Demolished, Rebuilt and Razed Again: A Bedouin Community Left Without Shelter

Israeli officials visit the tiny Jordan Valley village of Al Hadidya almost daily to destroy anything that can be used as protection against the cold - including tents donated by relief organizations.

Razi Basharat, the son of mukhtar Abdel Rahim Basharat, stands while holding a poster that shows the EU flag and says "Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection." There is a pile of rubble behind him.
Alex Levac

Dozens of pigeons, white and gray, now flock together on a small tin roof, pressed up against one another, as though protecting each other. They survived by flying off before the demolition, but their chicks were crushed alive by the bulldozers that razed this hamlet. The pigeons’ lofts, made from plastic olive oil containers, are now scattered on the ground, like the living survivors in Al Hadidya.

The local mukhtar, or headman, 65-year-old Abu Saker – whose full name is Abdel Rahim Basharat – says he hears the pigeons crying. With his toothless mouth, he too cries for his pigeons, his home, his three wives, 24 children and multitude of grandchildren, some of whom remain here after the demolition, without a roof over their heads, unsheltered in the biting cold of the Jordan Rift Valley’s nights. When the villagers had the temerity to cover their infants with strips of plastic sheeting, personnel from the Israeli Civil Administration arrived and burned the sheeting.

The sheer inhumanity of it is breathtaking.

Civil Administration staff showed up in Al Hadidya while we were visiting there, too, swooping down on the little enclave in a white jeep that generally bodes ill. They come nearly every day, to check on overnight developments: Was a small tent erected? Did someone cover himself with plastic sheeting or a blanket?

The truth is that it’s hard to imagine what this community of shepherds endures at night. Earlier in the week, the nights were freezing cold, with means to keep warm almost nonexistent. Everything was demolished here, and the Civil Administration also confiscated the tents of salvation and compassion that were brought by relief organizations. Only the ruins of a few tents remain, plus one functioning, small two-person camping tent, in a place where 14 families, comprising 97 souls, including 30 children and six infants, continue to live.

One of the babies, 1-year-old Izz a-Din, a grandson of the mukhtar, crawled across the ground this week, his cheeks pocked with sores from the cold.

This is the province of Israeli demolition and expulsion, the district of ethnic cleansing. As in the South Hebron Hills, here, too, in the occupied rift valley, Israel is trying to expel everyone it can in order to facilitate future annexation. And what could be an easier target for expulsion and abuse than the lowest denizens on the food chain of Palestinian helplessness – these communities of Bedouin shepherds?

The Israeli settlement of Ro’i is next to their land; only a few hundred meters separate its greenery from the devastation of Al Hadidya. That is too close for comfort – the Bedouin must go. Some of the people here have had their home demolished eight times by the Civil Administration.

Bekaot 2, a major pumping facility of Israel’s national water company, Mekorot, is situated in the village’s fields – but not a drop of water is available for its residents. “In the event of spillage, leakage or any unusual event, inform the control room,” a sign says there.

A winding dirt trail that originates opposite another Bedouin community, Khalet Makhoul – which has also been demolished more than once in recent years; demolished, rebuilt and razed again in a continuing cycle – leads up to Al Hadidya. Before 1967, the village was larger, home to about 50 families, but in the course of the occupation the population has dwindled. At present 27 families live in Al Hadidya in the summer and 14 in the winter, on private land that is formally registered with zoning authorities as belonging to the residents of the Palestinian towns of Tamoun and Toubas. The Bedouin lease the land from them. Israel prohibits any structure, even a tent, from being erected on this farmland. Still, Ro’i is legal, Al Hadidya isn’t. Beginning in 1997, the hamlet was razed, and afterward, in 2001, 2002, 2005, 2011 and again in 2015. Anytime is a good time for destruction.

Two months ago, the villagers began preparing their homes for winter. With money received from donations, they spread gravel on the dirt road to Al Hadidya, to allow access on days when rain turns the trail into a muddy quagmire. The children have to be driven to school, water tanks have to be brought in for both people and sheep, and maybe someone who is sick or a woman about to give birth has to be rushed to hospital. That’s life, you know.

But lo and behold, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. On November 15, troops of the Civil Administration arrived and handed the villagers a “stop-work order” for the road. Well, “handed” is an overstatement. As is the custom, the document was thrown onto the dirt trail.

