KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank — Over the past decade, Eid Abu Khamis has trotted the globe in an effort to gain international support for his battle against the looming demolition of his Bedouin community northeast of Jerusalem.
“I’ve seen the entire world, but at the end of the day, all my heart wants is to return to the desert,” said the Jahalin tribe leader in the herding village of Khan al-Ahmar.
But in the power struggle between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, even a small tract of wasteland can become prime real estate, and the interests of Khamis’s clan aren’t much of a priority for the people deciding their fate.
“Nobody asks the Bedouin what they want,” Khamis said between puffs on his cigarette while sitting in the village’s welcoming tent.
“On one hand, you have the Israeli government, encouraged by Kfar Adumim, that is trying to kick us out,” he said, pointing in the direction of the Jewish settlement just 1.6 km (1 mile) north.
“On the other, you have the Palestinian Authority, which tells us we’re not allowed to move because they don’t want the land to be taken over by settlers,” Khamis added, throwing up his hands.
What one side views as a solution, the other considers illegal, he said. “In the end, the only place left for us to live is up in the air.”
From Israel to Jordan and back
The Jahalin’s past has been marred by exile and subjugation. Originally from Tel Arad in southern Israel, they were expelled from the area in 1951.
The large tribe — hundreds of members strong — wandered north and settled in some 25 abandoned locations between East Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, in what was then Jordan.
One group of families leased property from an Arab landowner northeast of Jerusalem and enjoyed several decades of relative quiet in Khan al-Ahmar, even after finding themselves once again under Israeli rule following the 1967 Six Day War.
“Seventy-five percent of our problems began in the mid ’90s after Oslo,” Khamis declared, explaining that the herding village fell under Israeli-controlled Area C, where the government has been working to limit the footprint of Palestinian nationals — including the Jahalin.
The property the Bedouin had purchased from the Arab landowner from nearby Anata was confiscated by the state and designated for use by Kfar Adumim, so it could one day expand south.
With their land purchase suddenly irrelevant, the 30 Jahalin families found their continued presence in Khan al-Ahmar under threat.
The area’s strategic importance to the government led Israel to turn down residents’ requests for permits for both existing and future structures.
According to Khamis, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces would march into the village every few years to demolish a couple of tent-like structures that it deemed illegally built.
Mud, tires and oil
While the residents got used to the new normal, legal pressure to clear them out of Khan al-Ahmar entirely saw a significant uptick in 2009 when construction was completed on a new, illegally built elementary school in their village that would serve 170 children from Khan al-Ahmar and the surrounding Bedouin communities.
Far from an ordinary school, its architectural design earned the village its international notoriety.
“This is the only school in the world made from tires,” Khamis boasted as he slapped the outer wall of one of the classrooms.
Having to take into account Israeli restrictions on typical construction materials as well as financial constraints, an Italian NGO helped Khamis — along with dozens of Israeli and European volunteers — construct an ecologically friendly academy without the use of any cement.
The stacked tires were caked with mud followed by a quintessentially Middle Eastern special ingredient: falafel oil.
“It holds in the mud, while also preventing rain from seeping through,” the Jahalin leader said with a straight face.
Accumulating enough mud proved a non-issue for the Judean desert herding village.
Tires were gathered from junkyards across the West Bank, and Khamis reached out to dozens of falafel shops asking owners to save the oil used to fry their balls of ground chickpeas, instead of pouring it down the drain.
“For a while, the whole place definitely smelled like falafel,” the 51-year-old said, laughing.
But both unamused and unmoved by the construction of what became known as the “tire school,” Israelis from neighboring Kfar Adumim saw the new educational institution as an attempt by the Bedouin to strengthen their roots in Khan al-Ahmar and expand further onto land they hoped would one day host a new neighborhood of their all-Jewish community.
“After 15 years of working in Kfar Adumim, I lost my permit once the school went up,” Khamis said.
“I built the infrastructure for most of the homes in that community, even for Uri Ariel,” he added, smiling, referring to the Jewish Home agriculture minister who has been vocal in his calls to evict the Jahalin from Khan al-Ahmar.
With the help of the right-wing Regavim NGO, the Kfar Adumim settlement filed four petitions to the High Court of Justice, calling for the implementation of demolition orders on the Jahalin.
The settlement’s legal representatives made the “tire school” its primary focus, pointing out that it had very clearly been built illegally, with activists dressing up in traditional Bedouin garb in order not to be caught if Israeli forces walked by.
With each of those petitions, the Jahalin’s attorney, Shlomo Lecker, filed motions of his own to delay the demolitions, all of which were accepted by the High Court.
But while former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon may have had little issue with the stalling of the demolition orders, his successor Avigdor Liberman took over the post in May 2016 with a different attitude in mind.
The hawkish Yisrael Beytenu chairman announced his intention to see through the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar as well as of Susya, a hamlet in the south Hebron hills that is home to some 300 Palestinian Bedouin.
