The EAPPI Jordan Valley team is very concerned about the Israeli Civil Administration (=military) plans to forcibly relocate around 7 000 Palestinian Bedouins and herders from 46 small communities into three ‘kennel-type townships’, one in the outskirts of Jericho. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories (OCHA) states in a brand new fact sheet that 70 % of the village residents are refugees, who were evicted or fled from their homes in the Negev desert after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. 90 % of them depend on herding as their primary source of income. Most of them have pending demolition orders against their homes and over 85 % lack connection to the electricity and water networks. Two thirds of the communities have reported settler violence during the past three years.
In the dry prose of the OCHA fact sheet the designated ‘relocation’ sites are inadequate and raise serious humanitarian concerns. “Due to a number of reasons, including the limited availability of grazing land at the designated sites, the relocation is expected to undermine the traditional livelihoods and culture of the communities, as was the case for 150 Bedouin families who were relocated from this area in the late 1990s.” The true content of this text is that in spite of having been displaced several times, having had their homes demolished repeatedly, denied access to water, and been neglected even by the Palestinian Authorities, Bedouins have taken pride in maintaining the core elements of their cultural heritage. They need space for herding sheep and goats. They want space to keep the necessary distance to other families and tribes. They need space to be able to breathe and feel the freedom of a true Bedouin. Here, like indigenous peoples all over the world, the Bedouins are being ‘broken’ and pushed into systems and structures totally detrimental to their traditions and identity. The planned township of Talet Nuwei’ma outside Jericho will be like a kennel.
I find myself being reminded of childhood fantasies about being a proud Sioux Indian in the Dakota plains fighting to protect my way of life against settlers and cavalry. Settlers and Cavalry? All of a sudden the childhood fantasy memory overlaps the reality of Bedouins in the Jordan Valley. Settlers and Army protecting them. Washington and Jerusalem, Capitol and the Knesset. Same story. No wonder the US is so protective of Israel. Ethnic cleansing of areas needed for own settlers is however a bit more problematic in 2014 compared to the 1890s. The young Bedouin boy in the photo is also concerned about the future of his tribe. He often sits beside his grandfather, the chief of the family, when visitors arrive to pay their respect. The worried look in the old man’s face becomes the resonator of his thoughts and perception of the world around him.
Khalil Abdullah Al-Hammadeen is worried. He is aware of the Nuwei’ma plan, but no one told him about the meeting between the Civil Administration and the Bedouins on 16 August where the stated option was: accept the plan to be relocated in the new town of Talet Nuwei’ma, or have your present houses demolished. He is not going to accept being relocated again. He has lived in Sateh al Bahr for 35 years and cannot face the prospect of living on 500 square meters close to six tribes, each with seven families plus the 14 Jahalin families. He will refuse the plan and stay. No matter what. Khalil was born in the Negev in 1948, the same year his family was forced to flee. They moved to an area between Israel and Jordan, but the Jordanians chased them back only to meet with Israelis shooting at them. His brother was killed by the Israeli gunfire. Eventually he and his family ended up in Sateh al Bahr in the early 80s. The Israeli military started demolishing Bedouin homes in the 90s. His houses were demolished once, and then rebuilt by himself and assistance from the European Union. A new demolition order was taken to court and ‘frozen’ on the reason that he had nowhere to go. If the Israeli start building Talet Nuwei’ma, that argument will vanish and the demolition threat will become reality.
But Khalil is stubborn as a mule and will not move.
He would go back to the Negev tomorrow if allowed. The dream is still alive. It is a dream he shares with his son Saleh. Khalil has two wives, ten sons and eight daughters. With the grandchildren included his is a family of 40 people. Proud and worried people.
One of the boys finds his place behind his grandfather. He is an attentive listener and is quick as a lightning fetching coffee or tea when asked. It is quite moving to witness this display of identification, affection and attachment. Being socialized into becoming head of a Bedouin family is a long process. Being socialized into responsibility for a family in an unpredictable future in the hands of an expansionist Occupier and a very distant international community is not only a long, but a very demanding process.
In spite of the dire circumstances and dark prospects for this family, they make me feel at home, insisting that I make myself comfortable on the mattress and pillows they have provided on the floor of their Ash-shiq, open tent, I am actually starting to feel a bit Bedouinish. I ask Khalil if they have stories about their own Kaanan, the Negev, represented in stories and songs for the children. His face darkens and he says ‘No’. No explanation. End of story. My interpretation is that it is too painful to tell the children about a promised land that never will be theirs to chose. Seing a string instrument hanging on the back wall, I ask if anyone plays it. Saleh does. He agrees to to play, looking somewhat shy and reluctant, but still wanting to. You will find the video clip I made through the following link https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=886935164657470&l=1072475962128027942. The sombre face of Khalil changes drastically. A beautiful smile appears in obvious appreciation of his son’s playing. And he says: We use the Rababa to express our feelings, our happiness and our grief.
The girls, my female teammates, who have been talking to the women inside one of the tin houses, reappear and it is time to leave this vulnerable but gracious family. I am thankful for having been included into their reality for a short while. My childhood fantasy about being a Dakota Sioux has been replaced by a new Bedouin one, at least a Wannabe-douin.