Khan al-Ahmar, occupied West Bank
Children laugh and play in the small Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, located east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, jumping on tin sheets laid out on the ground and throwing any object they retrieve from the dirt at one another.
The children’s loud giggling and the wide smiles of the women, who energetically offer visitors tea and juice, belie the reality: the entire community could be demolished by the Israeli government at any moment.
Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled to allow the state to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, including a medical clinic, mosque, and a school made from mud and tires built by an Italian NGO almost a decade ago. The demolition could be carried out at any time as of next month.
“We can’t do anything except wait for the Israelis to come,” Eid Abu Khamis, a leader of the Bedouin in the area and a resident of Khan al-Ahmar, told Mondoweiss. “Unlike Israel, the United States does not fund us to obtain F-35 jets. We don’t have tanks. We have nothing but our people’s will and resilience.”
“If they come to demolish the village, they will have to forcibly carry me off the land if they want me to leave,” Abu Khamis said. “We are not leaving and we will continue to resist by remaining on our land.”
Displacement over decades
Khan al-Ahmar, nestled between the illegal Israeli settlements of Kfar Adumim and Maale Adumim, is home to some 181 residents, 53 percent of whom are children, according to the UN.
The village consists of makeshift residential structures and animal pens, many of which have been provided to the community by the European Union (EU). The Bedouin in Khan al-Ahmar are some of the most vulnerable residents in the occupied West Bank, with the village lacking basic necessities, such as adequate healthcare and electricity.
The UN has noted that 95 percent of the residents in Khan al-Ahmar are registered as Palestinian refugees with UNRWA — the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees, including their descendants, who were expelled from land that became part of the state of Israel during and after 1948.
Israel expelled the residents, members of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, from their lands in Tel Arad of the Negev desert in what is now southern Israel in the 1950s. According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, following their displacement, the tribe members leased land where the Kfar Adumim settlement is now located.
When the settlement was established in 1979, the Bedouin were once again expelled from the area, and have since resided in their current location beside the Jerusalem-Jericho highway.
The community is located in Area C, the designation for more than 60 percent of West Bank lands in which the Israeli army has full control. Under the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, this area was to have been gradually transferred to the jurisdiction of the Palestinians.
However, more than two decades later, Israel retains full control over these areas and has implemented policies to ensure that Palestinian development is restricted, while increasing the Jewish population in illegal settlements. There are now upwards of 600,000 Israeli settlers residing in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Despite the Bedouin in Khan al-Ahmar having lived on the land for years before the establishment of the settlements around them, their village is considered “illegal” by Israel owing to their structures being built without Israeli building permits, which are nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain in Area C.
The Israeli government has been attempting to demolish the village for years under the pretext of “illegal building.” But rights groups have pointed out that the village is located on land earmarked for Israeli settlement expansion, including in the contentious E1 zone where Israel plans to construct thousands of illegal settlement units, which would split the West Bank from north to south.
According to B’Tselem, from 2006 to Sept. 2017, Israeli authorities demolished 26 homes in Khan al-Ahmar, displacing 132 Palestinians, 77 of whom were children and youths.
Khan al-Ahmar is just one of 46 Bedouin communities in the occupied West Bank at risk of displacement and forcible transfer owing to Israeli policies, the UN has noted.
Setting a precedent
Ending a years-long court battle, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of a petition presented by Israelis from the Kfar Adumim settlement to enforce the demolition of the village based on the reasoning that construction in Khan al-Ahmar was “unlawful.”
According to Shlomo Lecker, the Israeli attorney representing residents in Khan al-Ahmar, the high court ruling has set a precedent for Israel to “go ahead and demolish any small Bedouin village they are interested in removing.”
For Abu Khamis, the court ruling is “more dangerous than Trump’s decision to move the US embassy or his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
“If they demolish our village, it will be an end to the peace process,” he said, noting that the Bedouin represent Israel’s last impediment to annexing all of Area C.
