Israeli Military Documents From the '70s Reveal Attempts to Force Bedouin Into Permanent Homes

The early attempts, which were struck down, display the theoratical basis for the Israeli intention to demolish the contentious Khan Al-Ahmar village and forcefully transfer its residents

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The site near the Abu Dis dump abutting Jerusalem that has been proposed as the new home of the Bedouin Abu Dahouk clan, which is slated to be forcibly transferred from Khan al-Ahmar, May 2018.
The site near the Abu Dis dump abutting Jerusalem that has been proposed as the new home of the Abu Dahouk clan, which is slated to be forcibly transferred from Khan al-Ahmar.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

When Ibrahim, on God’s orders, refrained from sacrificing his son Ishmael and sacrificed a sheep instead, the blood spurted skyward and created the Milky Way. Drops also rained down on the earth and created the water sources, a gift of God.

You can still hear this tale from Bedouin in Sinai, says an anthropologist who asked to remain anonymous. She hasn’t heard a similar story from Palestinian Bedouin, but they, too, were raised on its ethical and practical implications: Because water sources, like rivers and springs, are a gift from God, one may not privatize, fence off or block access to them. And because they belong to everyone, they must be used fairly: Tents must be pitched a few hundred meters from a river or spring, so as not to pollute them and not to deter others from using them.

But cisterns for collecting rainwater, which Bedouin communities dig at their two usual, fixed encampment locations, are another story. Because people toiled for them, they are considered private property.

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In years of abundance, when the cisterns are full even in the summer, the water can be shared or sold. During droughts, the cistern is for family use only. The Bedouin’s dependence on these cisterns determines where their tents are pitched – typically, on hillsides where as much water as possible can be collected.

The winter of 1972 didn’t provide enough rain, as is evident from an official letter sent in May 1972 by Lt. Azriel David, at Israel’s military headquarters in the Ramallah District, to the head of the economics department and a staff officer at the main military headquarters for the West Bank.

“... I realized that there’s a severe shortage of water for Bedouin in the Ramallah District,” David wrote. “They have cisterns that urgently need filling.”

He then listed the locations of 12 cisterns belonging to the Kaabneh and Jahalin tribes. The cisterns in question, and the Bedouin tents they served, are still located alongside the Jericho-Jerusalem highway, Hizma and the Taibeh-Jericho road.

In subsequent years, water was regularly supplied to Bedouin in the southern West Bank, some of it via connections to water mains. For instance, on February 12, 1976, a water-quota officer at the West Bank military headquarters sent the head of the economics department details of the water consumption and costs of Bedouin communities in the Judea region.

This concern over water shows that the military administration understood that one of its jobs, under international law, was to see to the basic needs of the local population in the occupied territory. Yet at the same time, acting on orders from Alignment-led governments (the Alignment was a precursor of the Labor Party), it emerges that military commanders were toying with plans for permanent places of residence for the Bedouin as far back as the early 1970s.

In other words, they planned to put an end to the Bedouin herders’ lifestyle, which entailed moving between the two fixed locations (in the highlands in summer and the lowlands in winter), and settling them in a single, permanent location.

IDF Maj. Rani Langer's 1975 letter documenting Minister Yisrael Galilee's request for “recommendations for a permanent settlement" of Bedouin "in places that don’t disturb [Jewish] settlement plans."Credit: IDF Archive

This is evident from military documents in the Israel Defense Forces Archive, dating from the 1970s and early ‘80s. But until 1981, these documents, which were classified or distributed in a limited fashion, didn’t explain the reasons behind the wish to settle the Bedouin in permanent settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, which were presented to the outside world as being “temporarily administered” by Israel. An exception is one such document from 1975, connected to Minister Israel Galili.

