Palestinian Bedouins squeezed by settlements
Tubas - Tighter Israeli security, attacks by Jewish settlers, prosecutions and incentives to relocate to specially built homes are threatening the traditional pastoralist way of life of Palestinian Bedouin, local activists and community members said.
Driving for some 20 minutes along a muddy, unpaved road to the Humset Bqiea area of the vast green and brown Jordan valley, first a few tents appear. But they belong to the Israeli army; those of the Bedouin, the descendents of the traditional nomads who roamed the deserts for centuries, are still a little further off.
Strings of colourful laundry hanging out to dry mark those tents where Abu Kbash and his family live. Other tents are for their livestock. Nearly 30 Palestinian Bedouin live in the area. Not far away, there are more tents belonging to Abu Kbash’s extended family.
Squeezed between two Jewish settlements, with the army camped close by and air force jets screaming overhead to drop bombs in the distance as part of a military exercise, it is hard to forget the Israeli presence, even for a short while.
Around 7,000 Palestinian Bedouin and sheepherders, some 60% of them children, reside in 46 small residential areas in Area C, according to figures by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Area C, which covers 60% of the West Bank, is under Israeli control, including security, planning and zoning.
Some 70% of Area C is off-limits to Palestinian construction; 29% is heavily restricted, and the remaining 1% has buildings. With building permits all but impossible to obtain from the Israeli authorities, many people take the risk of building without permission.
“We can’t take the sheep to graze in the green areas, which means extra costs to feed them,” Abu Kbash told The Arab Weekly. Human rights organisations say 90% of Bedouin income comes from livestock.
Even a simple structure such as a tent is under a constant Israeli threat of removal. Sixty-five year-old Ali Abu Kbash has been receiving demolition orders for more than five years and a few of his tents were destroyed in April 2014.
“We even can’t use the water,” he said, pointing to a water tank belonging to the Israeli army about 300 metres away. “There would be trouble if we tried.” Instead, the group has to drive 15 kilometres to a spring and the cost of fuel to get there adds up.
Ayesha Abu Kbash, Ali Abu Kbash’s sister-in-law, washed her hands after making yoghurt, a main constituent of the local diet.
She did not seem bothered by a plane whizzing overhead, saying the noise has become routine as the Israeli military conducts training in the valley.
“We’re frequently asked to put everything on hold and leave for a day until they finish military training. They don’t care if it’s too cold or too hot. We stay almost 10 hours until we’re allowed to go back to our tents,” she said.
For 15 days each February, the families have to leave the area altogether so the Israeli military can conduct training away from view, she said.
“Why don’t the neighbouring settlers get evicted, if the claim is military concerns?” asked a worker with a European humanitarian agency in Area C.
“The security claims are one of the multiple ways to push people out of the area and allow for settlement expansion,” said the worker who asked that neither his name, nor that of his organisation be used.
The Israeli Civil Authority has announced plans to relocate Bedouin communities to Al-Nuwaimah, an area near the West Bank town of Jericho in the Jordan valley. The plans include 1,100 housing units as well as infrastructure and roads. But it remains unclear which communities are to be targeted by the plan. The authority put the idea to some of the communities, but the Bedouin flatly rejected them, saying they clash with their lifestyle.
“You can’t put a Bedouin near another, there will be no place for the sheep to graze,” Abu Kbash explained. He said Israel never offered to relocate him, but he believes the restrictions and obstructions they face could be steps towards eviction.
Palestinian Bedouin know all too well how difficult displacement is. Abu Kbash’s family is made up of refugees, displaced during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Figures from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) show 70% of Palestinian Bedouin are refugees who refused to live in camps that are incompatible with their lifestyle.
“The coercive atmosphere from tightening these measures, increased settlers’ attacks and legal cases against the Bedouins, as well as luring them to move out are gimmicks to make a forced transfer seem like a voluntary one,” MFatima Abdul Karim, media and local advocacy officer at Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), told The Arab Weekly.
JLAC accused Israel of considering the presence of Bedouins in the West Bank an obstacle for implementing its “E1 Master Plan”, which aims to expand and connect settlements in the Jerusalem periphery, towards Jericho, with greater Jerusalem.
“To be implemented, (the plan) will involve the relocation of Bedouin communities residing in this vicinity to designated areas resembling reservations,” JLAC said in a statement. Lawyer Wael Al-Qat said a case for the Bedouin could be filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the Palestinians joined in April. “International law prohibits the occupying state to relocate its own citizens to the occupied territory,” he said.
Abu Kbash and his family say they have no alternative but to fight relocation to the end.
“There’s no place else to go,” Abu Kbash said. “Settlements ate our lands.”