Something extraordinary has happened this week at the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Khan al-Ahmar, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem and adjacent to the main road going south toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. First, there is the remarkable fact that the village still exists—after months of waiting, day by day, for the bulldozers of the Israeli army to arrive to demolish it. But even more astonishing is the fact that, for several days, over a hundred activists—Palestinians, Israelis, and a few internationals—faced the heavily armed soldiers and the riot police, not known for their gentle ways, and triumphed, at least for the moment. The imminent demolition of the entire site and the violent expulsion of its inhabitants have now been postponed for some weeks, according to the Israeli cabinet’s decision on October 21.
There is even a chance, however slight, that the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar will in the end be moved to a site only a few hundred yards from their present place, according to the plan that they themselves proposed, long ago, to the Israeli authorities, who rejected it at the time out of hand. Sometimes, it happens that a certain place, like this rocky hill, becomes a battleground between opposing value systems and opposing forces, each of which recognizes what is at stake. For the Israeli right, the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar are one of the last obstacles to a far-reaching annexationist program. They also have the incorrigible flaw of not being Jews in a Jewish state now run on exclusionary ethno-nationalist principles.
But the story really begins in 1953, when the Jahalin Bedouins were driven from their home in the Negev desert by soldiers of the newly formed state of Israel. The tribe wandered north into what was then Jordan—specifically, to the sandy hills and rocky wadis just to the east of Jerusalem. They were still there, living in tents and shepherding their sheep and goats, when Israel occupied the whole of the West Bank after the war in June 1967. At first, the Jahalin were left largely to their own devices. But with the establishment of the large Israeli settler suburb of Ma’ale Adumim in the mid-1970s, and later of the satellite settlements of Kfar Adumim (1979), Nofei Prat (1992), and Alon (1990), the Abu Dahouk branch of the Jahalin Bedouins lost access to most of their grazing grounds. They have been at the present site of al-Khan al-Ahmar, which sits mainly on land owned privately and leased to them by Palestinians from the nearby town of Anata, since the late 1970s, at least, as aerial photographs show. Even before that, my wife and I used to see them there every time we drove from Jerusalem to Jericho.
It’s an ancient site—the name means the Red Caravanserai, because of the red stones coloring the hillsides—on the old pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to Mecca and close to the supposed setting of the New Testament tale of the Good Samaritan. The place is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. The monastery of the fifth-century ascetic St. Euthymius is just across the wadi. Like everywhere else in Israel-Palestine, al-Khan al-Ahmar is soaked in the sanctity of rival—or, at better times, complementary—religions. But what has happened there in recent years, under Israeli rule, reeks of sacrilege.
Israeli governments have long wanted to drive off the Jahalin Bedouins and take over their lands for further Israeli settlement. Settlers from Kfar Adumim petitioned the government and the Israeli courts to remove their Palestinian neighbors, whose tents and flocks they consider an eyesore; right-wing Israeli governments were only too happy to pursue this goal. (It is important to note, though, that a small group of Israelis living in Kfar Adumim and in Ma’ale Adumim have stood by the Bedouin of al-Khan al-Ahmar and publicly opposed their eviction.) The issue lingered in Israeli civil courts for years until this past September 5, when the High Court of Justice, in an act of stark moral cowardice, decided unanimously that there was no legal impediment to expelling these people from their homes—despite private Palestinian ownership of the lands in question, a fact the court irrationally, mercilessly declared to be no longer relevant. The decision affirmed an earlier High Court ruling (from May) allowing the state to demolish the Palestinian Bedouin homes and to forcibly resettle them wherever it wished. It is true that the tents and shacks of al-Khan al-Ahmar were erected without building permits; Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli control, have virtually no chance of getting such permits. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Jahalin were living in tents in this area long before it was occupied by Israel.
There is a clear rationale for the planned demolition and expulsion, an aim the present government has hardly tried to disguise. Al-Khan al-Ahmar is the gateway to what is known as Area E1, the large swath of land between Jerusalem and Jericho that the Israeli right wants to annex to Israel, thereby cutting the West Bank in two and precluding even the theoretical possibility of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Lest anyone think this idea is far-fetched or impractical, settlers from nearby Alon issued a statement on October 9, when it seemed that the Bedouins would soon be gone. These settlers happily envisioned groups of “Hebrew shepherds” grazing their huge flocks of “Hebrew sheep” starting with what they expected to be the newly vacated land and extending as far east as the settlement of Mitzpe Jericho, on the outskirts of Jericho city.
