How Israel Is Trying to Bypass the Courts and Get Bedouin Off Their Land

The monster who came to visit the Sateh el-Bahr Bedouin encampment.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Khalil al-Hamadeen, Sateh el-Bahr Bedouin encampment
Khalil al-Hamadeen, Sateh el-Bahr Bedouin encampmentCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“Once upon a time there was a house and a guest, a woman, came to visit.” Between a cup of tea and a cup of coffee, this is how Khalil al-Hamadeen began his story in his family’s diwan, or hosting tent, at the Sateh al-Bahr (“Sea Level”) Bedouin encampment.

The encampment lives up to its name: It is located on a descending hill between Jerusalem and Jericho, more or less at sea level.

A pleasant breeze blew through the tent and the mattresses, as the host continued his story. “The guest asked to stay. The host agreed immediately, but his wife refused. She said, ‘Be careful. This is a ghoul, and she will harm us all.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ the husband said. ‘She is very nice.’”

To a feminist ear, it sounds like a subversive folk tale about the institution of polygamy and the pain it causes the first wife. But that was not the story we had been waiting for. After all, we had come to hear how the members of this Bedouin tribe were coping with the methods devised by the State of Israel to get rid of them.

The story of the how they have been dealing with expulsions is longer than the story about the ghoulish guest (whose end will be told at the end of this article).

We left out the first parts: pre-1948 life in the Negev, wanderings with the flocks according to the season. It appears that even then, the Sateh al-Bahr region was one of the permanent stations where the Jahalin tribe, to which the Hamadeen clan belongs, pitched their tents.

After 1948, Israel expelled the Jahalin tribe from the Negev region, and it scattered throughout the Jordan Valley region and along the mountain ridge. The clans wandered among various places, and the Sateh al-Bahr region remained a permanent stop in autumn and winter. In the spring, the clan packed up their tents of camel hair and went westward with their children, near the villages in the Beit Hanina region.

What looks to the foreign eye like a random scattering of Bedouin tent camps in the region is a calculated and conscious jigsaw puzzle based on the customs of the clans and tribes, and the importance they place on keeping a specific distance from one another.

In 1967, the Hamadeen families were thrown off a hill just a bit higher in the Sateh al-Bahr region and moved several hundred meters north. Wandering from camp to camp became more difficult by the early 1980s. The open areas between the villages began to shrink because of the state’s land expropriations. Sometimes, they discovered that the army had destroyed the structures they had left behind (animal pens, for example) at the winter camp.

Slowly, the Sateh al-Bahr region turned into a permanent year-round camp. The tents made way for tin shacks, hovels and asbestos huts. The grazing areas grew steadily smaller. “Our parents realized that they had to vary their sources of income,” said Jamil, the son of Haj Khalil.

Jamil, an agricultural engineer, works at the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry’s branch in A-Ram. He was born in Sateh al-Bahr. When he attended university for several years in Hebron, he felt stifled. He feels like a foreigner in the crowded buildings of A-Ram. “I need the space that’s here. We all do. It’s only here that we can manage,” he said.

An army base is located several kilometers south of Sateh al-Bahr. The settlement of Mitzpeh Yeriho, which was built in 1977, is several hundred meters to the north, on the other side of the expanding Highway 1. The inhabitants were members of the Yeriho group, which was established by members of Gush Enumin and adherents of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

In 2012, several members of the Hamadeen clan decided to exchange their tin shacks – unbearably hot in summer and freezing cold in winter – for mobile homes donated by the European Union. These mobile homes have kitchenettes, showers and polystyrene boards for insulation inside the prefabricated walls. Several vegetable gardens were planted in the yards between them.

But the mobile homes awakened sleeping bears. The residents received demolition orders from the Civil Administration. Attorney Shlomo Lecker petitioned the High Court of Justice against the orders. After all, he said, the mobile homes took up no more space than the shacks had. Was a Bedouin not allowed to improve his living conditions? In November 2012, the High Court justice issued an interim injunction preventing the mobile homes from demolition.

On April 24, Justice Uzi Fogelman held a preliminary hearing on the petition. Attorney Reuven Edelman of the State Prosecutor’s Office, who represented the army and the Civil Administration, said that the state proposed that the petitioners move to the township where the Civil Administration was planning to move thousands more Bedouin of the Jahalin tribe north of Jericho. The master plan had not been presented for formal objections it had undergone, though, some changes following objections from the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which is amalgamating the region’s settlements).

