Hamda Salaila, 28, spoke passionately about the women’s committee she set up two years ago that meets regularly in a large container that houses old furniture, a modest kitchenette and an old ventilator to alleviate the heat a bit.
Salaila studied social work and is applying her know-how and insights in the Jahalin Bedouin neighborhood near the Abu Dis garbage dump near Jerusalem. In the late ‘90s, Israel expelled around 150 families from about 10 Bedouin communities, including Salaila’s, to this site. She remembers in detail the bulldozers that destroyed their encampment, the children’s anticipation of the “expulsion,” a word they didn’t yet understand, the soldiers and police who loaded the adults who refused to be taken away onto buses.
The Bedouin’s expulsion for a “permanent settlement,” now known as al-Jabal (the mountain), was carried out in three phases. The evacuated area was allotted to the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. Now that the High Court of Justice has let the state expel to that site a fourth wave of Bedouin families from Khan al-Ahmar, a Haaretz photographer and I came to appraise the neighborhood that the state lauds itself for setting up. It’s locked between the largest garbage dump in the West Bank to the east, and the Al-Eizariya car junkyard to the west.
Is the women’s committee a sign of something positive emerging from that forced relocation? Is part of that change the fact that four women agreed to sit and talk with a man as well, the Haaretz photographer? Each of these questions has more than one answer.
Salaila and a few other local women run all the activities, which consist of courses for women, project-management training, and games and tutoring for children. Three women joined the conversation we had with Salaila a week ago: the twins Amani and Iman Abu Ghalia, 22, and their cousin, Hind Abu Ghalia, 27. “Men are not part of this,” Salaila says, with unconcealed pride.
Still, the four women, all university graduates hoping to continue their studies, refused to have their faces photographed. While assertive and aware of their duty to advance the status of women in their community, they nonetheless partially submit to what Salaila calls “the shame culture,” part of which is their families’ – especially the men’s – objection to having pictures of women published.
A stroll around the neighborhood at midday reveals a strange phenomenon: no women are in sight. Is it the heat? No. Even the four women we talked to in the container wouldn’t join our stroll but went straight to their homes next door.
“We don’t walk on the street just like that,” one of them said. “Once we used to stroll outside the neighborhood a little.”
But that area, on the other side of Wadi Nar Road – the only north-south thoroughfare in the West Bank – is now intended for the next wave of forced evacuees from the Jahalin tribe, with the court’s permission. Bulldozers from the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration have flattened a few lots, on which the forced evacuees are supposed to build their own houses. The new plots are very near one another, a tight cluster of houses and families alien to the Bedouin’s way of life.
As a shepherds’ community, the Bedouin are traditionally arranged in clusters of housing units, storage structures and sheep pens. The distance between each cluster is determined by familial-tribal proximity.
Social patterns dictate distance between men and women, based on the family, the clan and the tribe. Traditionally, women had a major role in earning the family’s living, when it was based on raising sheep and selling the dairy products. They looked after the sheep and goats when they returned from the pasture, milked them and produced cheese and yogurt, which was sold in the markets. The older women went to the markets themselves to sell their products to regular clients and marketers.
The women in Khan al-Ahmar knew the Jericho market. The women to the south in the Abu Dis area went to the Al-Eizariya market. Before Jerusalem was blocked to Palestinians they also made it to the big city’s markets.
Their living conditions were rough – no running water, electricity or sanitation; they had to walk to distant water sources, endure natural disasters, and sustain damage caused by the army and the encroaching settlements. But as shared breadwinners the women had freedom of movement and social- and self-esteem.
Bedouin buying milk
In the semi-urban Jahalin neighborhood there is no room for flocks of sheep. “We buy milk. Imagine that – Bedouin buying milk!” says Hind Abu Ghalia. She has lived in the neighborhood most of her life but feels the absurdity of this reality.
“Today woman have a lot of free time. In the past they took part in the work. Economically, a man couldn’t make it without his wife. Today the woman is only at home with no work opportunities,” Salaila says.
“The man goes out, works in settlements and doesn’t let his wife go out. If she hasn’t studied, she’s even more captive in her own house. Once, when we lived in the encampment, women also met and talked to each other. That custom has been lost.”
The women now have electricity, running water, and shelter from nature’s hazards. But deprived of the chance to work for a living, they’ve lost the reason to move around.
“We’re imprisoned at home,” Bedouin women told researchers from the group Bimkom, who last year wrote a report about the expulsion’s negative effect on women at al-Jabal and Arab al-Rashayida southeast of Bethlehem. When there’s no choice but to leave home, they wear a niqab, a face covering that wasn’t customary when they lived in the open. The women of one family don’t pass barefaced near the houses of another. They walk between the houses, not in the street. Twenty years after the forced relocation, most of them have suffered damaged self-esteem.
Without work and responsibilities, the neighborhood’s women rarely meet. As far as they’re concerned, they don’t live in a community but in separate houses. The UNRWA clinic, open one day a week, is a way to break the taboo on going out. Going to the doctor or nurse is a kind of must enabling a little movement. And they go out, even if nobody is sick. In the clinic they meet and chat. In the container, Salaila and her friends are trying to create a protected space for women to meet, talk and examine their needs in a changed reality.
