A hair-raising dash across a busy highway is one of two ways of reaching the West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar. The other is to navigate a rugged and barely passable dirt track.
Located between two Israeli settlements, the ramshackle village is home to more than 150 Palestinians Bedouins who raise sheep and goats, but Israel views this community as illegal. A combination of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, shipping pallets and other refuse comprise most homes in this impoverished community that lacks running water and connection to the electrical grid.
Khan al-Ahmar has been at the center of a legal battle stretching back almost a decade. Parts of the West Bank are run by the Palestinian Authority, but more than half of it remains under full Israeli control, including the land on which Khan al-Ahmar stands.
The Civil Administration department of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, the relevant authority here, declared the community illegal and slated it for demolition. An alternative site was identified, with Israeli authorities promising to look after the resettlement, but the community said no.
The last big legal challenge ran out a month ago, and eviction is expected soon, though a temporary court injunction issued Thursday night stayed the order until next week, pending a government response to a last-minute petition.
Eight-year-old Amal Abu Dahook greets us outside her home and – in the manner of someone much older than her young years – offers us hot, sweet tea. She wears a pink bow in her hair but is, like most children here, barefoot. Walking without shoes, she says, will help her grow taller.
Amal’s younger sister Farah eyes us suspiciously as we approach. Their mother, known as Umm Mohammed, says the four-year-old has been scared of outsiders ever since a visit by Israeli Border Police.
“The Israelis came here asking questions about who is living here and how many animals we have,” the mother-of-five recalls. “They were very aggressive and threatening.”
In 2009, Regavim – a pro-Israeli settler NGO – along with the nearby Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to enforce the demolition order from the Ministry of Defense.
“These people came to this area and they didn’t have permission to build. Everyone has to get permission to build; these people didn’t ask for it, so therefore the Civil Administration passed an order that they have to be destroyed,” Danny Tirza, the chairman of Kfar Adumim, tells CNN.
“You can build your own house on land that you own; you can’t build a house if you don’t own the land.”
Palestinians and many in the international community say that since permits are so difficult for Palestinians to obtain, they have no choice but to build without them.
Israel originally displaced the Palestinian Bedouins from their homes in the Negev desert, which is now in southern Israel, after the 1948 war that created the nation.
Bedouins are Arab nomads whose traditions long pre-date the modern Middle East. The community at Khan al-Ahmar settled this patch of land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea in the 1950s when Jordan controlled the West Bank and before the Israeli occupation that followed the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Way of life
It’s a harsh landscape. Shepherds graze goats in the surrounding hills. Winter rains turn the rocky desert into lush, green pastures in the spring. The Bedouins say this spot between the Dead Sea and Jerusalem is ideal for maintaining their herds.
“Israel won’t let us travel far from here, we can only go one kilometer. Settlers harass us and our livestock,” Mahmoud Youssef, a Khan al-Ahmar resident tells me. “But we prefer to live and die on our land. Even if they take us to another place, we’ll come back with our children.”
Most of the 35 Bedouin families here have five or more children. In 2009, an Italian NGO built a school out of tires and adobe to service Khan al-Ahmar and neighboring Bedouin villages.
Twelve-year-old Abdel-Kader Jahalin plays with his friends on the playground’s artificial turf. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps of being a shepherd – but wants to go to school first.
“Education is the most important thing in my life,” he tells me. “They want to demolish our school but we cannot let them.”
Next to the highway that connects the Dead Sea to Jerusalem, a large Hebrew sign reads: “don’t demolish our school.”
The decision to destroy the village has drawn the attention of the international community. Local rights groups accuse Israel of a land grab in order to expand the settlements of Kfar Adumim and Ma’ale Adumim. Human rights group Amnesty International says the plan goes against international law.
“The Israeli authorities have shattered thousands of Palestinian lives, exposing men, women and children to years of trauma and anxiety through their deeply discriminatory policy of first denying building permits, and then bulldozing people’s homes, schools, and herding structures,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Magdalena Mughrabi said last month in a statement.
“Going ahead with the demolition is not only cruel, it would also amount to forcible transfer, which is a war crime,” she added.
Late last year ten US senators – nine Democrats plus Bernie Sanders – wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to stop plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar and another Palestinian village, Susiya.
“We have long championed a two-state solution as a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” read the letter. “Yet, your government’s efforts to forcibly evict entire Palestinian communities and expand settlements throughout the West Bank not only directly imperil a two-state solution, but we believe also endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy.”
Then in May of this year, 76 members of the US House of Representatives again implored Netanyahu to abandon the plans.
On Wednesday, the UK Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt expressed support for the Bedouins after British diplomats visited Khan al-Ahmar.
“While we have not yet witnessed any demolition of structures, it would appear that demolition is imminent. We deeply regret this turn of events,” Burt told members of parliament.
“In accordance with our long-standing policy, we therefore condemn such a move, which would strike a major blow to prospects for a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital,” he added.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, defended the government’s position in response to Burt’s comments in a statement, saying “you and your parliamentary colleagues can be assured that the rule of law will be upheld, and that the residents of Khan al-Ahmar will continue to receive the protection of a robust and independent judiciary.”
Political blame game
Palestinian officials accuse the Israelis of acting with impunity in this age of Donald Trump – emboldened by the US President’s recent declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“There will be a war crime being committed before the eyes of the entire international community and yet nobody is willing to take concrete action to stop the Israeli occupation and to protect the Palestinian people, including by imposing sanctions against Israel and its colonial-settlement enterprise,” said a joint statement by the Palestinian Authority’s President, its Prime Minister, and its largest party, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Local settlement leader Danny Tirza accuses the Palestinian Authority (PA) and European organizations of preventing the Bedouins from accepting a deal to relocate them less than twenty kilometres away to another location in the West Bank where Israel says it would provide them housing, school, and basic services.
“The problem is a political problem. These international organizations say that they are for human rights but they are playing into the hands of the PA. In reality, what they are doing is against the will and the interest of these [Bedouin] people,” he says.
In May, the High Court’s judges sided with the settlers and criticized the residents of Khan al-Ahmar for not accepting the Israeli government’s deal.
“There are no legal grounds to justify intervention in the Minister of Defense’s decision to enforce the demolition orders that were issued against the illegal structures in Khan al-Ahmar,” the justices ruled.
Not all Israelis welcomed the court decision.
In a letter, Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and one of the founders of the Kfar Adumim settlement, wrote: “What morality drove us to wish for the banishment of people for a second time, after their families were banished from the state of Israel in the 1950s?” the Haaretz daily newspaper reported.
“The Bedouin were here when we arrived,” Meridor said according to Haaretz.
On Wednesday, bulldozers and police arrived to improve the road ahead of the impending evacuation and demolition. Protesters clashed with police.
“We don’t have the power they have because we are being occupied,” says 52-year-old Bedouin woman Hasna. “But we will still resist. It’s a better choice for us.”