By BRENDA GAZZAR
Muhammad Chamees, who lives in a wadi in the Judean Desert with his flock of sheep, doesn't know any other life.
About a year ago, Chamees, a member of the semi-nomadic Jahalin Beduin tribe, received a government order to leave his home in the wadi south of Ma'aleh Adumim. The 56-year-old, who does not read, gave the order to his attorney. While the grounds cited for the order are unclear, government officials say they have issued eviction and demolition orders to Jahalin Beduin over the years near the settlement due to illegal building.
His humble dwelling south of Ma'aleh Adumim is also located inside the perimeter where Israel is slated to build the security fence around the settlement.
Officials have made it clear that Israel does not intend to allow the estimated 1,300 to 2,000 Jahalin who are living inside the perimeter of the planned barrier to remain, legal advocates, humanitarian workers and human rights experts say.
Civil Rights attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represents many of the Jahalin, is now attempting to negotiate their fate.
Sitting on a stony hilltop drinking sweet tea, Chamees wonders where his animals will graze if he, his wife and 12 children will have to leave the area. He may have to sell or slaughter his animals, he says.
He does not want to move to the jebal (hilltop) about 500 meters from the municipal garbage dump near Abu Dis, where about 150 Jahalin families now live in permanent dwellings, because he will have no land or pasture for his animals to graze.
"I live from my sheep and I eat from them," said Chamees, wearing a white keffiya and a green jacket over his Beduin gown. "I don't write. I don't read. I don't know anything else but the sheep."
Officials of the Civil Administration, which is responsible for the lives of the Palestinians living in the territories, declined to be interviewed for this article. They did issue a brief written response, saying that the Jahalin are not being evicted because of the security fence, but due to the widespread phenomenon of "illegal and invasive building" on state land, which has continued for years.
Previously, the Civil Administration had come to some agreement with some tribal representatives. These agreements included offers of compensation and alternative land - even though the Jahalin did not own the land on which they were squatting and had built illegally. However, not all of the families have agreed to these compensations.
The Jahalin, a semi-nomadic Beduin tribe, were evicted from the Tel Arad area in the Negev in 1950 and moved into the then-Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Many Jahalin still carry their United Nations refugee cards and say they would like to return to their ancestral land in the Negev, but are aware that this is not a possibility to which Israel would agree.
Some Jahalin were forced to move a second time, when the city of Ma'aleh Adumim was first established. In 1997, about 60 Jahalin families were forcibly removed by the government and their shacks and tents were demolished to make way for the expansion of Ma'aleh Adumim. They were resettled on the jebal near the municipal garbage dump - despite an Israeli law that mandates residents live farther than 2,000 meters from a garbage dump.
According to Jahalin leaders and human rights activists there was no official agreement at the time.
"In January 1997, they were housed in shipping crates, containers - the things you have on the back of train cars, or trucks. They are massive, heavy," says Jeremy Milgrom, director of the Jahalin Beduin Project of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that promotes human rights based on Jewish values and law.
"In the winter, these containers are like ice boxes... That was where they had to live. They lived there for a few months and recovered from the trauma, and began building shacks, tin and wood."
Another 35 families, whose homes were demolished in February 1998, moved to the jebal in late 1999 and 2000 as part of a deal struck with the State, mediated by attorney Lecker. Families with seven or more children received between one-dunam and 1.5-dunam plots of land, building rights and about NIS 38,000. Smaller families received less.
In 2003, Lecker negotiated an agreement for the first group that had relocated to the jebal in 1997, securing less than one dunam of land, building rights and NIS 50,000 for large families.
Today, the subject of the Jahalin is resurfacing yet again as Israel is expected to decide the fate of those living within the barrier's perimeter.
Once completed, Israel's security barrier will surround a large swath of the Judean Desert in the West Bank and make it part of Jerusalem. About 2.5 kilometers of this section of the barrier have already been built southeast of Mishor Adumim, an industrial park located northeast of Ma'aleh Adumim. Many more kilometers starting north of Abu Dis and stretching southward in a semicircle until the Jerusalem-Jericho Road - including the Israeli settlements of Ma'aleh Adumim, Kedar and New Kedar - have reportedly been given the green light.
Until now, the state has made it clear that it does not want the Jahalin inside the fence, Lecker insists.
"Of course, the real intention is to take over this part and make it part of Israel, to annex the area under the cover of security needs," Lecker says. "They don't want Arabs to be inside the area that is made part of Israel."
Regarding the state's claims of illegal building, Lecker says, the traditional tents and tin shacks of the Jahalin can be demolished because the state has not granted them building permits for more than 35 years.
Because they have lived as nomads rather than in established villages, he continues, it is impossible to prove that they have been residents here for long periods of time.
