Israel plans to move West Bank Bedouin

The 30,000 Bedouin of the West Bank have become a key variable in Israel's geopolitical calculus.

Members of "Area C Task Force" show maps of the area to Abu Rahed Arar and Nasser Abu Dahuk from the Jahalin Bedouin clan in Khan Al Ahmar village in the West Bank.
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Khan Al Ahmar, West Bank // Until last October, the Bedouin of the West Bank seldom drew any notice.

Travellers on the busy four-lane highway that tumbles from the heights of Jerusalem, east to the Dead Sea, might have noticed through car windows the dilapidated Bedouin encampments of metal and plastic sheeting that dot the steep, usually bone-dry hills. Most, however, paid no attention at all.

Eight months ago, the roar of an Israeli armoured bulldozer signalled an end to Bedouin anonymity.

The tractor razed five homes at the edge of Khan Al Ahmar, one of 20 West Bank hamlets inhabited by Bedouin of the Jahalin clan.

The demolition of non-Jewish property in the West Bank by Israeli authorities is hardly unprecedented but the Bedouin fear that the destruction of homes at Khan Al Ahmar is a prelude to a broader, more systematic bid to uproot them from their homes.

No longer so invisible, the 30,000 Bedouin of the West Bank have become a key variable in Israel's geopolitical calculus.

They are an obstacle blocking the push by Israeli authorities and private Jewish philanthropies to encircle Jerusalem with Jewish settlements and neighbourhoods, and thus deny Palestinians their claim to any part of Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The Bedouin of the Jahalin clan, in particular, stand in the way of linking the holy city directly to Maale Adumim, which, with 35,000 residents, is already the third-largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Clusters of Jahalin live in the corridor of Israel's planned expansion, known as E-1.

They also pose an obstacle to the expansion of the settlement's municipal boundaries eastward toward the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. Both plans would effectively split Palestinian communities in the northern West Bank from those in the south, preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

"They are the last obstacle in Israel's way before it kills the two-state solution," says Husam Zomlot, the deputy commissioner of international relations for Fatah, which is one of the two main Palestinian political factions, Hamas being the other.

The threat of demolition and forcible relocation now hangs continuously over the Jahalin Bedouin, as it does for many Palestinians who impede Israel's territorial ambitions.

The most imminent threat is the Israeli defence ministry's plan to move some 3,000 Jahalin clan members living in or near the E-1 corridor, and in areas east of Maale Adumim, to a less strategic location - less than a kilometre from a municipal rubbish dump on the settlement's southern edge.

In the mid-1990s, Israel evicted about 4,000 other Jahalin from their encampments and relocated them near the same dump.

"We live in a constant state of fear," says Mrs Yousef, 44, a mother of eight who moved into a tent provided by the Red Cross after Israel destroyed her modest family home last year.

The Jahalin Bedouin live in part of Area C, the more than 60 percent of the West Bank that is under direct Israeli control, as set forth in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Agreement, or Oslo II. Israeli authorities say these camps have been illegally constructed and have ordered many demolished.

Beyond the implications for the Bedouins' survival, the Israeli plans to relocate them appear to be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits forcible population transfers in areas occupied as a result of war.

With the US president, Barack Obama, and his administration preoccupied with winning reelection to another term in office, Israeli authorities may think the timing is right to move out the Jahalin, says Itay Epshtain, theco-director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

"They know they have a window of opportunity right now," Mr Epshtain says, adding that Israel's defence ministry has informed diplomats and aid agencies of plans to carry out the transfers.

Jewish settlers and local police have stepped up their intimidation and harassment of Jahalin, says Mohammed Abu Dawook, 42, a clan member.

"The police restrain the family members and then the people enter the tents and damage everything, destroying our olives, throwing bread out on the ground," he says.

Major Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli defence ministry's department that oversees the West Bank, declines to comment on allegations of settler and police violence against the Jahalin. He also refuses to answer any specific questions about Israeli plans for the Jahalin Bedouin.

He says only that Israel is examining "a number of alternatives for all populations living in Area C".

Like most West Bank Bedouin, the Jahalin were expelled from their ancestral lands in the Negev region after Israel was founded in 1948. They became refugees, like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, and identify with the Palestinian cause.

"The Jahalin were one of these tribes considered unfriendly and were evicted," says Oren Yiftachel, a professor of geography and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

"This is a terrible predicament for them and, basically, the Nakba is still happening to these people," says Mr Yiftachel, alluding to the uprooting of tens of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 to create the state of Israel.

The family of Ahmed Abu Dawook, 32, from the Khan Al Ahmar encampment, were expelled from the Negev by Israel's military in 1951 and fled to the West Bank.

Like most Bedouin in the West Bank and the southern Negev desert, the Dawook family were nomadic for generations, moving their herds of sheep and goats with the seasons in search of pasture for grazing.

The West Bank's patchwork of Jewish settlements, closed Israeli military zones and unilaterally declared nature preserves, as well as the separation wall, have sharply restricted their movement.

But they still eke out an existence tending to goats and sheep and whatever they can earn from odd jobs or obtain from humanitarian aid groups.

Mr Abu Dawook says the Jahalin are in despair at the thought of the Israelis succeeding in their latest plan to move them to the edge of a rubbish dump.

"If you cross the street with your herds, it's a military area and they will arrest you," he says. "The other side is a settlement. Maybe they will shoot you over there."