The villagers’ lawyer was able to get implementation of the order postponed until December 31, but on November 25, the Civil Administration brought a bulldozer to the site and destroyed part of the trail, which is now a heap of gravel. They stopped the demolition after about an hour, apparently because they remembered the court order. That reminder was provided by Aref Daraghmeh, the head of the regional council of Bedouin in the valley. He arrived quickly as the road was being ripped up – but at the word “road,” the mukhtar bristles. “What road?! It’s hardly a path.”

On November 26, Israel Defense Forces and Civil Administration jeeps arrived with two bulldozers and embarked upon the demolition of the little enclave itself. The stories are, as always, heartbreaking: about the mukhtar’s pregnant daughter who was knocked to the ground and started to bleed; about residents who fled in fear to the surrounding hills; about the bread that was still baking in the tabun oven and was buried under its ruins; about the pigeon chicks that were crushed.

Eighteen structures and tents were demolished; now they lie in a heap. The troops returned the next day to confiscate the tents, which had been supplied by the International Red Cross. They also came back the next day to destroy the tents donated by people from Toubas. The following day it rained and the villagers covered themselves with plastic sheeting, until the Civil Administration burned the sheeting. Abu Saker was rushed to a physician in Toubas.

Another day went by. Tents donated by the European Union arrived, and they too were confiscated. All that remained, lying on the ground, was a trilingual poster with the image of the trademark EU golden stars on a blue background, declaring the source of this humanitarian aid. And by the way, it’s not clear why the EU, which provides the villagers with this first aid, as in a disaster zone, has been silent about the confiscation of the tents.

Since the tents were torn down and confiscated, on November 30, the residents of Al Hadidya have been afraid to erect new ones. They sleep in the open, almost without shelter.

When asked for comment, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories provided the following statement: “In the case at hand, inspection procedures were implemented against illegal construction in the area of Al Hadidya in the Jordan Valley, in accordance with planning and building laws. A petition submitted [to the High Court of Justice] in 2011 against these procedures was withdrawn in early 2015, with an opportunity given to complete planning regularization. However, the residents took no action in this regard within the time frame set by the court, and accordingly, the authorities acted to demolish the structures in accordance with the law.

“A few days later, tents were again erected at the site in complete disregard of the court’s decision and of the law, and an additional enforcement action was therefore implemented. The allegations of the burning of plastic sheeting by representatives of the Civil Administration are unfounded.”

The Civil Administration denied responsibility for the destruction of the access road to Al Hadidya, and referred us to the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, which offered this statement: “[The case involves] the illegal manner in which the construction was undertaken. The action against the construction was interrupted when it became clear that the destruction of the road was being dealt with in an administrative process that is not yet complete.”

In other words, the IDF acknowledges that the demolition was undertaken in violation of administrative orders.

Now, food is being prepared and the children are being bathed in an area protected by plastic sheeting and tin siding. An acrid smell of smoke lingers in the filthy little site as one of the mukhtar’s wives tries to cook something over a sooty burner. There’s a “television room” consisting of an old TV set covered with canvas, which is hooked up to a solar-power device and a satellite dish. One woman is watching, her head under a piece of canvas to protect her from the bright light of the sun, like early photographers. The program is a Turkish soap opera with Arabic translation, but when the woman notices us, she immediately switches to Palestine TV, which is broadcasting the horrors of the occupation.

“I have a question for the government of Israel: In what way is this place ‘scaring’ Israel?” the mukhtar says. “How does it endanger Israel? We have done nothing, we only lived quietly. Our life is hard even without demolition, so how can we live with it? The bulldozer comes, destroys the tents, the women are beaten – where are you pushing us to?”

To which council head Daraghmeh adds, “Let people live. Let them plant zucchini and then they won’t throw stones. Let them live.”

Two women from the Israeli anti-occupation and pro-human rights group Machsom Watch and three young Europeans from EAPPI, a World Council of Churches aid and relief organization, arrive separately at the ruins of the tent camp to try to help and cheer up the inhabitants, as much as possible.

“Look at Ro’i,” Daraghmeh says as we gaze at the verdant settlement in the valley. “Look at it. It’s close by, it’s green, they have water, hothouses, homes. The residents here are your friends. Only let them plant seeds in the earth, let them live, and they won’t do anything to you.”