Despite Israel’s High Court ruling in May allowing the Israeli authorities to demolish the West Bank Bedouin encampment of Khan al- Ahmar, home to 28 families, the community is still intact.
In response to the ruling, which followed a protracted legal battle, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised, on more than one occasion, that the village in the Judean desert on the road which descends from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, will be razed“very soon.”
“I will not tell you when, but we are preparing for it,” he promised.
But members of the coalition and right-wing pressure groups are losing patience. In early December a coalition of right-wing NGOs pressed the government to demolish the village without further delay, fearing that if new elections are called the action will be delayed indefinitely.
“A strategic point in Israel has been, for all intents and purposes, seized,” stated Im Tirtzu CEO Matan Peleg. “This land seizure occurred in broad daylight, without the use of weapons – rather, it was done via political tools of the Palestinian Authority and European governments.”
“Khan al-Ahmar is a case study,” continued Peleg,“and if we fail because our eyes are focused squarely up north on Iran and Hezbollah, then other hostile political maneuvers like this will occur under our very noses.”
Attorney Eran Ben-Ari, an expert on legal issues in Judea and Samaria, said that Khan al-Ahmar is a watershed decision in upholding the rule of law.
“The state promised the Supreme Court that it will evacuate the outpost in June 2018, and for six months already it has been in breach of its own commitment. The damage caused by the prolongation of this situation vis-à-vis the court and the Palestinian Authority, will be irreversible,” he said.
The villagers face an uncertain future and have no idea if, and when, the axe will fall.
“We feel like a tsunami is coming. There is a demolition order hanging over the whole village,” explained Eid Jahalin, Khan al-Ahmar’s Mukthar village head. “No one has even consulted with us about a plan to relocate to an alternative location. We feel like we are between a rock and a hard place – caught in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).”
Located close to the settlement of Kfar Adumim, the encampment is home to some 180 Bedouin, members of the Jahalin tribe expelled by Israel from the Negev desert in southern Israel in the early 1950s.
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar live in corrugated shacks or tents, often without electricity or running water, and raise livestock. The only permanent structure is the school, built with tires and mud, with financial support from an Italian NGO.
The smell of goats pervades the whole village as children run barefoot between the ramshackle structures. In recent months Palestinian Authority officials placed Palestinian flags and a large banner of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the village and erected loudspeakers.
When the Jahalin tribe moved here more than 60 years ago the West Bank was under Jordanian control and the Judean desert was an empty expanse.
Since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, large areas of land have been expropriated by the army or settlements, and for nature reserves.
Khan al-Ahmar is located close to the area known as E1, between Jerusalem and the large settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim. Israel hopes to expand Ma’ale Adumim by building in E1 but so far the plans have been thwarted, partly due to strong opposition from the PA, backed by the international community, who argue that such a move would essentially split the West Bank into two.
Khan al-Ahmar lies about 35 meters from the strategically important Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway and Israel wants to move the Bedouin away from the highway and from proximity to nearby settlements.
The Khan al-Ahmar residents rejected Israeli proposals to relocate them either closer to Jerusalem or to Jericho. Recently, negotiations took place over a site close to the existing encampment but no agreement was reached.
There has been widespread international condemnation of the Israeli plans to demolish the village.
In September, the Palestinian leadership petitioned the International Criminal Court, calling for legal proceedings against Israel over the plan to demolish Khan al-Ahmar. ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that “extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes” under the Rome Statute treaty that established the ICC.
Some Israelis have joined the struggle to prevent the demolition of the village, including some Jewish settlers who live in the vicinity.
Prof. Dan Turner is a doctor at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital. He is also a resident of the settlement of Kfar Adumim, next to Khan al-Ahmar. A year ago, after reading in the paper that his settlement was involved in efforts to remove the encampment, Turner decided to visit the site.
“I’ve been living in Kfar Adumim for 20 years and I’m embarrassed to say the local Bedouin were totally transparent to me – just people I’d seen driving on the road,” he explained.
“Within a couple of months, we had 70 people from Kfar Adumim coming to the village to listen, to have a dialogue, and to learn about the issues. And it was astonishing. I found out what I knew about the subject was totally wrong. These people from Khan al-Ahmar, who were here before Kfar Adumim was established, are totally neglected. While other people in the area receive permits to build and expand their homes, the Bedouin do not receive permits even though they have been here for 60 or 70 years, and this does not seem fair to me.”
He stressed that not all the Jewish residents of the area oppose the Bedouin presence.
“There may be some people who want to look out of their window in the morning and see only Jews, but this is not the reality. We are here to stay. They are here to stay, and we have to learn to live together with mutual respect.”
A few months ago the Palestinian Authority fired the lawyer who was representing the villagers. Since then there have been no negotiations and activists campaigning on behalf of the villagers suspect the PA has an interest in maintaining the status quo, which generates negative publicity for Israel. Everyone realizes that demolishing the village would be a PR nightmare for Israel.
Yaron Ovadia, an Israeli expert on the Bedouin tribes, says the villagers will continue to pay the price as the uncertainty continues.
“What Israel wants is to move them to another location near Abu Dis close to Jerusalem but the Bedouin reject this. They need a place for their goats and a place they can work. Now they fight with the settlers from Kfar Adumim and Alon. If they go to Abu Dis they will fight with the Palestinians who live in Abu Dis. The residents of Abu Dis don’t want them.”
Meanwhile, Eid Jahalin vows that whatever happens, the residents of Khan al-Ahmar are staying put.
“If they destroy the village we will stay here and rebuild. Do we have a choice?”
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