The drive east from Jerusalem doesn’t take long, but the van’s occupants doze. At 8 am, the sun is up but the heat is manageable for now. From east Jerusalem, the road dips beneath Mount Scopus and then emerges in the Judean Hills, joining Route 1, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Driving through deep desert valleys, the familiar sight of ramshackle metal shacks appears. Most Israelis can easily identify these structures as illegal (or “unrecognized”) Bedouin villages. Ugly and haphazard, they line the roads leading south through the Negev. Except this isn’t the Negev.
At a bend in the highway, between Ma’ale Adumim and Kfar Adumim, the van turns off of Route 1 into an open construction site, vibrating on the rocky gravel road as it climbs out of the valley. The construction site includes the retrofitting of Route 1’s bridge over a wadi and deep trenches for widening the road. Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar, a sprawl of semi-permanent metal tents, sits just above the highway, perilously close to the present construction. The entire village, like the others in the area, has been served an eviction notice.
The van rolls to a stop beside a fenced-off enclosure containing several structures, appearing sturdier and cleaner than the rest of the village. Seven young foreigners pile out of the van and, almost instantaneously, some 20 dark-skinned children excitedly crowd around. Many stare unapologetically at the unfamiliar face, me, undoubtedly wondering what I’m doing there. Nuwal, the 23-year-old local Bedouin teacher, unlocks the gate and the giggling mass moves inside. The guys disappear with a soccer ball to an open space in the corner of the encampment while the girls pick up hula-hoops.
These foreigners are from the NGO Operation Groundswell (OG). Started in 2007, the organization runs combined backpacking and volunteering trips to the developing world. Like the American Peace Corps service, the focus is on working with, and learning from, local communities. Unlike Peace Corps’ 2.5-year commitment, typical OG programs run for only 6 weeks.
Team leaders Kate Stokes and Eyal Rosenblum explain, “We want to come understand this place, beyond media, beyond personal narratives.” With the coordination of a few aid agencies, the seven-member team is running a two-week summer camp for Khan al-Ahmar’s children in the grounds of their recently - and illegally - built school.
The school was constructed just over a year ago with the help of several NGOs, though the primary drive came from the Italian group Vento di Terra. As reported by Haaretz last year, the drive to build a school came after four children were killed in two years on the highway commuting to Jericho’s school 14 km away. Italian architect Valerio Marazzi suggested the cheap innovative construction method – packing used tires with local soil, followed by coats of mud and inexpensive oil to protect the new walls. Volunteers from OG’s first trip to the Middle East helped to pack the mud walls.
The Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank issued a stop-work order for the school, which was followed by a demolition order. The High Court of Justice later stayed the demolition in response to a petition from three Bedouin Mukhtars arguing they lacked proper educational facilities for their children. The stay of execution expired at the end of the school year a few months ago.
The football game is surprisingly intense. Nasser, 15 years old, and the oldest of the children, leads one team. Eyal, myself, and a determined tike barely bigger than the soccer ball round out the team. On the other side, internationals Rich and Zach team up with Mohammad, the 12-year-old local soccer star. Mohammad’s team wins and the gathering heat drives the group towards the shade in the school grounds. Nuwal provides rejuvenating sweet tea for the foreigners.
Most of the Bedouin living in the hilly desert between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim are of the Jahalin tribe. According to Rabbi Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights, who has worked extensively with the Jahalin, “the most repeated story is that the Bedouins were expelled in the early ‘50s, 1951, 1952. I’ve heard a second story, that there was a fight between some families in the Negev and they crossed to the Jordanian side. All sources agree that they migrated north from the Negev, near Arad. They settled in the Judean desert near East Jerusalem in the early ‘50s.” There they lived in the periphery of Jordanian-Palestinian society, receiving refugee papers and rudimentary support from the UNRWA. Their traditional nomadic lifestyle slowly eroded over the years as the land available to them contracted.
Today the Jahalin settlements are in Area C of the West Bank, under Israeli civil and military authority. With a few exceptions, most of the Jahalin land claims remain unrecognized and they are therefore not connected to water, electricity or sewers.
Attorney Shlomo Lecker, who has represented the Jahalin in court and negotiations, explains that the construction company building the road has recently agreed not to demolish any buildings, including the school, for the expansion of the road. The school should now be in no more or less danger than any other Bedouin encampment in the West Bank, he says.
The spokesman for the Israeli Civil Administration says “the Civil Administrators is working to find a place for permanent settlement for the subject tribe,” making assurances that the demolition order was not issued specifically because of the construction.
Still residents worry about a rumored bypass between Kfar Adumim and Ma’ale Adumim. And still the school and the entire village are considered illegal. Eyal and Kate say that the summer camp is run both to keep the kids out of trouble and to deter demolition by keeping the school grounds in use until classes begin again in late August.
