Israelis refuse services to 'illegal' villages

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The Independent Online
An Arab-Israeli village hidden in a pine forest above Haifa is about to disappear again. A senior Israeli minister, who once described Palestinians as "cockroaches", has decided that it does not legally exist.

"I am in a state of shock," said Mohammed Abu el-Haija, a 43-year-old civil engineer and the leader of the village of Ein Hod. He had hoped that the Israeli government would supply water and electricity to the 200 villagers for the first time in almost 50 years, and even collect the garbage.

The decision by Gen Rafael Eitan, the new Israeli Environment Minister and the army chief of staff who led the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, is likely to reignite the controversy over some 65,000 Israeli-Arabs, all Israeli citizens, who live in 40 unrecognised villages.

Ein Hod is hard to find, down three miles of dusty, twisting track, the only guides being pieces of paper tacked to pine trees, with an arrow and the name of the village hand-written in Hebrew and Arabic. "We were driven out from our old village in 1948," said Mr Haija. "We hid here, where my grandfather had shelters for sheep and goats."

The result was two villages called Ein Hod. The old Palestinian village of graceful stone houses was turned over to Israeli artists, whose kitsch products decorate the streets. A few miles away, a new Ein Hod was built on the side of a steep valley. Surprisingly, it grew, despite intense Israeli pressure. At one time it was fenced off with barbed wire; in 1971 the area was declared a national forest and pines were planted to engulf Mr Haija's olive trees.

"Workers have to get up at 5am to start walking to the main road," he said. "Four months ago Fatima, a 55-year-old woman, fell ill and I tried to take her to hospital in my car. She died on the way." He added that even the chickens and cattle at the nearby kibbutz of Nir Etzion get electricity and water, which his village is denied.

Last year the government finally agreed to recognise Ein Hod and seven other villages. A bus started to take the children to school. The village was to be made the legal owner of the 45 acres of pine forest in which it stands. The long campaign of Mr Haija - who is chairman of an association of all the Israeli-Arab unrecognised villages - seemed to have succeeded.

But Naftali Yaniv, a spokesman for Gen Eitan, made it clear this week that the previous government's policy would be overturned. "The minister objects to the recognition of the village because it will be a precedent for ... 39 other villages in the northern part of the country," he said Furthermore, Israel would not give up any of the forest.

Villagers say that they are shocked, but this unsympathetic approach cannot have been a total surprise. Gen Eitan only just escaped dismissal as Israeli chief of staff after an official Israeli report criticised his actions during the massacre of 700-800 Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. He once referred to Palestinians as "drugged cockroaches in a bottle".

Azmi Bishara, an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, said: "What is happening at Ein Hod is a symbol of the hostility of the state to its Arab citizens." He believes that the fate of unrecognised villages, with no water or roads, will provoke a struggle for civil rights among the 800,000 Israeli Arabs.

He said he knew of one Arab community which was about to be replaced by a Jewish cemetery, and added: "We should escalate the struggle and hold a general strike."

Gen Eitan told the Knesset this week that he did have a solution to the problem of the inhabitants of Ein Hod: They should go and live in Arab villages elsewhere.

Mr Haija commented: "It isn't easy living here, but it is our land. Besides, we have nowhere else to go."