Breaking Political Taboo, Jewish Settlers Side With Bedouin in Their Fight Against Demolition

Founders of Kfar Adumim declared decades ago that the nearby Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin encampment must be demolished, but now 15 settlers are seeking to join the legal struggle on behalf of their impoverished neighbors

The meeting between Bedouin residents of Khan al-Amar and a group of Israeli Jewish settlers from nearby Kfar Adumim, who support their fight against demolition and evacuation, April 20, 2018.
Emil Salman

In the 1979 document proposing the establishment of Kfar Adumim, some of the founders of the West Bank settlement already identified a problem with the surrounding area. “The space is devoid of any permanent settlement, and of Jewish settlement in particular,” states the document.

It went on, “Today two temporary communities are located there. Many Bedouin work the land. Because the area is used by the military and much of the industry in the vicinity serves the defense establishment, the area must be closed to Bedouin residence and they should be evacuated.”

The document suggests populating the area with settlements by means of which it would be possible to create a “Jewish corridor from the coast, through Jerusalem to the Jordan River. Such a corridor would sever the continuity of Arab settlement between Judea and Samaria.”

The document is signed by members of the so-called local council of Ma’aleh Adumim Bet, which later became Kfar Adumim, situated east of Jerusalem on the main road leading to the Dead Sea (Ma'aleh Adumim is today a large urban settlement). Among the signatories was a resident of Kfar Adumim who later made it big in national politics: Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel of Habayit Hayehudi.

Since the document was drawn up, 39 years have passed but the fight to remove the Bedouin from the surrounding area is still going on. The land of the nearby Mishor Adumim industrial park is full of small Bedouin encampments and villages, whose residents barely eke out a living from raising sheep and odd jobs, and are among the poorest communities in the West Bank.

Most of the area occupied by the Bedouin is state land, not privately owned – and most of the tents and tin shacks they live in have no building permits or formal planning approval. As a result, the government has been trying to move them to permanent locales that are a distance away from the Jewish settlements.

On Wednesday, the High Court of Justice will once again deliberate on a number of petitions relating to the latest phase in the struggle against evacuation of unauthorized Bedouin communities in the vicinity of Khan al-Ahmar. This is one of the largest of these communities, with dozens of structures. It has become a symbol mostly because of its so-called Tire School, which was built in 2009 with the help of an Italian NGO. The school is a large, well-built structure, quite unusual in the surrounding landscape, and it was constructed without any permits; the state has for some time sought to tear it down and relocate it.

The so-called Tire School in the Bedouin locale of Khan al-Ahmar, in 2016. It was built with funding from an Italian NGO.
Vento Di Terra ONG

The Tire School has become a symbol not only for local Bedouin but also among foreign diplomats, particularly from Europe, who visit it regularly as part of the greater protest against the removal of the Bedouin.

One of the parties that has petitioned the High Court to order their evacuation is nearby Kfar Adumim, which makes the meeting four residents of that town had last Friday with residents of Khan al-Ahmar not something to be taken for granted. The four are part of a group of 15 Kfar Adumim residents who recently filed a request with the High Court, asking it to allow them to become a party to the case – but on behalf of the Bedouin. The High Court will hear their request as well on Wednesday.

The group is headed by Prof. Dan Turner, a physician and 20-year resident of Kfar Adumim. Turner told Haaretz that he always knew Kfar Adumim "had done all sorts of things to the Bedouin, but I never knew the details." Then he heard about the attempt to demolish the school and, sometime later, about the intention to demolish all of Khan al-Ahmar.

“I felt greatly embarrassed. I didn’t know the people living here, completely invisible people who live 300 meters from my house,” Turner says.

Now it seems as if things have changed for Turner and he feels at home in Khan al-Ahmar, after visiting there for the first time a year ago. Today some of the locals recognize him. Turner hugs Eid Hamis Jahalan, one of the leaders of the community, although it seems that some of the others are less comfortable about doing that. But after tea is poured under the large tree near Eid’s tent, the atmosphere feels more relaxed.

Sitting under that tree, one can see the settlement of Kfar Adumim, its stone houses and tiled roofs. It may be just a few hundred meters away, but the differences in lifestyles and standards of living between its residents and their Bedouin neighbors are almost unimaginable. When Noa Meridor, one of the founders of Kfar Adumim, declares, “We have come out against the view that all of this space needs to be Jewish” – Jahalan hears things that have never been uttered by representatives of the settlers.

Still-palpable friction

Even during the recent, unusual get-together, the friction is palpable. The residents of Kfar Adumim feel that it's important to emphasize that they do not see themselves as leftists. When Jahalan brings up the claim that the situation of the Bedouin in the West Bank is reminiscent of that of the Jews in Nazi Germany, his four Jewish guests reject the comparison. But still, their encounter succeeds to break some sort of glass wall between the two groups that live alongside have had virtually no contact.

For his part, Jahalan says he has never been criticized for cooperating with settlers. He says he was even congratulated for achieving what organizations affiliated with the Palestinian Authority have never been able to do: to bring people from the surrounding communities to support the Bedouin. “This is the first something like this has happened. [Israeli] leftists can be seen in places like Nabi Saleh, in Na’alin [West Bank Palestinian villages]. But settlers who come and support the Bedouin – this is the first time.”

The group from Kfar Adumim that seeks to support their Bedouin neighbors in the High Court is small and marginal, and belonging to it has social implications. Hefziba Kelner, a teacher, says she doesn’t mention that to her friends: “It’s a very sensitive matter and I feel as if you don’t know who is with you and who is not with you It’s hard. You need to adjust your responses, even now, too, and realize that there are other opinions. I think twice before I publish something.”

Ex-justice's support

In its request to the court to be allowed to be a party to the case on behalf of the Bedouin, the Kfar Adumim group also attached a very unusual letter. It was written by the former vice president of the Supreme Court, Elyakim Rubinstein. In what is a very rare step for a recently retired justice, Rubinstein expresses his support for the group’s request.

Rubinstein writes that because he dealt with many cases related to the area over the years, he would find it difficult to take part personally in a public campaign on the matter, but “I am writing to you [i.e., the settlers] out of respect for your humanity, which is expressed in your present activities.”

The former justice notes that although the government is only willing to discuss how to carry out its plan to evacuate the Bedouin, he still has hope that with God’s help and some common sense, an agreed-upon arrangement can still be found.

Along with the letter from Rubinstein, the Kfar Adumim residents submitted to the High Court an opinion from a number of well-known Israel Prize laureates and Israeli intellectuals, among them writers David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.

Such support has put wind in the sails of the Bedouin and their legal team. Shlomo Lecker, the lawyer who represents the Khan al-Ahmar community, told Haaretz that back in 2009 he tried to enlist intellectuals and academics from Kfar Adumim to side with the Bedouin against attempts to demolish their school – and “I was met with deafening silence.” He added that he was surprised by the group of 15 who have joined the fight and hopes its efforts will have an effect.