The Khan al-Ahmar litmus test: It's about the two-state solution

The issue is not just geopolitics, Cohen-Lifshitz said, but also about the state’s recognition that planning for the Bedouin differs from that of other communities.

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August 9, 2018 21:28
The Khan al-Ahmar litmus test: It's about the two-state solution

Palestinians attend a protest against Israel's plans to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank July 6, 2018.. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)

 
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Husein Abu Dahuk lives on the side of Road 1, on a small dip in the road that one could miss if one blinked while driving from the Dead Sea up to Jerusalem.

Even for those with their eyes wide open, the small scattering of tents and shacks that make up his herding village of Khan al-Ahmar looks fairly inconsequential spread out against the sandy hillsides of the Judean Desert.

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But for the 58-year-old shepherd, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post through a translator, the encampment is a home worth fighting for.

He is among some 180 Bedouin residents of the village of Khan al-Ahmar who have repeatedly told the State of Israel that they have no intention of accepting the relocation plans it has offered them.

The fate of the village is now in the hands of the High Court of Justice, which could decide as early as this coming week whether the families living there will be forcibly relocated, possibly imminently.

At issue before the court is a series of technical Israeli legal questions regarding illegal construction, property ownership and the viability of alternative locations that mark the end of what has been a nine-year legal battle.

But the campaign to save the village has spread well beyond Area C of the West Bank, where the village is located, and has reached as far as the European Union and the United Nations Security Council.



Khan al-Ahmar supporters hold that no less than the future of a Palestinian state is resting on whether the clan can remain at the site where they have lived for decades.

To underscore the significance of the site to the larger diplomatic battle for self-determination, Palestinian flags have fluttered from polls stuck on the hillside and have at times been placed along Road 1 near the village. Demonstrators with Palestinian flags have also at times temporarily blocked the road in recent weeks.

At issue is the location of the village. It is situated just outside of the boundaries of E1, which is an unbuilt tract of land belonging to the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement.

The Palestinian Authority and much of the international community, including the EU and the UN, believe that construction in E1 would make the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state difficult and thus unviable. EU diplomats frequently visit the village in solidarity with its plight.

They worry that the forced relocation of the village, which they hold is illegal under international law, is just the start of Israeli efforts to relocate the Bedouin from that area, in preparation for construction in E1.

Some fear this could also include the resumption of work on the security barrier in that area, which has been frozen for over a decade precisely because it would place E1 inside the route of the barrier.

Both of the relocation options for Khan al-Ahmar are outside the route of the barrier, according to Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, architect and head of the left-wing NGO Bimkom’s planning and community department.

“If you want to clean up this area of Bedouin, you start with one community and then it will be easier to move others,” he said.

Right-wing Israeli politicians and NGOs also believe that the relocation of the site is critical to Israel’s hold on the Ma’aleh Adumim bloc and that its continued presence there is a direct Palestinian challenge to Israeli control of Area C of the West Bank.

The Knesset’s Land of Israel Caucus group asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman late last month to ensure its evacuation.

The Khan al-Ahmar case is “a watershed” moment and “a fundamental test case for Israeli sovereignty that entails the strategic interests of the State of Israel,” caucus chairmen MKs Yoav Kisch and Bezalel Smotrich wrote.

Regavim spokeswoman Naomi Kahn said that Khan al-Ahmar is part of a long string of illegal Palestinian and Bedouin communities “specifically planned,” about which public statements have been made “that they are there to create territorial contiguity” for the Palestinians.

The EU, she said, has supported these efforts.

Regavim, along with the Kfar Adumim settlement, is among those who have petitioned the High Court of Justice over the last nine years to relocate the school.

Kahn said the decision to move against the community was taken in 2009, when a European-funded elementary school was built there. The school was seen as a sign that the community intended to stay there and grow, Kahn said.

Last month EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini publicly demanded that Israel allow the school to remain, precisely because of its impact on the two-state solution.

“Khan al-Ahmar is located in a sensitive location in Area C, of strategic importance for preserving the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. Its demolition and displacement, together with plans for new settlements in the same area, illegal under international law, would severely threaten the viability of the two-state solution and undermine prospects for peace,” Mogherini said.

“The consequences of a demolition of this community and the displacement of its residents, including children, against their will, would be very serious,” she added.

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov made a similar statement to the UN Security Council in New York, in which he likened plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar with Israeli designs for settlement building in that area.

Khan al-Ahmar is one of “18 communities located in or adjacent to the controversial E1 area, where plans for new settlement construction would create a continuous built-up area between the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement and east Jerusalem, undermining the contiguity of a future Palestinian state,” he said.

Israel has never shied away from claiming that the Ma’aleh Adumim bloc where the village is located will remain an integral part of its state.

It has argued that it plans to offer the Bedouin better living conditions than they enjoy now.

KHAN AL-AHMAR sits on a plot of land that is part of the 1975 expropriation order of 3,000 hectares that was used to create and then build the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, now the third-largest Jewish community in Judea and Samaria.

Still, it is located outside the boundaries of that settlement and is under the jurisdiction of the Binyamin Regional Council. It sits near the Kfar Adumim settlement and close to a new construction project for that settlement of 92 homes.

In spite of the expropriation order, which allows the IDF to treat the property as state land, the village itself is actually still registered to private Palestinian land owners, who have said they would allow the Khan al-Ahmar community to remain there and for a master plan to be developed for that community.

Khan al-Ahmar residents are from the Abu Dahuk clan, which belongs to members of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe. The State of Israel forcibly transferred them to the West Bank area outside of Jerusalem from the Negev area in the early 1950s.

Among the issues with the proposed relocation sites is clan politics. The state’s preferred option is a newly created neighborhood of the Area C town of Abu Dis. But it is next to a neighborhood whose residents belong to the Jahalin’s Salamat clan. The two clans do not get along, and Khan al-Ahmar villagers have reported that they have been warned by the Salamat clan not to move there.

Jahalin West is also located next to a garbage dump.

The second option, a site next to Mitzpe Yeriho, could have been considered a better option, but it is next to a sewage treatment plant. The plan is still in its infancy, and the state would like to first move the families to Jahalin West, provide them with 60-meter tents on unbuilt property lots, and then relocate them at a future date to the second site, near Mitzpe Yeriho.

Among the issues that have yet to be resolved is an access road, which would have to be built on private Palestinian property.
Should this plan move forward, the state would want to relocate four Abu Dahuk communities to the site (Mitzpe Yeriho), which is also close to the city of Jericho.

At issue before the court is the question of the submission of a master plan that would allow the families to remain where they are or move some 60 meters away from the road.

This would be Husein Abu Dahuk’s preferred option. His family was already relocated once, from the Arad area. The father of six and the grandfather of four says he sees no reason why he has to move.

The issue is not just geopolitics, Cohen-Lifshitz said, but also about the state’s recognition that planning for the Bedouin differs from that of other communities.

What is needed is a plan that fits “the way of life of the community,” and not just one that is a “solution that allows Israel to move people because they are a disturbance,” he said.

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