In January, the state provided an updated opinion on the matter, calling on the High Court to accept an alternative solution it had crafted over the past few years.
The state’s proposal saw Khan al-Ahmar and its “tire school” entirely demolished by the beginning of June; in exchange, the Bedouin community would be transferred to a new, fully funded community outside of Abu Dis, a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem.
A hearing is slated on the matter at the end of April and sources in the Defense Ministry told The Times of Israel that they expect the High Court to hand down a ruling in favor of the heavily-settler-lobbied state proposal shortly thereafter.
In reaching its decision in favor of the Kfar Adumim position, the state adopted the settlement’s two central arguments — that there is no disputing the illegality of the structures in the Bedouin village, and that the hamlet is situated too close (some 65 feet) to Route 1, presenting “a clear and concrete danger” to the residents, as well as to the majority of the tire school’s students commuting to Khan al-Ahmar each day.
Opponents of the government proposal have pointed out that prior to the existence of the school, Jahalin children were traveling all the way to Jericho for schooling — a lengthy commute that led large numbers of students to drop out altogether.
Two students were also run over while walking along busy highways in order to make the trek. Since the establishment of the “tire school” in 2009, however, no such fatalities have been reported.
The state did not accept the contention, standing by its position that the village’s close proximity to the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway presented a clear danger to the residents.
“If they’re really that worried about our safety, we’ll move a couple hundred meters away from the road,” Khamis said, shrugging.
But that isn’t an option for the Jahalin, who have been told that it’s Abu Dis or nothing, as far as the state is concerned.
Khamis claimed that the Defense Ministry officials who drafted the alternative housing solution never consulted with the Bedouin.
“If they did, we would’ve told them that this is something that we could never accept,” he said.
The neighborhood outside of urban, crowded Abu Dis would be significantly different from the rural atmosphere to which the Bedouin are accustomed.
“We’re not engineers, doctors and teachers. We only know grazing, and there’s no area to do that there,” Khamis said.
Coined by the state as “Jahalin West,” the neighborhood had originally been built to house a separate Bedouin village of the Abu Nuab tribe, which the government had been trying to transfer out of the central West Bank several years ago.
However, after an agreement was struck with the residents and the construction workers completed flattening the plots in preparation for their move, the Abu Nuab walked away from the deal in a decision that defense officials involved explained was due to pressure from the Palestinian Authority.
“They threaten to kill them if they accept Israeli offers to move,” said one Defense Ministry official.
“If it wasn’t good enough for the Abu Nuab, why would the government think that we’d accept such an agreement?” Khamis asked of the Israeli proposal.
“Not only are we told by the Palestinian Authority that we cannot move, but the residents of Abu Dis have threatened to sue us if we do,” said the Jahalin leader.
He explained that a number of Palestinians in the Jerusalem suburb claim ownership of the land and told the Bedouin that they would take them to the Palestinian High Court if they moved into the new neighborhood.
“We’re not wanted there,” Khamis added plainly.
At the same time, the Israeli government has made it perfectly clear that the Bedouin are not wanted in Khan al-Ahmar either.
The village has never been hooked up to electricity, and in 2015, a dozen solar panels installed by European donors were confiscated by the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes the construction of West Bank infrastructure.
“They even came with a whole lot of forces to seize a dumpster from the village a couple of years ago,” said Lecker, the Jahalin’s legal representative.
And yet, Khamis said that the Bedouin still prefer to remain under Israeli control rather than PA auspices.
“My parents’ generation was happy when Israel took over from Jordan in 1967. They had visited their family in the Negev before the war and saw how they had been hooked up to electricity and water,” he explained. “This wasn’t the case under Arab rule.”
‘On the backs of the Bedouin’
The combination of the Jahalin’s bedraggled situation and the State of Israel’s involvement has given Khan al-Ahmar no shortage of sympathy from rights groups in Europe.
But even with their support, Khamis says these organizations have nevertheless found ways to ignore the Bedouin altogether.
“When you hear about all the money that the EU [European Union] gives to the Bedouin, your jaw drops. But it drops even further when you see no impact on the ground,” the Jahalin leader said.
In addition to the millions of dollars given by member states on their own, the EU provided $24.67 million in aid to dozens of Bedouin communities throughout the West Bank.
Khamis claimed that the PA and the NGOs pocket the money and barely any of it trickles down to the Bedouin themselves.
“They work on the backs of the Bedouin,” Khamis said.
An official for the PA denied the charge, saying Ramallah “works closely and in cooperation with the representatives of the Jahalin to help them against Israeli plans to evict them from their homes and lands” and insisted that it will continue to do so.
One Israeli activist, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, highlighted one organization in particular as the primary culprit of the exploitation that Khamis had mentioned.
“The NRC [Norwegian Refugee Council] publicizes how much they’re working for the Bedouin, but it’s all nonsense,” the activist began.