“They [Israel] wants our land, but without us being on it,” he added.
The Israeli state has promoted a plan to transfer the village’s residents to al-Jabel West — a site located next to a garbage dump in the West Bank town of Abu Dis. The community has rejected the plan.
Dozens of Jahalin Bedouin families were forcibly relocated to the area in the 1990s, when Israel expelled them from lands during an earlier expansion of Maale Adumim.
Each Bedouin family would be allocated 250 square meter plots of land in the “relocation” area, according to Abu Khamis.
Owing to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin, which relies on open spaces for grazing sheep and other animals, a forcible transfer to the site would uproot the community’s entire way of life.
The Israeli Supreme Court has now taken the situation even further than the state, Lecker said, by not necessitating that alternative locations be provided to the Bedouin at all if the state expels them from the area.
Meanwhile, Israel’s civil administration is expected to approve the construction of 92 new illegal settler homes in Kfar Adumim, which will be located less than a mile from Khan al-Ahmar.
‘Greenlighting a war crime’
Representatives of the EU and its member states have expressed concern over the pending demolition.
EU Representative Ralph Tarraf told Mondoweiss that residents in Khan al-Ahmar “have the right to remain here and the right to go about their traditional way of life.”
He noted that the EU has continued to “apply pressure” on the Israeli authorities not to demolish the village.
“We know hope is becoming dim, but we continue to hope that this decision will not be implemented,” he said.
Fabio Sokolowicz, the consulate general of Italy, said that he was particularly concerned about the tire school, which was partly financed by Italian organizations via the Italian NGO Vento Di Terra.
The school provides education to almost 200 boys and girls in Khan al-Ahmar and neighboring Bedouin villages.
“This project is significant and this is a very important service we’re providing. We are following this situation very closely, and we are trying our best to hopefully make sure the school survives,” Sokolowicz told Mondoweiss.
Tarraf and Sokolowicz were not able to comment on what measures the EU would take if Israel goes through with the demolition.
Abu Khamis, meanwhile, has little hope that the EU will be able to affect Israel’s decision.
The EU “doesn’t do anything practical. It’s all lip services, conferences and press releases condemning what is happening. But no one is going to take any real action,” he told Mondoweiss.
B’Tselem, meanwhile, released a statement following the court’s decision, saying that the court had given the state the greenlight to “commit a war crime.”
“The provisions of international law prohibit the forcible transfer of protected civilians, unless the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand,” the statement read.
“Obviously these exceptions are irrelevant when the state seeks to take over the land for the purpose of future expansion of settlements in the area or for any such similar purpose.”
Last week, a group of 74 United States Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him not to demolish Susiya — another Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills under threat of demolition– and called on him not to demolish “other similarly situated Palestinian communities in the West Bank,” which would include Khan al-Ahmar. The eviction of Palestinian communities and the expansion of settlements “abandon our two countries shared values of justice and respect for human rights,” the congresspeople wrote.
‘We didn’t stand a chance’
For the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, the Israeli Supreme Court decision was not surprising.
“We didn’t have even a one percent chance that the Supreme Court would rule in our favor,” Abu Khamis told Mondoweiss.
One of the three Supreme Court judges presiding over the demolition case was Noam Solberg, a resident of Israel’s illegal Alon Shvut settlement who is known for his right-wing views.
Another judge, Yael Willner, has a brother and sister residing in Kfar Adumim.
“The judges are settlers,” Abu Khamis said. “We obviously know that settlers are not going to rule in favor of the Bedouin.”
Israel’s settlement plans are decades in the making, and the Bedouin are currently standing in Israel’s way, Abu Khamis noted.
“From Azariya [a West Bank town located a few miles from Jerusalem] to the Dead Sea, there’s no refugee camps, no villages, and no cities. There are only the Bedouin,” he said.
“When they remove us to build settlements, any Palestinian traveling towards Jericho or the Dead Sea will have to get an Israeli permit to enter. When the Bedouin are expelled, they will take over all of it.”