Was it the relocation to an urban neighborhood that enabled them to go to institutions of higher education? No, they say.
“We’re the tiny minority,” one of them says. “It depends on our families, the encouragement we get at home and our determination.”
But apart from family support, higher education requires money. Twenty years after the expulsion, the new neighborhood has become a slum.
The plots leased to the Bedouin at al-Jabal for 49 years allowed for only tightly packed construction. Many families sold their herds to finance the houses, because the state compensation they received wasn’t enough. The compensation was provided after negotiations by attorney Shlomo Lecker, only after petitions submitted to the High Court by other Israeli lawyers against the expulsion were denied in 1997, and after the Civil Administration housed the first wave of expellees in sealed containers with no windows or ventilation.
From outside, the houses look like villas. But the furniture is sparse and some houses aren’t inhabited because their owners ran out of money before the construction was finished. Some people live in makeshift huts and tents they put up in the yards. Apart from a few central roads built by the administration, rocks and bare earth lie in between most houses. The three schools were built with donated funds, as was the mosque.
The first school received a building permit from the administration four years after the request was submitted. The mosque’s construction permit was given three months after the request was submitted. Overflowing garbage bins spread bad smells. Garbage collection, for which the town of Al-Eizariya is responsible, isn’t carried out often enough. Waste is thrown between the houses – another sign that the residents don’t see the narrow public space as their own.
No sewage system
The nearby garbage heap, which also serves Ma’aleh Adumim, brings throngs of flies and mice to the neighborhood, conveying the Israeli authorities’ contempt. The sewage holes frequently overflow. This is one of the residents’ main grievances: If they already prepared the land for construction, why didn’t they build a sewage system?
At first the neighborhood got its water from Israel water company Mekorot, allowing for a regular water supply. Then the locals were linked to the Al-Eizariya municipality. Israel limits the water supply to the Palestinians, so in the hot months they don’t have running water every day.
Some families keep a few goats in their yards, for nostalgic reasons or to sell for slaughter. Altogether there are a few hundred. The goats aren’t taken out to pasture and are fed fodder. In the negotiations the sides agreed on a 3,000-dunam (741 acres) pasture strip for the residents. The goats walk slowly in the field. Once the grass in the western part is eaten, they should naturally proceed to the eastern part, where the grass has not been grazed. But by then night falls. They could stay overnight, but for this the Bedouin would need fence in the flock. Construction, including fencing, is forbidden, so in practice the pasture strip remains unused.
In fact, to make a living, some families have split. Some of their members look after the flocks and still live outdoors in tents, always in danger of running into the army and the Civil Administration’s eviction and demolition orders. Some make a living off jobs in nearby settlements. But according to a member of the neighborhood’s projects committee, Abu Ali Abu Ghalia, unemployment among the men is very high.
“The Bedouin’s life relies on a tent, pasture space and a herd. When one of these is taken away from us, we’ve lost something. It’s not wrong for a man to change his way of life, but only if it’s done naturally and voluntarily, not by an order,” he says.
“Some basic conditions must be kept when you move from a life of herding to an urban environment. A water and electricity infrastructure isn’t enough. You have to give the people training to change their profession so we can live in the new conditions. A man can’t turn overnight from a shepherd into a driver or a teacher,” he adds.
“Changes started here already in the ‘80s when boys went to schools to study. Then the girls went too. But today the boys run away from school because they won’t be able to find work. Or there aren’t any permits to work in Israel. And those who work in the settlements mainly do cleaning and other unprofessional work.”
Weeds are growing over the area prepared for the next wave of expellees, from Khan-al Ahmar. The lots there are planned at 300 square meters (3,229 square feet) per family, less than what was allocated for the previous waves of expellees. No pasture land has been allotted.
In its response to Lecker’s petition against the demolition at Khan al-Ahmar, the state said that at the beginning of June it would finish building a school that will replace the ecological school, made out of tires, and slated to be demolished. The new school would accommodate 150 students.
The demolition date of the village at Khan al-Ahmar depends on the completion of the new school. But construction has not yet started.
The state said that the community would be given a chance to request building permits, and that some of the permits already exist. As far as Haaretz knows, such requests haven’t been filed yet – because there’s another problem the Israeli authorities are ignoring. Khan al-Ahmar’s residents are also members of the Jahalin tribe, but they belong to the Abu Dahouk clan, while the veteran al-Jabal members are from the Salamat clan.
The Jahalin people don’t talk about it openly, but an old feud separates the two clans, which erupts in bloody clashes every now and then. As one person put it, “Abu Dahouk simply cannot live next to Salamat.”
In other words, it’s hard to envision how, once the Civil Administration demolishes their dwellings and forcibly moves them to the empty lots, the people of Khan al-Ahmar will agree to remain at al-Jabal near the garbage dumping site.