Palestine: The End of the Bedouins?

One way to tell the story of the Middle East as a whole is to describe the endemic struggle between peripatetic nomads and settled peasant farmers—a struggle attested already in….

One way to tell the story of the Middle East as a whole is to describe the endemic struggle between peripatetic nomads and settled peasant farmers—a struggle attested already in ancient Mesopotamian documents. For centuries, all the political regimes of the region have tried, with varying success, to get the Bedouin to come to rest on the land. But in Israel and in the occupied territories we see, alongside this familiar policy, persistent attempts to uproot Bedouin populations who have already settled on the land, sometimes generations ago, and who usually have clear claims to ownership of these sites.

Today, most of the Jordan Valley, undoubtedly one of the most ravishing landscapes on the planet, is situated in what is known as Area C of occupied Palestinian territory. This means that, with the exception of the ancient city of Jericho and its surroundings (which are in Area A, under Palestinian rule), the valley is under direct and exclusive Israeli military, legal, and political control, and also that large parts of it are taken up by Israeli settlements or by lands that have been reserved for future Israeli settlement. It also means that a Palestinian population of some 15,000 Bedouins who are settled in the valley is tacitly targeted for expulsion.

According to the Oslo accords, the division of the West Bank into three different zones was intended as a preliminary stage leading eventually to the end of the Israeli occupation and to achieving Palestinian statehood. The policy of the present Israeli government appears to be aimed at eventually annexing to Israel the whole of Area C, which constitutes over half the territory of the West Bank; this goal has been explicitly and repeatedly stated by the minister of education, Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party and a major force in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. As a result, we are now witnessing in the Jordan Valley an accelerated process of what must, I fear, be called ethnic cleansing. It’s not a term I use lightly.

Let me show you what this means in human terms. Abu Rasmi Ayyub is a shepherd living with three generations of his extended family in a tiny hamlet, actually only a confabulation of tents and sheep pens, called al-Hammeh, toward the northern edge of the valley, only a few miles from the Israeli border crossing to the city of Beit Shean. He is in his sixties and presents an image of great dignity and serenity. The Ayyub family traces its ancestors on the land back to the Ottoman period, at the very least to the mid-nineteenth century. Now the Ayyubs’ historic grazing grounds, next door to al-Hammeh, are rapidly becoming inaccessible to them because of the expansion of the Israeli settlement of Givat Sal’it.

Until a few weeks ago, al-Hammeh, with its few tents and sheepfolds, was a tiny point in the desert, struggling to survive with no basic amenities, including no running water. On September 27, the Civil Administration—that is the Israeli occupation authority, a unit of the army—demolished the entire hamlet, leaving the Ayyub family without shelter from the overwhelming heat by day and the continually intensifying cold at night. October is also the annual birthing moment for the flocks, so there were many young lambs exposed to the heat and cold; they rapidly began to die. There is every reason to believe that the army chose its timing deliberately. Demolitions are one major instrument of dispossession in the occupied West Bank.

On November 3, al-Hammeh was rebuilt, and for a few days life looked, if not normal, at least somehow livable. Four days later the army returned to demolish everything once again, and this time they also confiscated the tents and anything of use or value that remained. Meanwhile, the Israeli neighbors in Givat Sal’it have established a new outpost—illegal even under Israeli law—carefully situated to block the Bedouins’ only viable route to their grazing grounds. Volunteers from Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership—the activist peace group I’ve been part of it for the last sixteen years—saw the outpost at its bare beginnings, just bits and pieces of a wooden frame and a small shack for a single family. We alerted the police and the Civil Administration, who sent officers to see what was happening. These officers arrived, took pictures with their iPads, and were even prepared to acknowledge that the outpost was illegal. Meanwhile, Givat Sal’it II continued to grow. Within less than a month, it had four permanent buildings, several residents, and a link to the Israeli water system and to the electric power grid, all this with the silent collusion of the authorities. Soon it will also have soldiers guarding it.

What happened next is emblematic of how the occupation works throughout the West Bank. On November 17, the Ayyub Bedouins, their homes and sheep pens now destroyed for the second time, decided to set up a protest tent not far from the new outpost. The fate of a Palestinian tent, old or new, is unlike the fate of an illegal Israeli outpost. Within a few hours soldiers arrived and quickly went through their standard repertoire—tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and pepper spray (from my own experience, I can tell you that the pepper spray is the worst if it gets you in the eyes). Interestingly, all eyewitness accounts agree that among the soldiers, the women recruits were by far the most savage. The tear gas and stun grenades were aimed directly at the activists, a potentially lethal practice officially banned by the army. Six Palestinians were hospitalized, and two Israeli activists were arrested, one of them seriously beaten by the police while in custody.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Israeli settlers have free license to steal more and more land, and the rightful owners of these lands are brutally driven away. The process is set out in precise detail in a recent report by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, dealing with the West Bank as a whole. Noting that Israeli policies have been particular devastating to the semi-nomadic communities in Area C, the authors observe:

As years of monitoring by B’Tselem and other organizations has shown, Israeli security forces regularly allow settlers to assault Palestinians and damage their property. In fact, soldiers sometimes safeguard the settlers in such situations, providing them support and at times even taking part in the assault. All this is compounded by an ineffectual law enforcement system that takes no action against the offenders and does not achieve justice for the victims. According to figures collected by Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, some 85 percent of all investigations into incidents of harm caused to Palestinians (physical assault, arson, damage to property, vandalizing trees, and taking over land) are closed due to flaws in police procedure. There is only a 1.9 percent chance of a police complaint filed by a Palestinian leading to the conviction of an Israeli citizen.

