articles in the Israeli press have referred to the residents of Ramyah as "illegal squatters," as Bedouin wanderers who can pick up their tents and move with the desert wind that brought them. The reality is quite different.

The families who make up the village of Ramyah settled in its present location some fifty years ago. The plots of land upon which they live, about twenty-five acres divided among seventeen family units, were purchased from the villagers of Be'eneh and officially registered, making them as legitimate settlers as any homeowner in the country.

Despite this, you won't find Ramyah on the map of Israel; it is one of the "unrecognized" Arab villages. The ILA has offered them one-eighth acre per family in a neighboring village, plus ridiculously low monetary compensation.

Carmiel and Arab Removal

Regardless of the inconvenience of their "unrecognized" status, the people of Ramyah love their beautiful hilltop, having chosen to stay even during the 1960s when it was part of an army firing zone, and goatherds had to build stone walls behind which to sit for protection from the bullets. "We thought," says resident Yusef Sawa'id, "that when they built Carmiel our troubles would be over. The Army wouldn't shoot in an area where Jews were living."

The shooting did stop, but the city of Carmiel, founded with the declared purpose of "Judaizing" the region, brought new troubles. Built on land expropriated from several local villages, Carmiel covers thousands of acres of fields and olive groves, as well as some of the best marble quarries in the country. The land upon which Ramyah sits was part of massive expropriations in 1976, which sparked the Land Day protests when police fire left six unarmed Arabs dead and ten wounded.

No one at that time bothered to inform the Ramyah residents of the expropriation order, as is legally required, and the shortage of Jews interested in moving to the area meant the land remained in their hands for the time being. With the huge wave of immigration to Israel in 1990-91, however, Carmiel felt the need to expand.

In the Spring of 1991 the residents of Ramyah were surprised by an order to vacate "to make mom for Russian immigrants," which was upheld by the Haifa District Court on June 16, 1991 in a decision that gave them three months to leave This was the first time since 1951 that an entire village was openly threatened with wholesale expulsion to make room for Jewish settlement.

Ramyah's residents refused to take it lying down. Although they acknowledged the immigrants' need for a place to live, the villagers refused to accept the idea that they, who had inhabited the place for generations, must leave to make room for newcomers. They appealed both to the courts and the public.

The courts have up to now upheld the expropriation, even going so far as to "correct" with a stroke of the judicial pen the acknowledged irregularity in the manner of its imposition. But public outcry, including a number of large demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and support by Knesset members, has bought the residents over a year so far.

It even began to appear in 1992 that negotiations among Ramyah, Carmiel and ILA might bear fruit in the form of Ramyah's incorporation into Carmiel as an Arab neighborhood. Only the exact form was being debated.

The villagers expressed willingness to cede part of their land, in exchange for the right to build on what remained and the municipal services that would come with being part of the town where many of them earn their living. The Carmiel mayor favors an apartment block, lacking the additional land required for homes for the next generation.

Escalating Pressure

Early September saw a turn for the worse. The residents' request for an additional hearing of their appeal before a five-judge panel to contest the expropriation of their land was turned down, leaving the village vulnerable to the whims of the ILA.

Besides this, the atmosphere of negotiations was poisoned by the appearance on the Carmiel scene of an organization calling itself the Committee for Coexistence Alongside Our Arab Neighbors, which proclaimed in the pages of the local Carmiel paper, "We have nothing against the Arabs of the Land of Israel.(2) We want to live in peace, they in their place and we in our place ....”

Vehemently opposing the mayor's acceptance of Ramyah becoming a part of Carmiel, they state, "Carmiel was intended to Judaize the Galilee and this we must not forget .... We came to live here and this was one of the reasons. Anyone who doesn't care about this can move to one of the mixed cities."

Then on October 14, each Ramyah family received a registered letter from the bailiff’s office in Nazareth, ordering them to vacate their homes and lands within twenty days in response to a demand by the ILA. Recovering quickly from their shock, the villagers called an emergency meeting for Sunday the 18th, attended by some 100 Arabs and Jews including many public figures.

The meeting, which generated a variety of ideas for resisting the eviction orders both politically and directly, also demonstrated the breadth of support enjoyed by the people of Ramyah today in both Arab and Jewish sectors of Israeli society. The Monitoring Committee of the Arab Population--a body consisting of all Arab mayors and heads of local councils, Knesset members and representatives of most Arab organizations in Israel—was well represented.

Speakers also included high-ranking members of the Islamic Movement of Israel, the Committee of 40 (advocacy group for unrecognized villages), the Druze Initiative Committee (Israeli Druze draft resisters), Knesset members and/or activists from a variety of left-of-center political parties.

It was clear that Israel's Arab population was now fully aware that Ramyah was not an isolated case. Despite its small size the fate of this Bedouin village was, on the one hand, a symptom of the continuing inferior status of Israel's Arab citizenry and, on the other, carried the potential for recognition of this population's rights in heretofore neglected spheres.

The significance of this meeting was not last on the government, which hastened to set up the long-promised negotiations with the people of Ramyah. At a meeting with Ramyah residents and Arab Knesset members on November 10, the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee came out clearly in favor of "the incorporation of the village of Ramyah as a neighborhood of Carmiel" and appealed to the ILA to cooperate.

The Ramyah subcommittee of the Monitoring Committee decided to suspend demonstrations and other local expressions of solidarity as long as negotiations are progressing. Since the ILA still is pushing for Ramyah's eradication, however, letters of support from abroad continue to be important. Should negotiations breakdown, the active local campaign will resume.

"Carmiel Came to Us"

I recently visited Ramyah to attend the wedding of the son of one of the leading members of the Ramyah Residents' Committee. Over fifty Israeli and foreign supporters of the villagers' right to remain on their land made the long bus trip to share in the joy of this occasion, despite the clouds on the horizon.

I slipped away from the festivities to spend some time with my friends Ahlam and Hussein Sawa'id, whom I had gotten to know on my first visit to Ramyah in August '91. We sat in the concrete and corrugated iron shack, which they share with their four small children, discussing the situation and the controversy over whether Ramyah should become part of Carmiel.

"If we had come from outside and demanded to live in the center of Carmiel, they would have the right to refuse us," mused Hussein, "but Carmiel has come to us...." Hussein and his fellow villagers are armed with only their own strong will, and what protection they can get from the conscience of the Israeli and international public.

That will was expressed by village spokesperson Yusef Sawa’id on August 17, 1991: "If they come with their bulldozers, they will have to bury us with our houses. We will not leave here."

Letters affirming the right of Ramyah's residents to remain on their land and demanding Ramyah's recognition as a neighborhood of Carmiel may be addressed to: Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the Knesset, Jerusalem. Send faxes to: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, 972-2358491; Eliahu Babai, ILA, 972-2-234960; Carmiel Mayor Adi Eldar, 9724-882642; Housing Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, 972-2-811904. Please send copies to the Ramyah Solidarity Committee.

Notes

  1. Lands belonging to the over 350 villages “abandoned” [many in fact forcibly evacuated, or temporarily fled by their inhabitants who were never allowed to return--ed.] during the 1948 war were declared “state land.” The following years saw the expropriation “for public need” of 948,000 hectares, roughly a quarter million acres, of agricultural land belonging to Palestinian towns and villages throughout the state, leaving their inhabitants without their traditional livelihood and turning them into a cheap labor force for the neighboring Jewish towns and farming settlements. These were mostly located on the very land the Palestinian workers had previously owned and cultivated.
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  2. This phrase codifies the idea that Arabs in Israel are second-class entities in the context of Jewish supremacy.
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May-June 1993, ATC 44

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