- By Jonathan GuyerJonathan Guyer is senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He blogs about Arabic comics and caricature at Oum Cartoon. On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest.
KHAN AL-AHMAR, WEST BANK– United Nations officials have issued a warning that the Government of Israel’s plans for Palestinian Bedouin communities living in Jerusalem’s periphery could constitute "mass forcible transfers" and "grave breaches" of international law. A pending plan in the West Bank threatens to displace Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village of refugees originally from Israel’s south, pushed off their indigenous land in the early 1950’s. Khan al-Ahmar lies on the side of a major West Bank thoroughfare and is sandwiched between the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumin and Jerusalem. This area is known as E1, an especially controversial 12 km patch of land where East Jerusalem would expand as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
It is impossible for Bedouins living here to obtain building permits from Israeli planning authorities, a situation that is not unique to Khan al-Ahmar. That Israeli officials consider Khan al-Ahmar’s local community school, which educates over 70 children from surrounding villages, to be illegally constructed might spell its imminent destruction.
Over tea — and then coffee — Id al-Jahalin, Khan al-Ahmar’s spokesman, described the perilous nature of day-to-day life in his village. There is neither running water nor electricity from a central grid here, and trash is burned as there is no waste pick-up by Israeli public services. Provocations from neighboring settlers punctuate daily routines in this pastoralist community.
The proposed site for re-residence of this community is a newly flattened plot just outside of Jerusalem, less than 100 meters from the municipal garbage dump, and in clear violation of international health standards. A thousand tons of rubbish from the Jerusalem municipality and settlements are trucked to this dump daily, making it the largest refuse site in the West Bank. An armed guard sitting atop a watch tower prohibits visitors from entering the dump. But from the proposed relocation site, one can see pipes coming out of the trash mountain, where methane gas is released in order to limit the internal combustion occurring underground. CO2 levels here are also dangerously high, according to UN officials. Standing in the squalid relocation site for the Bedouin community, the putrid scent of the dump is unbearable.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s administration office for the West Bank, would not provide a timeline for the development of these plots, only more than a stone’s throw from the dump. He said that environmental tests for the site were currently underway. "Whether a rubbish dump, a golden palace, or even Paris, I don’t want to go anywhere," said Jahalin, also known as Abu Chamis. "It’s my right to have a village here. It’s my right for my children to have an education, and for us to live in dignity like any other human beings."
The Jewish settlement of Maale Adumin has pushed for the immediate bulldozing of the school. They have cut off all contact with Khan al-Ahmar’s residents since the educational facility’s construction in 2009. Ultimately, the decision whether to raze the school and transfer the Bedouin population will fall under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry.
Under the Oslo accords, Israel exerts full civil, administrative, and military control over Area C, which consists of 60 percent of the West Bank. Even as Ramallah has attempted to expand its influence in Area C, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refused to build a school in Khan al-Ahmar in defiance of Israeli zoning regulations. This community is one of 20 Palestinian Bedouin villages in Area C that are unrecognized. And with access to only 1 percent of Area C for agrarian usage, Bedouin children shepherd livestock on the side of busy roads. An Italian NGO assisted in constructing the community’s school out of tires, mud, and used falafel oil. It is situated between the ramshackle structures of the village, also built "illegally," according to authorities in Israel. Before the six classrooms were here, young Bedouin students had to travel as far as Jericho for basic schooling. Following much pressure, the PA has now provided teachers and a head-mistress for the education facility, but has provided little else. "We know the PA doesn’t care about the people here, but they should at least care about the land," said Abu Chamis. "Since 1996, [PLO negotiator] Saeb Erakat has used this road [adjacent to Khan al-Ahmar]. Three or four years ago he actually had a puncture while driving on the road, and I fixed his tire for him. I invited him to come here, but he would not come and see our life."
There are other challenges facing Khan al-Ahmar, too. To understand how unwelcome this refugee Bedouin community is, one need only look at the sewage air vent from pipes leading from the adjacent settlement: the sewage ventilation is less than a meter from the school’s restroom facilities. Recent expansion of the freeway has meant that the main road is creeping onto the little land the Jahalin tribe lives on. Khan al-Ahmar could easily be linked to the public services and utilities of the nearby settlements, according to one Western official in Tel Aviv. The Israeli government, however, has not even considered such an arrangement.
It seems that there are so many disturbances here that many in the Bedouin community have become normalized to basic violations of rights, including livestock theft at the hands of settlers. Furthermore, residents fear filing official complaints to the Israeli government — even in extreme cases, like when Maale Adumin’s cesspool has overflowed into Khan al-Ahmar. "Self-defense is being punished," Abu Chamis explained, going on to say that if one were to issue a complaint against the settlement that the village could face fines for the clean-up.
"It’s quite clear that the plan for mass forcible transfer relates to settlement expansion, which is not just illegal under international law but also condemned by powerful U.N. member states, including some of Israel’s closest allies," warned UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. The European Union Security Council members issued a joint statement two days ago drawing attention to ongoing settlement growth in the West Bank. "The viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel’s long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements." Meanwhile, EU envoy Andrew Stanley has specifically raised the issue of road expansion in E1 to Israeli officials.
Maj. Inbar would not confirm whether there was a master plan for relocating Bedouin communities living outside Jerusalem and would not comment on the status of demolition plans for Khan al-Ahmar. Yet the Washington Post reports that a scheme to resettle up to 2,000 Bedouins is in the works.
If the Bedouin re-settlement plan moves forward, combined with Maale Adumin’s attendant expansion, a wedge would be further driven through E1, cutting off Palestinian East Jerusalem from thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank. This would effectively make it impossible for Jerusalem to be Palestine’s capital in a two-state solution. "I think we have to build in E1 and elsewhere in Maale Adumin," Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Jerusalem Post last week. "…[I]t is high time to tell our American friends that this is not the [moment in which] Israel should take into consideration any objections…"
Jonathan Guyer is an assistant editor of the Middle East Channel and a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.