However, those who have received eviction or demolition orders in the area are not in immediate danger, he notes, because the state has agreed not to take steps against them while there are negotiations.
Some say it makes sense to relocate the Jahalin outside the barrier's perimeter and inside Palestinian-controlled territory.
"The fence will be between them and us," says Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel. "They are Palestinians. They are not Israeli."
But humanitarian workers say that displacement of the Jahalin would contravene international humanitarian law, since the issue is not security-related.
If evicted, the Jahalin here are expected to be relocated to a smaller area, where they may have to give up their traditional way of life.
The fence is also expected to cause this Beduin tribe other problems, including restricting the grazing land of those who have already settled near Abu Dis and Al Eizariya and severing access to important markets, including Jerusalem, where they sell their products such as milk and cheese.
"It means impoverishment," claims one international humanitarian worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There is already a high level of unemployment in the West Bank. They are Beduin. They won't be the first people to be hired. There is no other source of livelihood. It's a pretty grim future."
Having vast open space to roam is integral to Beduin culture, but the fence limits their access to both land and critical resources, argues Israeli activist Devorah Brous, founder of Bustan L'shalom, which works with Beduins in Israel and the West Bank.
"It's a whole question of access... into these main cities," Brous says. "It's like cutting their umbilical cord, their very connection to their economic, social and political stability out here in the middle of the desert, severing that critical life line."
Israel has tried to rid itself of all the Jahalin from Ma'aleh Adumim to the Dead Sea for more than a decade, says Meir Margalit, a former Jerusalem city councilman who has previously participated in negotiations with the Civil Administration over the fate of the Jahalin. Meir is currently the coordinator of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
"When they began to draw the maps in Oslo, they understood that this land from Ma'aleh Adumim to the Dead Sea would belong to Israel, and they wanted to remove all the Beduin," Margalit says.
Lecker claims that the State intends to relocate the Jahalin inside the future barrier to areas near Abu Dis and As Suwahra in exchange for land and compensation, Lecker explains, but this is problematic both for the Jahalin and Palestinians already living in the area.
Abu Dis is already a densely populated town and its access to Jerusalem is now limited due to the completed section of the fence to its west, Lecker notes.
"Now the new fence that is planned around Ma'aleh Adumim is taking over big chunks of land that historically belonged to Abu Dis, and they [Abu Dis residents] prefer not to have the Jahalin pushed to the small area that is left," he explains.
The people of As Suwahra, another community affected by the building of the security fence to its west, has echoed these sentiments, says Lecker, who is also representing this community.
The Jahalin here prefer to stay where they are, but if they have to be relocated they insist on staying within the fence, Lecker says. There are several areas inside the barrier they can be relocated to, such as east of Ma'aleh Adumim and southwest of New Kedar. These locations, he says, are suitable but are far from Palestinian population centers and close to grazing areas for their animals.
"They cannot continue to live as Beduin if they live near Abu Dis - sandwiched between densely populated land and the garbage dump - as there is no place for them to move about and raise their sheep," he continues. If Israel refuses to allow them to remain inside the perimeter, the state can make minor changes to the route of the barrier as has been done in other cases.
Muhammed Ahmad Alhirsh, who has lived on the hilltop near the garbage dump since he and his family were forcibly evicted in 1997 to make way for Ma'aleh Adumim expansion, wants the state to allow the rest of the Beduin to remain free to roam. "The least the Beduin can have in their life is to live in the desert with their sheep and goats," he says.
If relocated, the Jahalin would likely get a piece of land registered in their name, building permits and a little compensation for relocating that could go toward building permanent houses, Lecker says.
Kashriel says that this would be a positive development for them.
"They are living on lands without any papers that [say that] this land belongs to them. Now they will have land and water pipes," he contends. "They will be in a village and we will be very happy to have good relations with this village."
But Lecker denies that there is any justification for the barrier to begin with, and says that he will dispute this in court. The Beduin in this area didn't participate in the intifada, he says, and have not been engaged in anti-Israel activity. Many work as gardeners or maintenance workers in the nearby settlements.
"Why do they have to be pushed out at all?" he demands.
In addition, those Jahalin who are already settled on the jebal southwest of the planned fence also have concerns.
Hussein Jahalin worries that after the fence is built, he will no longer have access to his construction work in the Ma'aleh Adumim settlement, where he earns NIS 2,500 a month for 22 days' work.
If Israel does not let them enter Ma'aleh Adumim or other areas to work, and the Palestinian Authority cannot offer them work, residents may seek work with Hamas or Islamic Jihad, Jahalin worries.
"I don't want to work with Hamas but if they do this, and I have no work, I would not only work with Hamas, I would go with bin Laden to work," he says, noting he has five children to feed.
