Israel Tells West Bank Bedouin: First Sign a Voluntary Eviction, Then We’ll See if the New Location Stinks

First the state wanted them to live next to a garbage dump. Then it told the Jahalin Bedouin they’d be moved near a large sewage-treatment site where human habitation has been forbidden. And that’s not the end of the story

The Og sewage-treatment plant and the new location, left, last week.
Olivier Fitoussi

To live next to sewage or next to a garbage dump. That’s in short the two options Israel has given the Bedouin from the Jahalin tribe whom it insists on expelling from Khan al-Ahmar on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the West Bank.

To be even more precise, the government is telling them: First move to live alongside the waste disposal site in tents we’ll provide for you, and later, at a time still undetermined, we’ll let you build permanent structures alongside Jerusalem’s sewage-treatment plant and the settlements to its east. But that too is only on condition that you’re joined by three other Jahalin communities, from the same Abu Dahouk clan, whom we’ll evict from the same area, too.

The State Prosecutor’s Office has submitted these two options to the High Court of Justice; the option of eviction to a site near the garbage dump was made long ago and is already familiar to the readers.

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But only recently has the second option floated, the removal of the residents to the site near the eight sewage-treatment pools shining in the desert sun. Not the flies and not the stench are ruining the make-believe atmosphere that the High Court has adopted, as if the same law applied to the settlers of Amona, who were moved from stolen land, and the Bedouin, who have lived since the 1950s in the West Bank after they were kicked out of the Negev.

Last week a few other Israelis and I went to the new alternative site offered to the Jahalin from Khan al-Ahmar, just a few kilometers west of Jericho. You reach it on unpaved roads, and only in an off-road vehicle. The desert landscape is spectacular, without a doubt — open spaces of yellow-white hills, some with sharp peaks, others rounded and there is no sign of any shrub or plant. This isn’t because it’s the summer, but because of the salty earth, said Eid Abu Khamis from the Khan al-Ahmar community.

So they won’t have flowering gardens alongside the houses, but at least they’ll be able to roam with their flocks to the north and west. True, but not exactly, Abu Khamis said.

For any Palestinian, let alone Bedouin with their flock, the lush settlement of Mitzpeh Yeriho on the hill and all the land around it are a hermetically-sealed border that they can’t come close to, and the same goes for the shiny green settlement of Vered Yeriho. The proposed area for the permanent Bedouin township is on relatively flat land, between a few dry streambeds. True, our country suffers from droughts, but everyone knows how such streambeds are flooded after only a few hours of rain.

This alternative was raised at a High Court hearing on August 1 on two petitions submitted by the Khan al-Ahmar community at the end of June. One asked the court to order Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank to examine the detailed master plans prepared by the residents and let them build where they’ve been living for over 40 years, on the land of residents of the village of Anata, and with their consent. (The privately-owned lands were expropriated in 1975, but according to the petitioners’ lawyers, the expropriation has never been implemented.) The second petition objects to the state removing the Bedouin by force.

The representative of the State Prosecutor’s Office, Ran Rozenberg, repeatedly claimed that the two new petitions are an improper way of appealing a High Court ruling, handed down in May, so the court must reject them. Rozenberg was referring to the ruling of a High Court panel headed by Justice Noam Sohlberg. The ruling stated that since the community’s buildings were without a doubt constructed without legal building permits, there was no reason to intervene in the government’s decision to evict the residents of Khan al-Ahmar (notorious for its school made of tires) to the area of the waste-disposal site in Abu Dis just west of Jerusalem. (In the language of the state and the court: Jahalin West).

As a result of this ruling, the Civil Administration began to prepare broad access roads to the small village. The residents realized that the intention was to let large numbers of police and soldiers enter to forcibly evict them. But all the demolition plans have been halted because of the new High Court petitions and additional planning and legal steps by the residents’ lawyers, headed by Tawfiq Jabareen from Umm al-Fahm.

The justices who heard the new petitions on August 1 were Isaac Amit, Hanan Melcer and Anat Baron (who also sat on the previous panel that allowed the demolition and eviction). They asked the parties to reach an “agreement” and encouraged the State Prosecutor’s Office to present an alternative proposal for a permanent site for the Khan al-Ahmar community.

Rozenberg (who got something whispered in his ear by the Defense Ministry official for settlement affairs, Kobi Eliraz) agreed but emphasized that in any case the village would be demolished and the residents required to move to Jahalin West first.

On August 7 the State Prosecutor’s Office submitted an update that included a written proposal for what it called “the additional framework.” This is some of what was written and signed by attorneys Rozenberg and Hadas Eran, both senior deputies at the High Court department of the State Prosecutor’s Office:

“At the same time, the state will act through the planning bodies of the Civil Administration to advance a statutory plan in cooperation with the local population, which will answer the needs of the four complexes of the Jahalin Abu Dahouk tribe, which number about 80 families. This plan will be advanced in accordance with and under the auspices of the law, and its advancement will be conditioned on the signing, by all the families leaving, of an affidavit in accordance with which they will commit to evacuate Khan al-Ahmar independently and without any violence.”