How long will al-Hammeh manage to hang on? Who can say? Ta’ayush is doing its best to help them. House demolitions are only one of four major means to its destruction. Continuously expanding Jewish settlement is the second. Less than 6 percent of the Jordan Valley is now available for Palestinian residence (this small remaining area is in Areas A and B, which are heavily built up and leave little if any room for further construction). It is virtually impossible for Palestinians to get building permits anywhere in Area C.

Third, there is confiscation of basic means to survival—tractors, for example. At Ra’s al-Ahmar, not far from al-Hammeh, five tractors were impounded by the army in early November, the day before the Palestinian residents were driven from their homes because of army exercises. The excuse, according to the official notice given the owners: “suspected criminal act inside a Firing Zone.” I should explain that 56 percent of the Jordan Valley has been declared by the army off-limits to Palestinians, though there are still a few families surviving, barely, at sites within these fenced-off areas. Ra’s al-Ahmar is one of them. It sits in a green wadi surrounded by onion fields; the Palestinians there are both small-scale cultivators and shepherds. Without a tractor to fetch water, to bring fodder for the sheep and goats, and for the myriad everyday chores, you can’t live at Ra’s al-Ahmar. But the mere existence of a tractor in Ra’s al-Ahmar is, by the army’s definition, illegal, even if it never moves from where it’s parked. In short, this is harassment of exquisite purity. To reclaim an impounded tractor is a protracted bureaucratic process which, even if ultimately successful, ends in the owner being fined, arbitrarily, up to 7000 shekels (close to $2,000).

Finally, and perhaps most devastating in the long run, is the denial of water. It is very hot in the Jordan Valley for much of the year. In summer, daytime temperatures rise well above 100 degrees. If Palestinians living in tiny hamlets like al-Hammeh have the temerity to attempt to link themselves to the Palestinian Authority’s pipelines running down from the city of Tubbas in Area A, the army comes and breaks the pipes. I saw them do it with my own eyes at al-Hadidiya last August. Since life in the valley is insupportable without water, Palestinians have to buy and import water in tankers at vastly inflated prices. Remember that these are subsistence shepherds for whom the cost of a single water tanker is a huge sum—easily half the monthly expenses of a family in the summer. Simply stated, the idea is to dry the Bedouins out until thirst forces them to disappear, perhaps by migration to somewhere in Area A or even outside Israel-Palestine.

Consider the words of ‘Abd al-Rahim Bsharat (known as Abu Saqer) from the hamlet of al-Hadidiya:

“The settlers and the Israeli state have committed many crimes and will commit many more, but the worse crime, a moral monstrosity, is denying us water. They have polluted our wells, filled them with rocks and dirt, dried them up by their deep drilling, and dried up the natural springs. I myself owned between sixty and ninety wells on the hills over there, and all of them have been destroyed. It happened already in the 1970s. At the same time, hundreds of cubic meters of water are being wasted on the settlers, on their lawns and swimming pools. Whole communities have been devastated, their people driven out, displaced by army camps and settlements. Once a hundred families lived here in al-Hadidiya; only 14 are left. …In a war, there is the one who kills and the one who is killed, but what has water to do with this?”

On a good day, I sometimes think that we’ll eventually produce a new balance of power in the Jordan Valley. The situation there closely resembles life under state terror in the South Hebron hills when we first started working there in 2000, at the beginning of the second Intifada. Today South Hebron, though still under a regime of terror, has stabilized, and the Palestinian farmers and shepherds remain, miraculously, in place. There’s some hope that they and their way of life may survive. Perhaps something like this can take shape in the Jordan Valley. On a bad day (that is, most days), I think we are witnessing the remorseless extinction of Palestinian society and culture in the valley.

One might ask oneself, I suppose, why the Israelis are so intent on getting rid of 15,000 innocent Palestinian shepherds in this part of the West Bank. In a reality of rampant hyper-nationalism, it’s probably not a useful question. This year alone demolitions have almost doubled compared to 2015. By mid-October, the army had destroyed 242 Palestinian buildings in the valley, rendering hundreds homeless, many of them children. Some two thousand suffered significant losses from the demolitions that, as we have seen, also targeted sheep pens and water infrastructure.

As Abu Saqer continues:

“We are simple people. We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. In the late 1980s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge? Last year there were demolitions [on November 26, 2015], and they are always threatening more. My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl (a soldier). What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East?”

A bill now before the Knesset, supported by all the right-wing parties and already past its first vote (out of three), aims to legalize the many dozens of so-called illegal outposts scattered all over the West Bank as well as thousands of housing units built in Israeli settlements that sit on privately-owned Palestinian land. The bill is a transparent attempt to enable what can only be called large-scale governmental theft. Even if it is eventually struck down in the courts, it speaks eloquently of the government’s intention. If you happen to be a Palestinian Bedouin trying to survive in the tiny bit of territory left for Palestinian settlement in the Jordan Valley, your life hangs by a thread.