Sunday, December 8, 2013
- Salah Khalil Jahalin knows when one of his sheep has wandered off toward the stark Judean Desert hills or how long to age goat cheese before bringing it to market in a nearby Palestinian village.
What he doesn’t know is where his tribe of Bedouin shepherds will be two months from now.
On Feb. 16, Israeli bulldozers came to this West Bank desert encampment, tore down Salah Khalil’s aluminum shack and 90 other tin dwellings belonging to 35 families of the Jahalin tribe and buried them along a winding ravine to make way for the expansion of a nearby Israeli settlement.
Today, the twisted tin and wooden beams of what was once their sprawling shanty town poke out of fresh dirt toward the cold winter sun. The tribe members live in 25 small white tents hastily provided by the United Nations and the Red Cross.
Earlier this month, Israel’s Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction allowing the tribe to stay in the donated tents until the case is reviewed by a military court. Yet the struggle of this nomadic people to maintain their ancient lifestyle on land they have wandered since 1950 is likely to continue for years. Ironically, their fate may be tied to the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for critical West Bank territory.
“We’re afraid of what will happen to us next,” said Salah Khalil, who now lives with his wife and five children in a U.N. tent next to the rubble of their old tin shack. “We just want enough space to graze our sheep.”
So far, they have put up a fight. After the shacks were demolished, several of them built makeshift shelters using old barrels covered with slates of aluminum for their children to sleep under and were hauled off to jail for it. Fifty-five children and elderly Bedouin who were left without shelter for days before the U.N. tents arrived took ill.
Israel’s Civil Administration, the military authority that operates in 70 percent of the still-occupied West Bank, says it wanted to join these 35 Jahalin families with hundreds of their relatives, who were moved to a rocky encampment near the Palestinian village of Abu Dis after the tribe lost a Supreme Court case in 1996.
The branch that remained were told to submit an appeal to an Israeli military court or face eviction, according to a Civil Administration spokesman who says the appeal was never made.
“They knew there was this outstanding eviction order and that they could be evicted at any time,” said the spokesman, Peter Lerner. “As in anywhere in the world, you can’t have people squatting on public property without permission.”
At immediate stake are plans to expand the settlement of Maale Adumim, a sprawling mountain community five miles east of Jerusalem that many in Israel’s current government say they hope one day to annex as part of “greater Jerusalem”. Lerner says the Bedouin are on land slated for a new road lading to the settlement.
Supporters of the Bedouin, including their attorney Shlomo Lecher, as well as members of the tribe, see larger Israeli designs. They say the Bedouin live on part of a huge desert corridor lying between Jerusalem and the Palestinian-controlled town of Jericho that Israel hopes to annex in any final peace settlement with the Palestinians.
“Israel is interested in clearing the area of its Arab inhabitants,” Lecher charged in a recent interview. “It will be much easier for Israel to claim the land later if there are no inhabitants there.”
The Palestinian Authority may see the danger of emptying the only piece of land that could connect the northern West Bank with its southern hinterland and thus make future Palestinian-held territories north and south of Jerusalem contiguous.
Several weeks ago, it gave the Bedouin 20,000 dollars and promised to pay the legal fees incurred in their court battle with the Civil Administration, according to Lerner. “It put the Bedouin in the middle of this conflict, which we would prefer to avoid,” he said.
These larger political implications seem lost on the Bedouin, who for the most part remain unconcerned over who is the sovereign body in the West Bank. They want to stay where they are simply because their sheep have enough room to graze on the desert hills around them.
“We don’t care whose authority we are under,” said Mukhtar Hammad Jahalin, the elderly tribal leader. “Here we have room to live.”
By contrast, the place near Abu Dis is too small for the sheep to roam, the Bedouin say. More than 300 of their tribesmen already live there in rows of tents made of nylon tarp that look more like an impoverished trailer park than a traditional Bedouin encampment.
There, they complain, the terrain is rocky, the sheep are penned up, and the wind whips through the camp because it is perched on a hill rather than nestled in a valley where the mountains can provide protection. Worse, the smell from a municipal garbage dump less than a half a mile away makes it unbearable in the heat of summer.
Moreover, the land will probably be turned over to Palestinian control when Israel finally carries out its long-overdue withdrawal from West Bank territory. If that happens, Palestinians in Abu Dis who say the area was confiscated from them by Israel’s military authorities years ago are likely to claim it.
“If we are moved there, there will be problems in the future between us and the people of Abu Dis,” predicted Salah Khalil.
Most of the older Bedouin say the struggle with Israeli authorities brings about a sense of deja vu. In 1948, just after Israel’s independence, they were forced from their Negev Desert home across what was then the demarcation line dividing Israel from Jordan by Israeli soldiers who wanted to clear the Bedouin out. Hundreds of Jahalin who stayed still live near the Israeli town of Arad.
In 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Jahalin who had settled in their new home east of Jerusalem were not allow to rejoin their kin across the border; that would have meant granting them Israeli citizenship. Yet most Bedouin still want to return to Arad.
Most also are frightened that each generation will be displaced again, pushed one step more away to make way for an expanding Israeli settlement or Palestinian town. That, says Abdallah Jahalin is why the Bedouin are fighting to stay where they are.
A father of 12, Abdallah was jailed for four days for building a shelter of barrels after his shack was demolished. When his 16- year-old son asked him what is happening, he didn’t know what to tell him.
“This happened to my father when we left Arad,” he said. “And the same thing will happen to my son.”
Most say they are afraid that if they move to Abu Dis, a desert tradition that has preserved through the ages will slowly wither away. Already, lack of space has forced some Bedouin in the Abu Dis camp to sell some of their sheep. Others have given up shepherding for work in Abu Dis or Maale Adumim.
“After ten years, you’ll see,” said Ibrahim Jahalin. “There won’t be Bedouin here.”