According to the attorneys, “This statutory plan is located east of Mitzpeh Yeriho, on land that was declared state-owned land in 2005, at an air distance of 8.15 kilometers [5.1 miles] from the Khan al-Akhmar complex. The area of the land of this alternative is about 255 dunams [64 acres].” The proposal also states that it would be necessary to expropriate privately-owned land for public needs, for preparing an access road (“a dirt road on which road-base courses will be laid”).

The proposal also says that “on the environmental level, the possibility exists of connecting the sewage infrastructure to the sewage-treatment plant in Vered Yeriho, which is located near the proposed alternative [east of Mitzpeh Yeriho].” The residents have also been promised a connection to a high-voltage line and “the possibility exists of connecting the buildings in the plan that will be advanced to a water main 1.3 kilometers away.”

The proposal was submitted along with aerial photographs. They weren’t clear enough. Jabareen went out of his way and asked the government attorneys for clear photographs. Jabareen was then astonished to discover that very near the alternative site was a sewage-treatment facility, much larger than a plant for a single settlement, and that is called the Og sewage-treatment facility (after the nearby Og stream). This plant “treats some 24,000 cubic meters of sewage that come from Jerusalem’s northeastern neighborhoods, Ma’aleh Adumim and the communities of Mateh Binyamin every day,” says the website of Jerusalem Sewage Water and Purification Enterprises, which runs the sewage-treatment facility.

“I know that according to the law and the regulations that apply in the State of Israel, a sewage-treatment facility has a radius of influence,” Jabareen told Haaretz. “At my request, the Bimkom [Planners for Planning Rights] nonprofit organization located the detailed plan of the Og sewage-treatment plant. Its instructions state explicitly that construction is forbidden in the area 700 meters from the plan’s blue line [border]. And here we calculated and found that 102 dunams of the area of the planned site fall within that same forbidden area.”

On our visit to the site last week, the winds took pity on us and the smell, which cannot be mistaken, could be felt only when we went as far south as the exit to the asphalt road. We wondered what was the safe distance for residences if there was a problem and sewage overflowed, and whether we – Israelis who love nature and the desert – would choose to live 300 or 400 meters from a major sewage-treatment facility.

Jabareen asked and received from the State Prosecutor’s Office an environmental impact survey, conducted as part of the preparations for the plan. “This is a thick document, 256 pages,” he told Haaretz.

“I read and discovered that the whole area the state is offering for the alternative site for the Bedouin community (in other words 255 dunams) falls within the area forbidden for construction because it’s affected by the unreasonable smell of the sewage treatment facility. The sewage-treatment facility was planned right there because there are no [Jewish] communities near it. In other words, if there was a community there, the state wouldn’t have approved the construction of a sewage-treatment treatment facility there.”

He included these facts, in much greater detail, in his response to the state’s proposal, even before touching on the problems involved in expropriating the privately-owned lands for the plan.

Jabareen summed things up: “The respondents have proved this time once again that they haven’t taken into account the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, whose good is not their first interest. The respondents’ entire goal is to remove the Palestinian Bedouin residents from the Khan al-Ahmar area, and it doesn’t interest them where they’ll be thrown. Once they recommended to throw them alongside the garbage dump at Abu Dis, and this time they propose throwing them alongside a sewage reservoir near Jericho.”

In the meantime, it should be noted that the Civil Administration rejected the master plan submitted by the residents.

At the beginning of last week, Eran and Rozenberg from the State Prosecutor’s Office sent their preliminary response to the petition, in which they once again asked that the petition be rejected. But Jabareen’s remarks about the distance being too close to the sewage-treatment plant obviously forced the Civil Administration’s planners to change their proposed plan, as the preliminary response shows.

“The continued examination of the planned alternative described above,” wrote the state’s attorneys, “showed that part of the area of the proposed alternative must be withdrawn … because of the limitation of the ban on residential construction and public institutions within a distance of 800 meters from the borders of the sewage-treatment facility …. In accordance with this restriction, the area of the updated plan is 97 dunams.” In other words, 97 instead of the 255 dunams proposed originally.

This is a clear admission that the first plan prepared by the Civil Administration, submitted to the justices, was flawed and perfunctory. Because of the large reduction in the size of the area of the proposed site, the revised new plan doesn’t include the other three communities that were previously demanded to join and live near the sewage-treatment plant.

If the residents sign the affidavits for voluntary evacuation, wrote Eran and Rozenberg in their preliminary response, the state is willing to conduct a survey in the future and declare further areas nearby state-owned lands. In other words, more Palestinian public and private land will be declared state land – which will create a locus of tension and hostility between the Bedouin and the landowners, similar to the situation that already exists at the site near the garbage dump at Abu Dis.

Curiously, in their preliminary response to the justices, the state’s attorneys insist on calling the sewage reservoir, near where they want to build the permanent township for the Bedouin, the Vered Yeriho Sewage Treatment Facility. Only in parentheses do they add Og Sewage Treatment Facility, which is the large facility. A search online reveals that this combination doesn’t exist in any official reference. The Og treatment facility is one thing and the Vered Yeriho facility is something else.

And as for the smell, Eran and Rozenberg wrote that if the petitioners sign the affidavits for voluntary eviction from Khan al-Ahmar and the tire school, “the necessary smell and air-pollution tests will be conducted while the plan is proceeding.” In other words, first sign on to a voluntary eviction from your homes, then we’ll see if the alternative site that we’re proposing for you stinks.