Planning continuity

These documents show the continuity in planning, from the 1970s right up to the current plans of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank to forcibly remove the Abu Dahouk clan, which belongs to the Jahalin tribe, from the Khan al-Ahmar region, 16 kilometers east of Jerusalem. These plans call for their forcible transfer to a semi-urban compound near the Abu Dis garbage dump, abutting the city. By the late 1990s, some communities belonging to the Jahalin’s Salamat clan were forcibly settled there, to make room for the expansion of Ma’aleh Adumim settlement.

Though the earlier plans weren’t implemented, Israel’s military and political echelons continually took steps to reduce the Bedouin’s pasturage and their ability to make a living, by preventing access to water sources and declaring vast areas to be military training zones or nature preserves. Thus, since the late 1970s, some 25 Bedouin communities between Jerusalem and Jericho were practically forced to live in fixed, constrained locations, in ever-worsening conditions, because of Israel’s refusal to allow construction of new shacks and pens, and even schools or clinics.

In November and December 1971, intensive correspondence took place among several officers in the Ramallah District about permanent settlements for the Bedouin. The addressees were the head of the economics department at the West Bank headquarters (whose name isn’t mentioned) and the special tasks officer for the Bedouin, who at that time was Capt. Yigal Hagiladi.

Those involved in the exchange were the staff officers in charge of roads and water, the custodian of abandoned and governmental property, and the Agriculture Ministry’s head of water development. They were seeking suitable locations for several communities affiliated with the two main Bedouin tribes in the area – Kaabneh and Jahalin – and calculated the costs of this relocation.

In January 1972, the deputy military commander of the Ramallah District, Maj. Moshe Levy, met with the mukhtars of four local Bedouin communities (Abu Dahouk wasn’t one of them) and informed them of the permanent locations that had been chosen for them. A tour was planned for the mukhtars on January 11.

But six months later, the problems had already surfaced. On July 27, 1972, Lt. Col. Moshe Feldman, commander of the Ramallah District, wrote to the head of the economics department, “A few days ago, I informed your aide that we’ve failed in our efforts to permanently settle the Bedouin in communities on the mountain ridge, in light of what was agreed on this issue, to save the costs of permanent settlement.”

The custodian of absentee property had problems finding suitable sites (apparently on lands that weren’t privately owned). An earlier document clarifies that the military commanders also objected to some of the proposed sites. And above all, “When we checked with the sheikhs, all of them opposed moving from their own locations to this line of settlements for fear of problems with the permanent communities” – i.e., neighboring Palestinian villages – “and problems with pasturage.”

Silent documents

This same fear of conflict with villagers who own the land (and with Salamat, another Jahalin clan), as well as the desire to maintain their herding lifestyle, are also driving the Abu Dahouk’s demand today to be allowed to establish a permanent community in its current location in Khan al-Ahmar.

In 1971-72, the officers presumably read a nine-page report written by Yigal Hagiladi. He lists the names of the tribes and sub-tribes living in the West Bank by region and describes their history. The Jahalin, he wrote, came from the other side of the Jordan River in the late 17th or early 18th century. He knew they were expelled from the Negev after the establishment of Israel in 1948; the size of their flocks; whether any of their members worked in Jerusalem; which sub-tribes or clans were at odds with each other; and who the mukhtars were.

Hagiladi’s report says that most Bedouin communities both farm and herd, and are in advanced stages of progress toward “permanent settlement.”

On December 10, 1975, Maj. Rani Langer, chief of staff for the head of IDF Central Command, said that Minister Yisrael Galili had asked for a working paper to be drawn up about “places where the Bedouin population is concentrated” in the West Bank, along with “recommendations for a permanent settlement of this population, in addition to ways of creating incentives for this, in places that don’t disturb [Jewish] settlement plans and aren’t expected to undermine them in the future.” The Jewish settlements on the agenda at the time were located in the Jordan Valley and Ma’aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

A Bedouin encampment. Israel’s military and political echelons continually took steps to reduce the Bedouin’s pasturage and ability to make a living by preventing access to water sources.Credit: Tal Cohen

Five years passed after the initial plans to permanently settle the Bedouin were brought up in 1971, and they languished (aside from those relating to the Rashida tribe, which was settled south of Bethlehem). Did the officers understand that a rapid and forcible transfer to permanent settlements would contradict the Bedouin way of life? On that, the documents are silent.

