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Bedouins face bulldozers

Vanessa O’Brien, West Bank
July 15, 2013

You can't fight progress, so the saying goes. But that's exactly what the Jahalin Bedouin tribe in the West Bank - faced with an Israeli resettlement plan - intends to do.

Eid Abu Khamis stands outside a tent
Image: Vanessa O’Brien

Eid Abu Khamis of the Jahalin Bedouin was born on the hill that his clan now resides on, deep in the Judean desert and halfway between Jerusalem and Jericho, 46 years ago.

Motorists know his makeshift village as an eyesore in an otherwise pure landscape of desert gold and cobalt skies on Highway One heading to the Dead Sea. But to Eid, it's home.

There's a kind of order to the ramshackle residences made of corrugated iron and animal skins; a pride in the interior tidiness of the dwellings. But in the smouldering hot summer temperatures, Eid prefers his outdoor meeting place on a large carpet with cushions, under the shade of vines, where he can see the flocks of goats grazing in the distant horizon.

Here, he is king of the desert. But all that is changing.

Part of a Bedouin camp in Israel
The 'eyesore' on the hill is home to about 5,000 Jahalin Bedouin. Eid Abu Khamis was born here 46 years agoImage: Vanessa O’Brien

Eid lives in Area C of the West Bank, which is an administrative division of Israel. Israel's Area C civil administration has proposed moving the 23 Jahalin Bedouin clans of some 5,000 people to the Nueimeh area, near Jericho in the Jordan Valley, to a purpose-built city. Dozens of demolition orders have been issued, including for the school in Eid's village, which caters to more than 100 students.

"We're always under this stress," said Eid. "We live in this situation and we're always in this position. The kids ask the adults, what will happen? Especially the students in the school, because they see a lot of movement here - foreigners come and support our case, and then the Civil Administration visits. So they really want to know what the future will be."

Eid's village is not recognized by Israel, which means it does not receive services such as electricity, sewage or water from the tap. That doesn't mean that the Jahalin are strangers to modernity though: Eid uses a cell phone, the Internet and his laptop computer through solar generated electricity, and a few satellite receivers are visible in the camp.

Modernity mixed with tradition

The Jahalin haven't been nomadic for many years, unlike other Bedouin tribes. Eid says that they want the best of both worlds - to be nomadic and to have real houses built on the land where they dwell. "People are developing, not going back to traditions. We want to keep our lifestyle as Bedouin people."

Lone satellite dish against backdrop of Bedouin camp
The village is not provided with electricity and sewage services. Residents generate power through solar devicesImage: Vanessa O’Brien

Eid says the Jahalin were originally displaced from Tel Arad in the Negev Desert in 1951, and claims he still owns land that was in his family's name. He wants the Civil Administration to repatriate the Jahalin tribe there or build a Bedouin settlement where he now resides, so that he will have space to graze animals.

In Nueimeh, each Bedouin family would have just 500 square meters (5,400 square feet) each. That's enough room for a house, but not much more, and some of these families have as many as 20 children.

No man's land

The real problem is land ownership, according to Mordechi Kedar of Bar-Ilan University. The Jahalin don't own the land on which they dwell; it's state land, and was state land even under Jordanian rule.

"The question is today … what to do with this?" Kedar says. "To let them live in their traditional - some would say primitive - lifestyle, or to impose the civilized way of thinking of a modern state on those people, yet giving them large pieces of land because of their problems?"

Mayor David El Haiani und Suleiman Zayed shake hands
Mayor El Haiani (left) says Israel has not consulted with the Jahalin BedouinsImage: Vanessa O’Brien

Alon Cohen-Lifshitz of Bimkom, an Israeli human rights group focused on housing and planning policy, is working with the Jahalin to fight displacement. He says that in Nueimeh, they cannot survive.

"They are already refugees - there is no need to displace them again. They have the right to stay where they are and to improve their life in this area, and to be connected to infrastructures to be connected to roads, to have area for public buildings and to have area for grazing."

Cohen-Lifshitz claims that the Israeli government wants to shift all the Bedouin out of an area around Ma'ale Adumim, a Jewish settlement, and create a corridor from Jerusalem all the way down to the Dead Sea, effectively cutting the West Bank in two. That would enable Israel to finish building the security barrier in the area.

Mixed results

Previous attempts at settling Bedouin in cities have had mixed results. Some adjust, and some never will, said Kedar. In some instances, Bedouin have been known to pitch tents and live in them beside their new houses, while their animals live in the house. You can take the Bedouin out of the desert, but taking the desert out of the Bedouin is a different story, says Kedar.

Other Bedouin from the Ma'ale Adumim area were resettled in a purpose-built urban city adjacent to nearby Azaria. Many ended up selling their houses and returning to nomadic life, says Bimkom's Cohen-Lifshitz.

Alon Cohen-Lifshitz from Bimkom points out the 1948 Armistice line around Ma'ale Adumim on a map Photo: Vanessa O’Brien
Alon Cohen-Lifshitz from Bimkom points out the 1948 Armistice line around Ma'ale Adumim on a mapImage: Vanessa O’Brien

The Bedouin tribes of Al Rashaydeh and Zeyed, which already dwell in Nueimeh, are also unhappy with the Civil Administration's proposal to move the Jahalin there. 

"We will face a problem in the future if the Jahalin come and relocate in this area, said Al Rashaydeh Mukhtar Abu Faisal. "There will be a dispute, and a fight, or a conflict between the two tribes."

David El Haiani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, says Israel's Civil Administration has not consulted with the council or local Bedouin tribes about the scheme for Nueimeh, despite the existence of full-scale plans.

He says bringing more Bedouin to the Jordan Valley is a recipe for disaster, since it's a security area for Israel.

The Civil Administration needs to approve the plans for Nueimeh through the Knesset, Israel's parliament, before the Jahalin are forcibly evicted.

"I won't give up," said Eid as he gazed out at his desert kingdom. "I think there is still hope."

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