Kashriel says the Jahalin will still be able to enter the settlement and keep their jobs after the barrier is complete.
"They are afraid for no reason," he claims. "We need them here to work. They have been working for many years in our municipality, the factories, our industrial park. No one wants to fire them."
But Civil Administration officials acknowledge that the issue of work permits will be dependent on the country's security policy which "changes from time to time respective to the security situation."
The Jahalin will still have to pass through security checkpoints to enter the settlement. And many are already citing difficulties in renewing their Civil Administration-issued magnetic cards, which allow them to work in Ma'aleh Adumim or Mishor Adumim.
Like other Palestinians in this area, the security fence built just west of Abu Dis has already changed the way of life for many Jahalin, activists say.
"Their places of trade and commerce, as well as their holy places, have been blocked because of the wall that has already been built," Brous notes. "And if they close them this way [to the northeast], they will be completely sealed in."
Ibrahim Alhirsh and his family live on the jebal east of the completed barrier that divides them from Jerusalem.
Alhirsh, who like many on the jebal has given up the traditional Beduin life and is an Arabic school teacher in east Jerusalem, says it is more difficult to get to work because of the barrier.
It now takes him more than an hour to get there with multiple public transportation vehicles and some walking involved, and he isn't always granted permission to enter the city due to closures.
The father of seven children, speaking through a translator, Alhirsh says that he worries he will eventually not be able to work in Jerusalem anymore. After the barrier around Ma'aleh Adumim is complete, he says, his life "will be even more difficult, like I will be in prison." Sitting on the ground on a thin mattress in the shig (guest room) of his home, he adds, "There will be no work, no place for sheep to graze, no hospitals... It will drive us to become a bad society."
Jahalin not only work in Jerusalem, but like other Palestinians in the area, go there to shop, pray at Al Aqsa, visit their relatives, sell their dairy products, and for their urgent health care needs.
The closest hospitals are in Jerusalem and several Jahalin claim they have been denied permission to enter the city in times of need.
When Khadijeh Jahalin, a 30-year-old mother of four who lives on the jebal, tried to enter the city while pregnant in order to reach a hospital, she was not granted permission. She walked, in order to circumvent the barrier.
"There is no hospital in Al Eizariya," she explains. "When you want a hospital, it's very difficult."
Hussein Jahalin's family came to the jebal when his family was evicted nearly a decade ago. Like most families here, his family sold their animals because of lack of space, but he still longs for the time he lived in tents and worked the land.
"Life on the hilltop isn't like the life we had as Beduin, it's something else, a different life." says the 36-year-old in fluent Hebrew. "It's a closed house, and you sit inside a closed house... you don't have sheep, you can't feed your sheep... It's not the life of a Beduin."
Today large stone houses have already been built or are under construction on the jebal, while some Jahalin still live in wood and zync shacks or small concrete structures. A large stone mosque rises up from the center of the hilltop. There is no sewage system, hot water, sanitation facilities or formal electricity. Residents here pay villagers in Al Eizariya to siphon off a limited amount of their electricity. Residents say that the Palestinian Authority is expected to bring electricity to the village within the next few months.
There is one elementary school, consisting mostly of caravans, and leaders here say they have been working with Civil Administration officials for the last year to try to build a real school. Many on the jebal worry that additional Jahalin who are displaced will be relocated to the same hilltop or another nearby, which is even closer to the dump and will farther crowd the area.
"This area is very small, when they bring other families, it's like a camp, like a refugee camp," says Sulaiman Muzarah, a Jahalin leader who is renting an apartment in Al Eizariya but whose father and siblings are living on the jebal.
Another fear hovers over the Jahalin here. Israel declared this and other uncultivated land in the West Bank state land in the 1980s, but Abu Dis residents claim the jebal and the surrounding area is theirs. The Jahalin worry that after the separation barrier is complete, they will be left outside with nothing to prevent the previous landowners from reclaiming their land.
As long as Israel is present on the territory, the Jahalin know that their historic owners can't reclaim their land, Margalit says.
"It's a scary thing, ultimately, maybe there will be a war between Abu Dis and the Jahalin," says Hussein Jahalin. "They say it's their territory, and the Jews threw us here on the jebal but they are right, it's the territory of Abu Dis. A lot of people came to us and said, this is ours, why are you here?"
Mayor Kashriel insists that the territory given to the Beduin was part of Ma'aleh Adumim - and not part of Abu Dis or Al Eizariya.
"We have had our municipal borders for more than 23 years," he says. "We cut some of our lands, and gave it to them...Abu Dis and Al Eizariya don't care about them. They don't give them work. I think we were much better to those Beduin than Abu Dis and Al Eizariya."
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