The Bedouin who live in the area of Khan al-Ahmar belong to the Jahalin tribe, which came to the Judean Desert in the early 1950s after they were expelled from the Negev. This is an important point, because it is the reason why this tribe, from the Palestinian and international vantage point, is perceived as a tribe of Palestinian refugees that is about to be expelled by Israel for the second time through no fault of its own. Razing the village won’t just hurt the Bedouins. It will signify another step in the deterioration of Israeli democracy, and deal another blow to Israel’s image in the world.
I won’t rehash the whole story here, as so much has already been written about it. I will just say that for the past nine years, since the ecological school built there from tires and mud earned world renown, the legal system has been working overtime hearing numerous petitions aimed at having the school demolished and the residents expelled. The High Court recently ruled that the Civil Administration could raze the school as well as the village’s houses and compel the residents to leave the place. I’d like to outline the implications the demolition and expulsion will have for the Bedouins and for Israel.
The change that Israel will force upon the Bedouin will be radical and destructive. From a traditional (non-migratory) way of life based on sheep herding and daily labor, in an open space with access to a main road, overnight they will become an ostracized community living on land whose owners will do everything to kick them out.
The Khan al-Ahmar community cannot live adjacent to the urban locale of Al-Eizariya. These are two different cultures that have no great mutual affection, to put it mildly, and in the past months tension has been growing between the Bedouins who were already compelled to move there in the past and the Al-Eizariya residents and Palestinian Authority officials. A similarly jarring transition occurred in the 1970s, when Bedouins were forced to move to an urban locale and the Civil Administration had to move them back to their original location. If there is already a failed precedent for this, why repeat the same mistake?
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The Bedouin community lives for the most part off of its flocks. Sheep and goats are the main source of income and food for each family. The move to an urban setting will substantially impact their ability to tend to their herds, because of the geographic conditions as well as conflicts with the farmers in the area. Also, the unemployment rate in Al-Eizariya is already high, and an influx of dozens more men will only exacerbate the problem for both the Bedouin and the people of Al-Eizariya. The Bedouin, as the weaker outsiders, stand to be the hardest hit.
If the school is torn down, children from the entire area, not just from Khan al-Ahmar, will have their schooling interrupted. The school serves 170 children from four communities; without it, they will have no access to basic education. The PA has already written an official letter saying that the children from Khan al-Ahmar will not be eligible to attend school in the Al-Eizariya area.
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar are Palestinians who used to hardly identify with the Palestinian nationalist movement. But as the conflict and legal fight has persisted, that feeling of identification has increased. Up to a year ago, no Palestinian flags were ever seen in the area. Today there are dozens. While it is not the Bedouin themselves who are flying the flags, they are captive to the Palestinians who have nationalized their struggle and are influencing the young generation.
This community is not a religious one either. The people identify as Muslims, but their religious life does not go beyond observing the Ramadan fast and the Muslim holidays. A tin shack at the site is meant to serve as a mosque but hardly anyone goes there. Over the past year, as the struggle has intensified, more and more Islamic clergy have been coming, meeting with children and adults and holding mass prayer services.
Thus, before our eyes, a small Bedouin community is being transformed into a Palestinian-Muslim community that is learning to hate those who wish to expel it. Whoever seeks to raze the school and the homes there will also be creating the next generation of haters.
And what about Israel?
The international pressure on Israel, from many directions, has steadily grown as the fight has continued. EU countries are calling on Israel not to evacuate the Bedouin, the UN is calling on it not to demolish the school, the local and international Arab press is reporting on the events weekly, and the threat a petition to the International Criminal Court in The Hague also looms. Israel’s image is increasingly taking a hit. Even members of Congress have called on Israel to stop the evacuation.
There is no question that after the long and highly publicized legal battle, the evacuation will be ugly. Hundreds of Palestinian and European activists will converge on the site and the international media will turn the event into a happening of Israeli violence. I dearly hope that no one gets hurt, and I (along with many others) am trying to prevent this, but the odds of that are not good. It appears much more likely that ultimately many Bedouin will be hurt; we already saw, just a few weeks ago, how Bedouin men and a girl were arrested.
The demolition of the school in Khan al-Ahmar and the expulsion of its residents has become the focal point of the struggle for the Bedouin and Palestinians in the area. In the northern Judean desert there are another 30 such communities, and everyone expects the expulsion of one community to lead to a domino effect. The Khan al-Ahmar community won’t be the first to be expelled, but it will be the first to be evacuated not because of a military fire zone, settlement construction or highway expansion. It will be the first community to be evacuated for no apparent reason, and the school there will be torn down solely because of political pressures that were able to persuade the High Court of the necessity of the expulsion.
During the Six-Day War, all the Arabs of the Latrun district were evacuated. Three Arab villages that were there (Amu’as, Beit Nuba and Yalu) were cleared for varying reasons. Journalist Amos Keinan bore witness to the evacuation as a reservist soldier then, and wrote a report about it. He describes the expulsion and demolition, the sorrow, the hunger and thirst, and concludes with these words: “The chickens and pigeons were buried under the rubble. The fields breathed before us and the children who walked down the road sobbing will be the fedayeen [Palestinian guerilla] 19 years from now, in the next round. This is how, on that day, we lost the victory.” This is how you hurt democracy, distort reality and create new enemies. Destroying a small Bedouin community of 30 families and a school made of tires and mud is yet another nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy.
Dr. Ovadia researches Bedouin society in the Judean Desert.