It is crucial to understand the true nature of this campaign, which can only be defined as a transparent attempt at ethnic cleansing. The dwelling of al-Khan al-Ahmar, with its 180 inhabitants, is only the beginning. Another 1,200 or more Jahalin Bedouins live in the general vicinity of this site; you can be certain that they would be next in line. To make matters worse, the Palestinians of al-Khan al-Ahmar were slated to be forcibly resettled at a place called simply al-Jabal, “the hill,” adjacent to the Jerusalem municipal dump. Al-Jabal is an insalubrious environment utterly unsuitable for the traditional Bedouin way of life, which is based on herding. These people are being treated as disposable waste, their entire culture a useless anachronism worthy of destruction.
I’ve gotten to know some of the inhabitants of al-Khan al-Ahmar over the past weeks. They are standing their ground, steadfastly refusing to bow to the government’s threats and demands. They are whole-heartedly committed to a Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance in the face of overwhelming force. They are no less committed to the ideal of educating their children. Some years ago, the villagers built, with help from the Italian Vento di Terra group, an eco-friendly school, made from clay and old tires—the first school the Jahalin have ever had. Even during these tense days, every morning children from the wider catchment area have come to class, including days when the riot police and soldiers were there in force, confronting the protests, preparing roads for the bulldozers, at times attacking the parents and grandparents with Taser guns, pepper spray, and stun grenades. Palestinians, along with Israeli activists and a minister in the Ramallah-based government of the Palestinian Authority, Walid Assaf, placed themselves in the path of the bulldozers. Some were arrested. Many were hurt. The Israeli military operated daily in al-Khan al-Ahmar during the week of October 15; among other things, army engineers laid down infrastructure for the Israeli settlements that are scheduled to be built soon on these same lands.
For what remains of the Israeli peace camp and human-rights organizations, and also for their Palestinian counterparts, al-Khan al-Ahmar is a last redoubt. If it falls, we will be closer to losing what has become, in effect, an existential struggle. So, for the last several weeks, peace campaigners from all over the West Bank, along with activists from Ta’ayush, Torat Tzedek, and various international organizations, have been living day and night at this site, driven by the knowledge that we have to be with these people at the moment of their impending trauma. Since Netanyahu’s bulldozers tend to come at dawn, some of us have slept at al-Khan al-Ahmar, just in case. None of us thought we could prevent the demolitions with our bodies, but all of us knew that, whatever the risk, this crime had to be documented and witnessed for the world.
The word crime is not a rhetorical flourish. A resolution of the European Parliament on September 13 declared that the violent expulsion of the indigenous population of al-Khan al-Ahmar by an occupying power is a grave breach of international humanitarian law, and in a dramatic announcement on October 17, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, called it a war crime. It seems that these interventions have spooked the Israeli government. The credible possibility that cabinet ministers, the prime minister himself, and any officer or soldier filmed while taking part in the demolitions could be arrested on arrival in almost any European country may have acted, for now at least, as a deterrent. Sometimes, international pressure on Israel does work.
One should also not forget the sustained, dedicated work, over years, of individuals and organizations such as the Jahalin Working Group (chaired by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and Bimkom (Planners for Planning Rights), among others. None of this, however, would have been effective without the firm resistance of the al-Khan al-Ahmar people themselves and the support of the activists who were physically present beside them.
At the very last moment, just hours before the final demolitions were to begin, Prime Minister Netanyahu blinked. The government announced that the destruction of al-Khan al-Ahmar would be postponed for some weeks, during which negotiations for an amicable solution would be renewed. According to Tawfiq Jabarin, the Bedouins’ lawyer, the plan originally proposed by the Jahalin themselves, long ago, may now be under consideration again.
No one can say what will happen next. There are powerful voices within the government, and, of course, on the extreme right, calling for blood. No one should doubt that the soldiers and police will act with extreme violence if it comes to expulsion. Right-wing pressure, which, in any case, is perfectly aligned with the government’s natural inclination toward the annexationist agenda, is building up and may yet force the erasure of this entire community. That is the new Israeli style that threatens Susiya in the South Hebron hills and all Palestinian hamlets still hanging on in the Jordan Valley, as well as other Bedouin settlements such as al-Araqib and Umm al-Hiran in the northern Negev.
Predictably, Netanyahu has reaffirmed his commitment to the ultimate destruction of al-Khan al-Ahmar. But already it can be said that a small group of unarmed, ordinary human beings, appalled by the injustice about to be inflicted upon innocents and prepared to face reckless violence without flinching, have achieved a moral victory that cannot be measured in purely instrumental terms. Even a transient victory of this kind has meaning and gives reason for hope. Perhaps al-Khan al-Ahmar will be remembered as the place where the Israeli descent into self-destructive savagery was checked, at least for a crucial moment. More battles lie ahead.
David Shulman’s Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills will be published in October. He is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was awarded the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in 2016. (June 2018)