The leafy city of Ma’ale Adumim lies 7 kilometres east of Jerusalem and is Israel’s newest tourist attraction. Palm trees lining the sidewalk offer respite on a hot August afternoon, buses driving the well-maintained roads serve Tel Aviv and beyond and a Library of Peace meets residents’ literary and moral needs.
Ma’ale Adumim is also the third largest illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, 4.5 kilometres east of the Green Line and next to the Palestinian town of Ezariya (Bethany). Dubbed the settlement that killed the two-state solution, it achieved city status in 1991. It lies at the heart of the Israeli government’s E1 project that seeks to connect Ma’ale Adumim with Jerusalem by building a corridor of settlements enclosed by the separation wall. It will effectively divide the West Bank into two and will be achieved by destroying 23 Palestinian Bedouin villages and transferring some 2,300 men, women and children into forced townships.
Most of the 40,000 settlers who live in Ma’ale Adumim will never set foot in Abu Nuwwar – a village under threat of demolition as Israeli officials also plan to link Ma’ale Adumim with Qadar settlement, within the limits of the E1 plan. They will not walk towards the tents and tin structures blowing in the hot breeze 100 metres away from the settlement fence. Nor will they drink tea with the families that I had the privilege to meet: the five-month-old baby gurgling while making his way across colourful rugs on his belly, 13-year-old Zeinab* who wants to be a lawyer so she can help people and the young man announcing his arrival with the words “I have grapes!”
Sponge Bob and Israeli number plates
Homes in Abu Nuwwar may look shabby from the outside but they boast kitchens, bright interiors, televisions and the odd Sponge Bob poster. Many families keep donkeys and chickens but the harsh terrain and ever nearing settlements make subsistence difficult. Shepherds herding goats and sheep struggle to find edible shrubbery months after the last rainfall and are not able to roam far. They used to sell the milk from their flocks in Jerusalem before they were denied access to the city. Even driving to West Bank cities can be problematic.
“We have Israeli number plates on our cars so we can’t go through checkpoints”, explains Zeinab. “The soldiers look at our cars then when they see we have Palestinian IDs we can get arrested”. Rather than shepherding, some men in the village now work in shops and construction in Ezariya and nearby towns. Women sew traditional Palestinian cushion covers to supplement their family’s income. Noor, a 61-year-old resident of Abu Nuwwar, explains that the finished covers are sold to a non-governmental organization in Ezariya that sells them on in Hebron. Each cover takes her a week to complete.
Ezariya is a hub for the community. Families go to the town for medical treatment, water and groceries and children make the one-hour round trip to elementary school in al-Jabal and high school in Ezariya.
E1 – a project of displacement
Abu Nuwwar residents are refugees, along with most of the Bedouin communities living near Ma’ale Adumim. Their tribe – the Jahalin – was expelled from the Negev in 1948 during the Nakba. After fleeing to the outskirts of the desert many families relocated to the West Bank where they registered with UNRWA and lived in villages near Jerusalem. They grazed and sold livestock in the busy trading route between Jerusalem and Jericho. The tribe’s fortunes changed in 1967 with the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, the annexation of East Jerusalem, settlement construction, ‘closed military zones’ and the resulting loss of freedom of movement.
The village that Noor was born in was demolished to make way for Ma’ale Adumim in 1975. “It was full of people and nice houses; there were no tents”. Life was much better then, but despite everything she still hopes to stay in Abu Nuwwar. “This is my home”, she says simply. Noor faces a second displacement and an imposed urban lifestyle – while the oldest members of the community will be forcibly removed from their homes for the third time.
Israel’s E1 development project was approved in 1999 but due to international condemnation it was put on hold. Noor explains that from 2005 the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) has been telling the 600-strong community that they will demolish homes. Since Palestine’s successful bid to become a non-member observer state in November 2012 and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s retaliatory approval of 3,000 new settlement units in the E1 area, the project has gathered pace.
