Israel expansion threatens West Bank Bedouin

Fear of expulsion grows among Bedouin communities in E1 corridor as Israel approves plans for new settlements.

Khan al-Ahmar

Khan al-Ahmar, occupied Palestinian territories – On the dusty slopes leading to the Dead Sea, the red roof tiles of Israel’s illegal settlements flicker in patches of sunlight as distant mosque minarets of nearby Palestinian villages peek through the hills. Adjacent to this route linking Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley lie several Bedouin communities leading a simple existence.

Eid Khamis, who goes by many names including Abu Khamis and Badawi (Arabic for nomad), is the head of Khan al-Ahmar, a community that was forced to leave the Negev Desert during the 1948 war. These Bedouin of the Jahalin clan then set up their homes in a dusty valley – now nestled between the Israeli settlements of Kfar Adumim and Ma’aleh Adumim – approximately 10km from Jerusalem.

Khamis, 47, said the community’s traditional way of life has been under threat by Israeli authorities for as long as he remembers. The encampment has no running water and is not connected to the electric grid; Israel refuses to provide Khan al-Ahmar with basic infrastructure, and prevents it from building even to sustain the natural growth of its population.

And now, communities such as Khan al-Ahmar face a new threat, as Israeli authorities recently approved plans to build more settlement units in an area known as E1, which links Jerusalem with Ma’aleh Adumim.

Khan al-Ahmar is part of a cluster of Bedouin communities living in or near the E1 corridor, and is deemed one of the few remaining obstacles to long-held Israeli plans to link the holy city directly with the third-largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

‘De facto border’

According to Israeli authorities, the Bedouin are living and constructing illegally in “Area C” – a division of the West Bank, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the territory. According to the Oslo Accords, Area C falls under the direct administrative and military control of Israel.

The E1 expansion announcement came after Palestinians won an upgrade in their status at the UN General Assembly to non-member observer state. According to the Palestinian negotiating team, if the proposed settlement building goes ahead, it would effectively bisect the West Bank and sever the physical link between Palestinian territories and Jerusalem.

In remarks to foreign journalists this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said this premise was “simply false”.

“Everybody understands that these suburbs are going to remain part of Israel as a final settlement of peace,” Netanyahu said. “The same applies to the narrow corridor that connects Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem. This was part of all the plans.”

We already know what’s coming, but we don’t know when. It’s like a man on death row. He knows he will die but he doesn’t know when his execution will happen.”

– Eid Khamis, Khan al-Ahmar

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), when contacted for comment, deferred to the Prime Minister’s Office, which, in turn, refused to give further comment, instead referring to Netanyahu’s recent remarks. 

The spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office, Mark Regev, also declined to comment on how the E1 expansion plan would impact the Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar, saying he was not familiar with the issue.

And Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise pointed to comments that Netanyahu made during a recent visit to Germany.

“The curious thing is that most governments who have looked at these proposals over the years, including the Palestinians themselves as revealed in leaked documents, understand that these blocs are going to be part of Israel in a final political settlement of peace,” Netanyahu said during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, sees displacing Bedouin communities as part of an Israeli plan to draw a de facto border. “There are three things that prepare the groundwork for this: the route of the separation barrier, which of course will include E1, …the construction of a road grid that creates Palestinian patterns of movement that basically neutralise their presence in E1… and finally the displacement of the Bedouin there,” he explained.

Siedmann said “the three auxiliary steps” could only lead to one thing. “E1 is the fatal heart attack to the two-state solution. This is undoubtedly the settlement with the largest impact in recent memory and it will have an effect on the geography of what will allow or disallow for a contiguous Palestinian state.”

Embedded in the past

Khamis said his fears about expansion plans were embedded in past experiences. “We are refugees and my fear is that [the Israeli authorities] will make us refugees once again,” he explained. “We already know what’s coming, but we don’t know when. It’s like a man on death row. He knows he will die but he doesn’t know when his execution will happen.”

According to Khamis, all 257 families living in five communities straddling the highway linking Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley have been issued with demolition orders for their homes. “I cannot even count how many times the Israeli authorities have demolished our homes and structures,” he said.

The father of seven, who paid his way through college and received a degree in accounting, said he gets by today by working at various agriculture jobs in the Jordan Valley, earning as little as 50 Israeli Shekels ($13) a day.

The Jahalin tribe, which make up the Khan al-Ahmar community and others scattered across the West Bank, have been particularly hard-hit, long before the E1 expansion plan was announced. With settlements expanding unabated, access to land for grazing and agriculture has been severely restricted, and Khamis says that “every time we go near [the settlements], our sheep are stolen or killed, and our children are beaten by settlers”.

Once we are finally forced out of the area, we will no longer have access to pastures and the very nature of the nomadic life will cease to exist.”

– Daoud Bseisat, al-Eizariya resident

The separation wall has also denied them access to Jerusalem, the closest urban centre of life.

Educating their children has been difficult; for years, students would have to cross the busy highway, and walk or hitchhike the 22km journey to Jericho to get to the nearest school.

With the help of international non-governmental organisations, Palestinians, and Israeli human rights groups, a school for younger children was built out of discarded tyres, hay and mud in the community’s yard. In October, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled against the school’s destruction despite demolition orders, but the community as a whole still faces forced displacement by the Israeli army.

Headmistress Halimeh Zahayka said the school lacks heat, a sturdy roof and facilities such as computers or educational toys. “One of the classrooms is outdoors and susceptible to noise and the elements,” she said. “During the cold season, only a tarp shelters the children from the rain.”

Because there is no access to the community from the highway – Israeli authorities closed the gap in the highway’s roadside barrier – taxis are loathe to stop for teachers coming in and out of the school, for fear of getting ticketed by police.

As the school bell rang and the children ran, some barefoot, towards their makeshift homes, Khamis said all Bedouin communities – living in or near the E1 corridor and elsewhere in the West Bank – were pessimistic about the future.

“We have been living under threat long before the E1 (settlement expansion plan),” said Daoud Bseisat from al-Eizariya. “But once we are finally forced out of the area, we will no longer have access to pastures and the very nature of the nomadic life will cease to exist. It will also mean that the West Bank will be cut in half. We cannot have a Palestinian state in light of this plan.”

Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa

Source: Al Jazeera