This is state-owned land, about 2,000 dunams (about 490 acres), a pocket of Area C within the Jericho enclave (in Area A, which is under the Palestinian Authority’s control). The Civil Administration intends to amass between 3,800 and 6,000 Bedouin into the township, against their tradition and tribal law, and without allowing them any grazing land.

Plans for expelling the Bedouin from their encampments in Area C in the West Bank and concentrating them into several permanent townships have been devised in the Civil Administration’s halls for at least a decade. (In the meantime, three townships for their resettlement are being planned: al-Jabal, near the trash dump of Abu Dis; Fasayil and Nu'eimeh north of Jericho).

In a subcommittee meeting held on April 27, the coordinator of government activities in the territories notified representatives of the settlements and members of Habayit Hayehudi, who were concerned over the prolonged presence of the Bedouin in the region, that the three plans were moving forward. As stated in the meeting, the territory to be evacuated will allow the settlements to expand.

In a High Court hearing on April 24, Justice Fogelman suggested that the parties meet for dialogue and discuss the state’s proposal. He instructed the representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office to submit documentation regarding the proposed alternative housing within seven days. The parties agreed to dialogue.

And then, on April 28, a Civil Administration inspector appeared at the encampment and left five warnings (with an unclear signature) “regarding the order to evacuate a closed area.” The warnings were given only to those who had submitted a petition to the High Court against the demolition of their mobile homes, and not to the rest of the families in the area, who do not have mobile homes.

The warning indicated that if they do not leave within 48 hours, the flocks belonging to the families – roughly 40 people, including 21 children – will be confiscated. Coincidentally or not, only a day earlier, Einav Shalev, the officer in charge of the Operations Branch at General Headquarters, told the Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria that a firing zone and training area there were a sure method for getting Palestinians out of Area C.

Lecker’s immediate intervention, in the form of an amended petition, worked. On May 4, Fogelman issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the eviction of the petitioners from the encampment and the confiscation of their flocks. He gave the state 45 days to respond to Lecker’s claims – for example, that the delivery of the warnings was a wrongful act that showed contempt of both court and the appellants, and ignored the agreement that had been reached only three days earlier that the parties would engage in dialogue about “the consensual regularization of the petitioners’ housing.”

In Lecker’s opinion, the purpose of threatening eviction and confiscation was to put pressure on them to “agree” to any proposal.

In response to Haaretz’s query about the matter, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office answered, “Firing Zone 92 was declared a closed military zone by the commanding officer of the Central Command and so marked. The declaration of the area as a closed military zone was done in 1967 and remains in effect to this day, since the army still uses the area for military purposes. Last week, eviction orders were delivered to several inhabitants living in the firing zone, who were living there in violation of the law, because it was a closed military zone and staying there constitutes a danger to their safety. It should be noted that the residents were offered alternative land in a location near the firing zone.”

“Utter nonsense,” Lecker told Haaretz.

In 1992, Uri Shoham, the president of the military appeals court, annulled the declaration of that firing zone after Lecker proved that the declaration had never been publicized properly or brought to the attention of the inhabitants living in the firing zone (which did not include Mitzpeh Yeriho, which was very close by). This means, explained Lecker, that “anyone living in the area before the declaration was reissued is a ‘permanent resident’ of the closed zone and may not be evicted.”

The inhabitants of the Hamadeen encampment say that no military training took place in their area over the years. Any training that does take place happens several kilometers to the south, near the army base. “Sometimes members of the Tanzim (referring to the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Committee) come here and ask us in a gracious, compassionate tone: ‘Where would you like to move – to [a permanent township near] Azaria, or one near Jericho?’” says Hamadeen.

“They say they want to make our living conditions better. I tell them: ‘How can you talk about making our living conditions better when you don’t even ask us what we want?’”

Members of the Tanzim showed up last week too. They looked out over the encampment from a distance and flew a drone over it.

And that guest who was really a ghoul? Just as the host’s wife had warned in Hamadeen’s story, she suddenly started eating the people who lived in the home – first the children, then the wife. Finally, she approached the host and asked him in a gracious and compassionate tone: “Where would you like me to begin eating you?”

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