The Israeli army issued stop work orders in Abu Nuwwar on 6 August, a few days after Palestinian lawyer Tawfik Jabareen had begun representing the owners of 20 dwellings in the community. Members of the community were then invited to a ‘supervision subcommittee’ hearing to tell the Israeli Civil Authority why they shouldn’t carry out the demolitions. Tawfik’s request to postpone the hearing while he familiarized himself with the case was refused and the ICA handed out final demolition orders the following week.
“On 13 August they came and told us that they would demolish 30 structures here after three days”, says Ahmed, caretaker for Abu Nuwwar’s kindergarten. “But they didn’t come; they went to other villages like a-Sa’idi and abu-Falah instead”. Fourteen families were made homeless on 17 August in the E1 area.
Residents now have until 5 September to lodge an appeal with the Israeli Supreme Court. “We will go to court at the beginning of next week [commencing 31 August]”, says Tawfik. “It will then take many months before the court decides to go forward with the demolitions”. He will ask for a temporary injunction preventing demolitions being carried out on the homes of families he represents while the court deliberates. A second lawyer, Shlomo Lecker, is working on a small number of other cases in the village.
‘They could destroy everything’
In the midst of legal proceedings, uncertainty among the adults and children I meet is palpable.
“Soldiers often come to the entrance of the village, they look but they don’t come in”, says Fatima, a 45-year-young grandmother and sewing extraordinaire. “We don’t know which homes are under theat. Sometimes the authorities go over there and sometimes they come here. Maybe they will destroy my home”.
Noor lives in another part of the village – across from the access road leading to Qadar settlement and up a hill. She doesn’t think the authorities want to demolish homes on this side of the road. “But we don’t know exactly. Where do they want us to go?” asks the mother of eight, to nobody in particular.
Upon entering Abu Nuwwar’s kindergarten, Ahmed proudly points to new chairs and tables, still in their plastic and stacked up neatly near the two classrooms. The new school year starts on 26 August but the resident caretaker is nervous. “There have been demolition orders on the school for the past five months”, he says. In May European ambassadors visited the school, but this, along with the EU flag hanging from the roof, offers no protection.
“They [Israeli Civil Administration] first came in 1977 with demolition orders but they hardly ever carried out their threats”, says Ahmed. “Now every time we build something they say we can’t have it. They want us gone”. He manages a half-laugh. “They could come anytime and destroy everything”.
The ICA intends to relocate members of Abu Nuwwar to al-Jabal where 150 families, some 2,000 people, from nearby villages were evicted to in 1997 when Ma’ale Adumim began expanding. The Area B town is next to the biggest landfill in the West Bank and many residents suffer from respiratory problems. ‘What do you think about maybe moving to al-Jabal?’ I ask 13-year-old Zeinab who holds out her hand as I struggle up a hill. ‘We can’t go there’, she says firmly. ‘It’s a big town and there’s nowhere for us to put our animals. We want to stay here’.
According to a joint UNRWA-Bimkom report published in 2013, the relocation of Palestinian Bedouins to al-Jabal thus far has resulted in “loss of social cohesion and is destroying the social fabric and traditional economic base” of these communities. The forcible transfer of Abu Nuwwar residents into this township will exacerbate existing problems. Officials are coercing individual families into accepting their offer of a small piece of land in al-Jabal by saying that there is not enough space for everyone there.
“I’m not optimistic”, says Tawfik Jabareen. “The Israeli Supreme Court rarely interferes with the ICA decisions on demolition orders. We know the final decision will not be in favour of the Palestinians. What we are doing is buying time while we wait for the political situation and Israeli policy on E1 to change. I don’t elude myself. We need a solution. We need to stop the demolitions”.
Turning away from curious children asking for my name I head back towards the entrance to Ma’ale Adumim where the sandy rock abruptly turns into lush, green grass and the unforgiving sun gives way to shade.
* The names of Abu Nuwwar residents have been changed for this article as they requested to remain anonymous.