One night towards the end of 1986, with the harsh December cold hovering over the hills of Jerusalem, my mother decided, after nine long months of suffering, to bring me into the world. I was a rascal, she later told me, the moment I plopped into the nurses’ waiting hands I began my battle with life. If I had known that earlier, I would have chosen to remain calm in my mother’s womb.
The village of Khan Al-Ahmar, east of Jerusalem, was the first land my feet touched. I spent my childhood chasing after my mother as she walked two kilometers to the nearby spring to collect water, or staying at my grandmother’s house watching her weave cloths and tent coverings from lamb’s wool and goatskin. Sometimes, I would stay at our neighbor’s house when there was no one home to watch me.
My father was busy tending the herd with my grandfather. We only had a few heads of sheep and goats to provide our daily sustenance; my grandfather lost his crops and half his riches in the war of 1948 when he was displaced from Beersheba in the south of Palestine. He wasn’t the only one who had to leave everything behind; all of my family shared the same fate. Some of them settled in Khan Al-Ahmar and others fled to Jordan and resided there. My grandmother’s eyes would silently convey the struggles they faced and their yearning for Beersheba. Injustice and tyranny became our inheritance, like a 2000-year-old Roman statue that must be preserved and held onto.
After my grandfather suffered through displacement and the pain of occupation he died, leaving us to continue the struggle. Many of the Jahalin tribe lived in Khan Al-Ahmar for many years and continue to live there today without the most basic needs; no electricity, no water, without education or healthcare or services, without anything. The best way to describe it, is that Khan Al-Ahmar passed through the twenty-first century as if it were the last century BC. Yet, it remained steadfast and strong in the face of the occupation and the flocks of settlers, and it will remain, refusing to give up or to succumb to another nakba.
When I turned six, I joined the rest of my young family members in line at the side of the main street connecting Jerusalem to Jericho. There, we waited for transportation in order to attend a school in Jericho, 30 kilometers from Khan Al-Ahmar. I clearly remember the trucks, laden with oranges, rumbling by at six in the morning on their way from Gaza to Jordan, always stopping to take a passenger or two. I also remember the daily newspaper car, heading towards Jericho each day. Those were difficult times; winter was a heavy burden on students, and the summer heat was also a lure to leave school and think about taking a job that would contribute to the household expenses. Most students didn’t even complete elementary school because of these difficulties.
In 2009, the citizens of Khan Al-Ahmar decided to build a school aided by Italian and local organizations. Modestly built, with classrooms formed by car tires and planks of wood, it was hoped that the school would provide a safe, accessible, educational environment.
But when the school opened its doors, no sooner had the 200 students settled at their desks than the desert foxes and highwaymen issued orders to have the school demolished. As if that wasn’t enough, they also issued orders to demolish residential buildings, herd shelters, and young couples’ homes. They even issued orders to demolish the mosque that had been simply built with wooden planks covered with goatskin to block the sun.
In the nine years from the day the school was built in Khan Al-Ahmar until today, the village lived through a many forms of economic, social, and psychological harassment. The army blocked any type of building materials from entering into Khan Al-Ahmar. They forbade entry to energy sources such as solar panels and electric generators, as well as medical equipment. In summary, anything that would improve Khan Al-Ahmar’s chance of survival was forbidden. But that wasn’t all. Large sections of Khan Al-Ahmar’s desert were closed off to prevent grazing, water wells were destroyed and the desert was declared a military zone. They barricaded animals, people and land and I did not realize that it was all due to building a small school. I imagine if anyone asked me the reason for this blockade and I answered that it was due to building a school, they would shake their heads at me and move onto another subject telling themselves that I was surely lying, because what power in the world would destroy a school? They would think that we must be a threat to Israel’s national security or plotting to build a nuclear reactor. When in reality, our dreams have fallen by the wayside, our hopes have been lost in the orange trucks and our talents have been smashed on the rocks of siege and the gates of oppression.
The thieving hunters’ eyes never stray from the prey, and yet we dream of finding justice one day.
However, despite nine years of legal battles to defend the right of our school’s existence, to protect our ancestors’ homes, our clansmen’s homes, the shelters of our herds and our goatskin-covered mosque. Despite our efforts to protect our children’s future, our Bedouin heritage and identity, the fabric of our society and our familial connections. In spite of our attempts to remain in the place where we were raised, among our childhood memories with ancestors and families. Despite all the resistance, all the patience and all the hard work, it was no use. In 2018, the judge’s gavel in the Israeli Supreme Court slammed down on the dreams of the rightful owners, shattering any trace of humanity, ruling in everything but justice. The Court issued a decision to demolish and vacate Khan Al-Ahmar, and I wondered to myself, “How can there be hope, for how can a grain of wheat complain about a chicken?” After the demolition order was issued, the occupation’s wolves hurried to carve roads between the houses and close all the pathways into the village. They announced that Khan Al-Ahmar was now a closed military area.
The very next day, bulldozers came into Khan Al-Ahmar to demolish the village and all that the citizens could do was to stand bare in the face of the criminal monsters and their heavy machinery. Youths, children and women were all attacked that day. Thirty people were injured and six arrested, including a 19-year-old girl who was assaulted by press cameras, her hijab ripped off, her dignity violated. After the battle, the criminal authorities ordered a curfew within the village and blocked anyone from entering or exiting, including the press corps and medical personnel. A suffocating siege ensued. After that cursed day and after another petition by the people of Khan Al-Ahmar to the ‘Chicken Supreme Court’, a temporary stay of demolition orders was granted – until the occupation could find another excuse to displace the residents. It is expected, that after many court sessions, after the people of Khan Al-Ahmar refuse all offers from the occupying forces, and insist on their right to remain and defend their village, the bulldozers will come to crush the lingering dream of survival, of preserving the heritage and the very fabric of their identity.
Translated by Lama Khouri
Editor’s Note: After a long and courageous struggle, the people of Khan Al-Ahmar lost their battle when the high court in Israel declared that the demolition can go ahead.