Eyal observes that Nathan, 22, has developed a special connection and respect with the children. They’ve nicknamed him “Abu Samra” (slang for dark person) for his skin tone, “a good thing” one of the elders reassures. Nathan is a graduate of Breaking the Cycle, an organization that works with troubled youth vulnerable to gangs in Canada. He says that his experiences helped prepare him to work with the children, who can be quite rough. Spectacular falls on rocks are quickly brushed off. Disputes are often mediated by physical submission or by threatening to inflict harm, though a family-based social hierarchy has a significant influence.
Eyal explains “these are people who haven’t been to school in a few years. One of the things you learn in school is social cooperation – how to act towards other people and listen to instructions [from non-familial authority figures like teachers].” Not speaking the same language as the children, each of the international volunteers learned to connect in other ways, through body language and simple Arabic phrases, such as “Khalas!” (enough!), “Quayas!” (good!) and “shwai shawi” (gently, gently; effectively meaning calm down).
I returned to Khan al-Ahmar a week later to talk with the Mukhtar’s brother Abu Khamis. My guide and translator was Sister Alicia Vacas, of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, a Catholic order devoted to helping those that “fall between the cracks.” The description fits the Jahalin well – who can be treated as inconvenient illegals by Israel while “neglected and regarded as the lowest social class in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority” according to Abu Khamis. Alicia started working with the Jahalin Bedouin only in the last two years. She is already well versed in their culture, and in the politics, while still attempting to understand all sides. She travels regularly to the camps, often acting as a facilitator for NGOs trying to get involved.
Alicia explains that she feels the Jahalin have responded in two ways to their predicaments. The first involves a sort of quiet resignation to being the weaker party to Israel. I ask Abu Khamis if his tribe can’t return to Arad, would he be happy to build a home here with water and electricity? He tells me that, “In this moment Israel is in a power position. And we, as Bedouins, as Arabs are in a situation of weakness. But history teaches us that situations change. The empires crash. If I kick you out of your house, do you want water, and electricity or do you want to go home?”
Alicia says that when she arrived, the mindset was one of “surrender.”
“They said: ‘This is our situation. We can not work. We can not build. We can not move. They talk with this tone, very low-key’.” The attitude may in part be supported by the Jahalin’s dependence on UN aid for subsistence. Alicia compares it to “a short-term aid project for 60 years. I would be ashamed to give you pocket-money for 60 years, especially if I’m here to educate you.”
But, she continues, she has seen another attitude take hold in the last year and half. “This school has given them the right to have rights. The right to dream. I have seen them in a very short time develop a lot of ideas, asking for kindergartens, asking for clinics. We want this, we want that. Not we want. We need this. Our children need this. From the moment they open the school, they want a nursery.”
Engaging with the residents of Khan al-Ahmar is a reciprocal process. Alicia observes that “giving the children a chance to meet different people, to trust different people, to befriend different people” is positive. In particular, she hopes “to break the prejudices against Israel and Jews. For them yahudi is an insult. You can hear them insulting each other ‘yahudi!’ They’ve never seen anyone who is yahudi.” The Mukhtar says that OG’s work was very positive for Khan al-Ahmar for three reasons: one, he appreciates “their help and solidarity”; two, they raise awareness about the plight of the Jahalin; three, “they see with their own eyes our situation, they come to know us.”
Each of the OG participants is happy to talk about the person they connected with most, showing how quickly the mass of children differentiated into individuals with unique characters.
There was Mohammad the soccer star, one of the Mukhtar’s sons. There was the “authoritarian” girl, loud and pushy, constantly testing the international volunteers’ limits. But if “you hold your ground,” Eyal says, she’ll calm down and smile. Then there was Nimr, constantly picking fights with the bigger children and “constantly getting himself hurt in the process.” There was the “girl who always cried” and there was the indestructible two-year old who clung to Shannon’s chest when not playing in rocks.
But by far the universal favorite was 15 year-old Nasser, another son of the Mukhtar. Oldest of the bunch, he “straddles that line between youth and adult, between peer and authority figure,” says Kate. Indeed he’s polite, helpful, joyous and responsible – taking over the Nuwal’s duties when she couldn’t come. Later that day, the OG group discussed leaving Nasser to lead the “organized play” of summer camp after they’d left.
Both Alicia and Rabbi Grenimann agree that the solution involves engaging and empowering the Jahalin Bedouin to help themselves.
“One of the painful things they live is the impression that no one cares. The Palestinians don’t care and the Israelis don’t care. That someone cares gives them a kick, a push and you can feel it. They feel entitled to do something.”
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