Bedouin people are a small, impoverished minority among Palestinians
Mark Weiss in Khan al-Ahmar
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar are living on borrowed time.
“I will not tell you when, but we are preparing for it,” he promised.
After a protracted legal battle, the high court of justice ruled in May that the state is legally permitted to demolish the Bedouin community, which was built without Israeli permits in the Judean desert on the road which descends from Jerusalem to the ancient biblical town of Jericho.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the Israeli plans to demolish the village. Ireland, along with other European states, has lobbied against the move, saying such a development would further undermine the viability of the two-state solution and prospects for a lasting peace.
Stuck in the middle
“We feel like a tsunami is coming. There is a demolition order hanging over the whole village,” explained Eid Jahalin, Khan al-Ahmar’s Mukthar village head. “No one has even consulted with us about a plan to relocate to an alternative location. We feel like we are between a rock and a hard place – caught in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. ”
Located close to the settlement of Kfar Adumim, the encampment is home to some 180 Bedouin who were expelled by Israel from the Negev desert in southern Israel in the early 1950s. The West Bank’s Arab Bedouin are a small, impoverished minority among the broader Palestinian population.
Similar to other Bedouin encampments, residents of Khan al-Ahmar live in corrugated shacks or tents, often without electricity or running water, and raise livestock.
The smell of goats pervades the whole village as children run barefoot between the ramshackle structures, happily playing and seemingly unaware of the looming demolition of their homes.
When the Jahalin tribe moved here more than 60 years ago the West Bank was under Jordanian control and the Judean desert was an empty expanse.
Since Israel occupied the area in 1967, more and more land has been expropriated by the army for bases and firing zones, and for nature reserves and the constantly expanding Jewish settlements.
Khan al-Ahmar is located close to the area known as E1, between Jerusalem and the large settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim. Israel hopes to expand Ma’ale Adumim by building in E1 but so far the plans have been thwarted, partly due to strong opposition from the Palestinian Authority (PA), backed by the international community, who argue that such a move would essentially split the West Bank into two.
Critically, Khan al-Ahmar lies about 35 metres from the strategically-important Jerusalem-Jericho highway and Israel wants to move the Bedouin away from the highway and from proximity to nearby settlements.
The Khan al-Ahmar residents rejected Israeli proposals to relocate them either closer to Jerusalem or to Jericho. Recently, negotiations took place over a site close to the existing encampment, but no agreement was reached and the Palestinian Authority lawyer representing the villagers stepped down.
‘There may be some people who want to look out of their window in the morning and see only Jews, but this is not the reality’
One villager, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that the PA would actually like to see Israel demolish the encampment because such a step would be a colossal PR disaster for Israel.
Pressure from right-wing members of the government to demolish Khan al-Ahmar increased following May’s high court ruling. When Avigdor Liberman resigned as defence minister earlier this month, pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu faction out of the coalition, he cited Netanyahu’s failure to act on the court ruling as one of the reasons for his decision to quit.
A few days later, Naftali Bennett declared that his far-right Jewish Home would remain in the government, but he also criticised Netanyahu’s failure to demolish Khan al-Ahmar.
Likud Knesset member Anat Berko, visiting the site this week, claimed that PA officials use the Bedouin communities to prevent the development of Jewish settlements, seeking to create territorial contiguity between the Palestinian-controlled areas of Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
“Bedouin are by nature nomadic, they are not supposed to live on permanent land,” she said. “Along the entire route, we see Khan al-Ahmars that are illegal. We have to use an iron fist with every tent set up by the Bedouin or the PA . The prime minister promised that Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated and I intend to act on this matter,” she vowed.
Israelis have joined the struggle to prevent the demolition of the village, including some Jewish settlers who live in the vicinity.
Professor Dan Turner is a doctor at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital. He is also a resident of the settlement of Kfar Adumim, next to Khan al-Ahmar. A year ago, after reading in the paper that his settlement was involved in efforts to remove the encampment, Turner decided to visit the site.
“I’ve been living in Kfar Adumim for 20 years and I’m embarrassed to say the local Bedouin were totally transparent to me – just people I’d seen driving on the road,” he said.
“Within a couple of months, we had 70 people from Kfar Adumim coming to the village to listen, to have a dialogue, and to learn about the issues. And it was astonishing. I found out what I knew about the subject was totally wrong. These people from Khan al-Ahmar, who were here before Kfar Adumim was established, are totally neglected. While other people in the area receive permits to build and expand their homes, the Bedouin do not receive permits even though they have been here for 60 or 70 years, and this does not seem fair to me.”
Here to stay
Of course, not all the settlers are sympathetic to the plight of the Bedouin villagers, but this did not deter Turner and his friends from seeking to help the village.
“ While you can be in favour or opposed the building of Jewish settlements it’s another thing to build Jewish villages and towns over the homes of another people. This should be a red line for everybody – except for the extreme right who are trying via the supreme court to make the area free of Bedouin. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t allow them to live in our area,” he argued.
“There may be some people who want to look out of their window in the morning and see only Jews, but this is not the reality. We are here to stay. They are here to stay, and we have to learn to live together with mutual respect.”
Meanwhile, Eid Jahalin vows that whatever happens the residents of Khan al-Ahmar are staying put.
“If they destroy the village we will stay here and rebuild. Do we have a choice?”