Naqab, Israel – In 1992, Mohamed Abu Qwaider watched his mother’s home bulldozed by the Israeli army in the unrecognised Bedouin village of az-Zarnug in the Naqab Desert.
The then-10-year-old helped his family rebuild the house using stone and concrete, sturdier than the previous metal shack. A few days after completing their new home, the family got another demolition order stating the structure was built illegally and had to watch it flattened to the ground.
“I was too young so I didn’t know the regulations,” Abu Qwaider, now 41, said. “All I knew is that we had the right – anybody has the right to upgrade their house and live peacefully,” he told Al Jazeera.
More than 30 years later, the constant cycle of demolitions and rebuilding has not stopped – rather, it has accelerated as the Israeli government steps up its campaign against construction carried out by Palestinian Bedouins.
Recent data from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), an Arab-Jewish NGO advocating for Bedouins in the Naqab (or Negev) Desert, show approximately 15,000 buildings have been razed in the last six years in the Bedouin areas of the Naqab.
Home demolitions are not unusual for Palestinians, but often the focus is on the occupied territory. Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab did not leave their native place after the state of Israel was established in 1948 and were subsequently granted Israeli citizenship, unlike Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
Israeli authorities have carried out repeated demolitions in both recognised and unrecognised villages in the southern desert region – home to most of Israel’s 200,000 Bedouins. But only 11 out of 35 Bedouin villages have been recognised by Israel, which means most houses are deemed “illegal”.
Israeli authorities regulate construction activity in the desert, but they have not implemented urban plans in many villages due to land ownership disputes or because of the backlog in approving building permit applications. Palestinian Bedouins say it is nearly impossible to secure permits to build legally.
In this regard, there is virtually no difference between recognised and unrecognised villages as both residents often cannot obtain building permits and lack basic infrastructures of water, electricity, sewage disposal, and roads.
While the highest number of demolitions – 192 in 2022 – was in the unrecognised village of al-Furah, the recognised Bedouin city of Rahat – the largest Bedouin city in Naqab – experienced the second highest number of demolitions at 176.
This year has already seen a sharp rise in demolitions with the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) distributing 450 demolition notices to residents across Naqab in February.
Huda Abu Obaid, a coordinator at NCF, the Arab-Jewish NGO, said they expect to see the number of demolitions spike this year, attributing the increase to technological developments and the new hardline government in office.
“It’s political. If this was a left-wing government, the situation would be different,” Abu Obaid said, noting how the previous government recognised three Bedouin villages in 2021.
The high rate of demolition notices in February is thanks to an operation called Southern Hawk, which uses a new artificial intelligence-based system developed by Israeli arms company, Rafael, to scan 1 million dunams (approximately 250,000 acres) of land to detect new Bedouin structures.
While aimed at new construction, Haia Noach, NCF’s CEO, explained that when new buildings are not found, ILA inspectors classify old buildings that have been repaired or renovated as new structures. In one instance, seven houses built in the 1980s and early 2000s were demolished in February.
“There are houses surrounding mine that were built 50 years ago,” Abu Qwaider said. “In the last 10 to 15 years, the ability of building or adding a new structure to your building is extremely impossible.”
Like his mother, Abu Qwaider’s three brothers also had their homes demolished. After one of his brothers lost his home in 2021, Abu Qwaider added a room to his house for his brother to sleep in. Immediately after building, the family received a demolition order and the room was destroyed.
The ILA did not respond to inquiries from Al Jazeera on Southern Hawk and its links to the increase in demolitions.
Building Jewish homes atop Bedouin ruins
As part of the coalition agreement with the Religious Zionist Party, the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to allocate 1.6 billion shekels (about $443m) for accelerated Jewish settlement in the Naqab over the next two years “in order to improve the demographic balance” there.
Previous governments have already put these wheels in motion. In 2022, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government approved the establishment of four Jewish towns in the Naqab. In 2015, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Supreme Court ruled the demolition of the unrecognised village of Umm al-Hiran in order to build the Jewish settlement of Hiran atop its wreckage.
Today, the ethnic cleansing of the village is evident as piles of razed Bedouin homes lay in the shadows of towering bulldozers.
While the pace of demolitions has escalated recently, Abu Qwaider said the agenda of left and right-wing governments are indistinguishable. The speed and implementation of demolitions may differ but the mindset is the same.
“There’s no difference between the left and right-wing governments and their hate policy towards the Arab Palestinians in the Naqab,” Abu Qwaider said.
As he stood in the ruins of his cousin’s home, which was demolished three times last year, Abu Qwaider said hundreds of homes in his village are slated for demolition. His cousin self-demolished his home for the third time to avoid paying 50,000 shekels (nearly $13,750) in government demolition fees. Yet he still incurred a 30,000-shekel (about $8,250) fine for building illegally. Now he, his wife, and four children live in one room in his parent’s home.
Amid the rubble, the marble floor of his cousin’s home remains intact, indicating his plans to rebuild.
“Like so many people, rebuilding a demolished structure feels like an act of resistance to them,” Abu Qwaider said, describing how his family gradually rebuilt his mother’s home after its demolition.
“That’s what the community does,” Abu Qwaider said. “Once their house is demolished, the people get together, they rebuild the demolished structure, and then people live again until you’re really out of options.”