On December 14, 1975, Dr. Moshe Sharon, an expert in Middle Eastern studies, submitted recommendations for permanently settling the Bedouin to the head of the economics department in the West Bank military headquarters, Dr. Efraim Ahiram, based on a paper about the Bedouin that he had written for the army a few months earlier. He said the Jahalin – whose two main sub-tribes, the Abu Dahouk and the Salamat, “roam through the southern Ramallah District and the northern Bethlehem District” – and are “the most problematic category.” He did not explain why.

Sharon wrote that he was “convinced that it’s possible to enlist the Bedouin in ongoing security work as lookouts and trackers, especially in the areas where they roam, which are liable to serve as transit areas for people engaged in hostile enemy action.” But despite his functional attitude toward them, Sharon’s proposal still seems, in retrospect, to strive to preserve the Bedouin as a herding community, with space for pasturage and opportunities to improve their flocks and fatten their sheep.

The documents obtained by Haaretz then jump to 1981, four years after the Alignment government was replaced by Likud. In May, Dr. Sharon submitted a longer and more detailed survey of the Bedouin in the West Bank, which was widely circulated, including among military governors of the various districts and several Shin Bet security service officers. Bedouin can be found in every district of the West Bank, he wrote, but, “they are an administrative problem” only in three districts: Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

This time, Sharon explicitly linked the plan to permanently settle the Bedouin to the Jewish settlements. Regarding the Salamat clan, located in the Azzariyeh-Abu Dis area, he wrote, “The main problem the Jahalin pose is the fact that they have gained a hold on land intended for [Jewish] settlement or near it.”

According to Sharon, then, the fact that the tribes were there long before the Jewish settlements evidently gave them no rights.

On the other hand, he recognized that the Abu Dahouk, like other Bedouin communities in the Ramallah District, were suffering from the rapid shrinkage of pasture lands. But what concerned Sharon were the security considerations: The Abu Dahouk’s hostility to Israel will increase, he wrote, “because a significant portion of their pasture lands have been seized for the purpose of [Jewish] settlement.”

Push toward villages

Sharon proposed to continue encouraging Bedouin without adequate pasture lands to live in villages – a process that began a few years earlier in A-Ram (northeast of Jerusalem) and Jaba (which is east of Ramallah) – and suggested finding permanent sites for the Jahalin’s summer and winter tents. Here, the military-consultant role overpowered the scholarliness of the writer, and Sharon wrote, “To facilitate the operation among the Abu Dahouk, the Bedouin task force should, in light of the rivalries within the tribe, consider the possibility of splitting it by appointing another mukhtar and submit recommendations to the district commander.”

In September 1981, Capt. Harel Tzuberi, another officer charged with dealing with the Bedouin, followed Sharon’s line. He knew that ever since the 1950s, the Abu Dahouk had been living between Beit Hanina and Shoafat in the summer and along the Jericho-Jerusalem highway in the winter. But he proposed concentrating them (about 500 people, according to Sharon) in one place – east of the village of Jaba. Today, this area is controlled by an outpost of the Jewish settlement of Adam.

In Tzuberi’s view, either declaring this area state land or confiscating it for public purposes would entail a lengthy, complicated legal process and would be opposed by residents of the nearby villages. So he preferred a third option – “moving the Bedouin to this area without employing any legal procedure regarding the status of the land. Tell the Bedouin that they can’t continue living on the Hizma-Ma’aleh Adumim road and they must move to the new area.”

Sharon and Tzuberi wrote their recommendations about two years after one of the founders of the settlement of Kfar Adumim, Uri Ariel, submitted a proposal (in early 1979) to the IDF for evicting the Bedouin from the Khan al-Ahmar area, now known as the Adumim bloc, thus creating a dense corridor of Jewish settlement there and restricting the space available for construction in Palestinian towns and villages.

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