The Bulldozers and the Bedouin

The West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar received a temporary respite this week from seemingly inevitable demolitions.

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The village of Khan al-Ahmar, February 23, 2017.
The village of Khan al-Ahmar, February 23, 2017.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Civil Defense (firefighters) came to the Bedouin community in Khan al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem. They instructed schoolchildren on how to evacuate quickly in case of an emergency. This particular emergency came with an anticipated date – Thursday.

The emergency consisted of bulldozers belonging to the Civil Administration coming to demolish 150 dwellings, sheep pens, toilets, warehouses, solar panels, etc. Teachers were taught how to extinguish fires in case tear gas or stun grenades ignited a dry branch or some synthetic fabric.

A social worker has been sitting with school students in recent days, including Thursday, listening to what they are going through.

“They are hyped up,” she told Haaretz. “They are nervous, unable to sleep or concentrate on their studies. They point to the houses of the settlement of Kfar Adumim on the hills to their west, asking: “Why are we deprived of what they are allowed, to live a normal and secure life?”

The social worker says the girls are more worried than the boys. They spend more time in the shacks, tents and caravans. They can therefore better visualize what an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a house looks like.

There are 78 girls and 74 boys in the school the Jahalin community, built out of old tires and mud eight years ago. The school was a huge deal mainly for the girls, since their parents were not sending them to schools in Jericho or Azariya, which are too far away.

“Girls over 16 here can’t read, while those who are 15, 14 or younger can,” says Halima Zhaika, the school’s principal.

Fifteen female teachers, employed by the Palestinian education ministry, teach the 152 students. They come daily from various locations across the West Bank, using public transportation. Direct access from the highway to the encampment was blocked years ago with a railing. Each morning, they have to dash across the fast and multi-lane Jerusalem-Jericho highway, slapped with a 250 shekel fine by the police if caught. On the way home they wait by the blocked road for a taxi, with a 500 shekel fine for any driver caught stopping to pick them up.

The giggles and inquisitive questions of these girls, who come on foot from five Bedouin communities in the vicinity, did not reflect nervousness or fear ahead of what was coming their way. When asked what was going on and why there were so many TV cameramen walking between the shacks, along with solidarity activists and representatives from the Palestinian Authority, they told Haaretz: “Israel wants to demolish our homes. Why? In order to take our land and expand the settlement above us.”

The calamity was delayed again, after earlier this week it seemed that all was lost. Inspectors from the Civil Administration, accompanied by policemen and soldiers, arrived on Sunday morning and delivered 42 stop-work orders on 150 structures.

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, February 23, 2017. Credit: Lior Mizrahi

It was a great shock, even though all the Bedouin communities east of Jerusalem have been living for years under the threat of expulsion. It was a shock even though this community had already been expelled from the mountain on which Kfar Adumim now lies peacefully.

Their collective memory includes a 1951 expulsion from the Negev and the expulsion of their Jahalin tribe relatives on three occasions in the 1990s, while the Oslo Accords were being negotiated, for the benefit of the expansion of nearby Ma’aleh Adumim. That was a big shock even though ever since the late 1970s all the Bedouin communities have been pushed off their grazing grounds in the Jordan Valley and the hills of the West Bank, corralled into small areas in which Israel forbids them from building in accordance with their natural growth, as well as denying them any linkage to infrastructure.

Residents were given only four days to submit their objections to these orders to a subcommittee at the Civil Administration. Usually, more time is given for preparing arguments, ranging from two weeks to a month, maybe more. The short duration this time shows that the authorities wish to preempt an appeal to the Supreme Court, says attorney Shlomo Lecker, who has been representing this and most Bedouin communities in the area for years. He immediately asked for an extension, aided by several Israeli bodies which “applied pressure.”

On Thursday at 11 A.M. the many visitors at the site learned that his request was granted. The bulldozers would not be coming that evening. The hearing related to these orders will take place next week, on March 2.

‘Determined to destroy this community’

Most of the TV reporters and PA representatives left the scene after learning of this new development. Remaining were some solidarity activists and people from UNRWA, who sat around in a semicircle on white plastic chairs on the green grass growing among the rocks. A vehicle belonging to the Civil Administration was observing from a nearby hill. Occasionally, in similar cases, a car belonging to the Regavim pro-settler NGO shows up, sending a drone overhead to take photos. This time they didn’t.

Sitting in front of the semicircle, Lecker explained the process which would determine the fate of a community such as theirs. First, stop-work orders are issued, even if a family has been living in a dwelling for 30 years. Stopping the demolition of such dwellings can only happen if there are building permits. As is well-known, the Civil Administration doesn’t grant building permits to Palestinians, especially not to Bedouin. Therefore these orders automatically become demolition orders.

Children in the village of Khan al-Ahmar, February 23, 2017. Credit: Lior Mizrahi

According to the Jordanian law applying to these areas, a person has seven days to demolish a house himself after receiving such an order. Otherwise the state does so. Usually a petition to the High Court of Justice is submitted during this period, which usually leads to a temporary injunction against the demolition, until a hearing is held.

Lecker had information indicating that the state was not going to allow the seven-day period of grace this time. He believed that the state thought that after the demolition, when people and their flocks were left without a roof over their heads, it would be easier to demand that they move north of Jericho, to Nu’eima. This is where the Civil Administration is planning a town for the Bedouin, in contrast to the wishes of its intended residents.

In all the cases in which he’s represented Bedouin communities, Lecker said, the court ruled that a demolition could not proceed without offering the community an alternative. On the other hand, he reminded everyone, judges have never instructed the state to recognize the Bedouin’s rights to build in areas they have lived in for decades.

The community’s men listened, confirmed what they had already concluded. The Civil Administration was planning to execute its bureaucratic tricks on them, since they had become a recognized symbol. Quashing them would make it easier to quash all the other Bedouin communities.

In the settlement above them, which had petitioned the High Court with a request to demolish the school built of tires, live important politicians “who were determined to destroy this community,” according to Lecker. Despite his success in slowing the process, “it’s hard to anticipate what this government will do,” he said.

“What was the hardest day of your life?” some of the older people sitting there were asked. They looked at the inquiring person in wonder. “We haven’t had one good day since we were born,” said Abu Ismail, who is 45 years old.

Fifty-year-old Abu Raed added that they all get white hair in their 30s. “We all look older than our age,” he said.

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