“They come here with their expensive jeeps and take pictures of their activists helping the Bedouin and then they leave,” she said.
Khamis related that several years ago, a European group came to one of the nearby Jahalin hamlets with a proposal to implement a massive water project. “They told us they’d be getting millions of dollars from the European Union for the project.
“They had no idea that we’re already connected to a water pipeline, so the project would be of no use to us,” Khamis said, still baffled by the interaction.
“But they didn’t care and invested all that money in the project anyways. Then they came and took pictures of the Bedouin drinking water. Huge success!” he said sarcastically.
While Khan al-Ahmar had no trouble gaining coverage among Europeans, whose activists and parliamentarians visit the village on a weekly basis, the community is relatively unknown on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Americans know about Susya, not here,” Khamis said, alleging the existence of a turf war between European and American activists.
US Democratic senators have in the past offered their support to campaigns organized by the J Street liberal Middle East lobby against the demolition of both villages, but Susya has always been at the forefront of those public pushes.
Former US President Barack Obama was said to have personally pleaded with Netanyahu to prevent the razing of Susya and his State Department spokesman gave a public statement in July 2015 “strongly urging” Israel to avoid demolishing the village.
The pressure from the US was said to have played a role in allowing both Khan al-Ahmar and Susya to remain standing, but the new administration in Washington has shown far less interest in meddling with internal Israeli affairs.
A minority of Israelis willing to use their noses
While Khan al-Ahmar’s razing is slated to be carried out in their name, not all residents of Kfar Adumim have been willing to accept the narrative pushed by their leadership on the issue.
A dozen of the settlers have signed on the Bedouin’s High Court petition to prevent the demolition and dozens more have expressed support for working with the Bedouin to reach an alternative solution for the Jahalin community in place of the state’s proposal.
Dan Turner has been leading the rogue group of Kfar Adumim residents, meeting with the Jahalin in Kfar al-Ahmar in an effort, at the very least, to change the tone of the dialogue on the issue.
“I’ve lived in Kfar Adumim for the last 20 years and I knew that there were some issues with the Bedouin, but I didn’t know much beyond that,” said Turner, the director of Shaare Zedek’s Institute of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.
Established in 1979, Kfar Adumim is a mixed secular-religious community that has grown to 400 families that has been a model for heterogeneous living in the Judean Desert.
Relations with their Arab neighbors 1.6 km (1 mile) away are a slightly different story.
“A friend of mine told me that Kfar Adumim has been fighting against a school of mud, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Turner recalled posting on the settlement’s Facebook group last year that he planned on paying a visit to Khan al-Ahmar to get to know the residents. While some responded negatively to the proposal, “more than 70 people came to four different meetings with the Jahalin over the next month, where they learned that these people are not our enemies,” Turner said.
Showing aerial photos taken of the area in 1977, the Kfar Adumim resident pointed out that the Jahalin had been living in Khan al-Ahmar before the Israeli settlement was even established two years later.
“They were here before us and all of a sudden find out that they’re criminals,” Turner said, referring to the Bedouin land purchase that was made void after Israel seized the property for public use.
“We’ve managed to start a widespread discussion in the community, even among the youth,” he said proudly, while acknowledging that his group is still a small minority within the settlement of 400 families.
“What I try to tell people in these conversations is to think with their noses, not their hearts. Everyone is a little racist deep down in their hearts, but if you just use your nose, you can tell that this whole plan stinks,” Turner said.
The doctor-turned-activist claimed that right-wing lobbyists have managed to sell the argument that the Jahalin’s existence along Route 1 poses a “strategic threat to Israel, right after Iran on the list.”
“When I hear that, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said.
But Kfar Adumim community council head Danny Tirza expressed sympathy with that point of view.
“While it may not be the job of specific residents, it is one of the jobs of the settlement movement to defend such strategic points in Judea and Samaria from being taken over by the Palestinian Authority,” he argued.
“These Bedouin were not just put there for no reason. The school was not built for no reason. It was built strictly out of political motivations,” Tirza insisted, pointing out that the majority of the students at the school are not from Khan al-Ahmar.
At the same time, the Kfar Adumim council leader insisted that he has nothing against the Jahalin. “We have relations with them. They deserve their own community,” he said, maintaining that the plan proposed by the state near Abu Dis was a suitable alternative.
“The PA and EU are not letting them reach compromises, but we have a reasonable solution for them,” Tirza added. “They are not able to say publicly that they agree with the proposal, but I believe they do.”
Pressed on how he perceived the broader imagery of residents of a small impoverished Bedouin hamlet being forced off their land, so it can be used by a much larger and wealthier Israeli settlement, the Kfar Adumim mayor said his job was not to fight PR battles.
“Our job is to protect these strategic areas by simply making sure that the state holds to the demolition orders that it itself is handing down,” Tirza said.
But Turner wasn’t buying it.
“Where does it end? Should we, as residents, establish watch posts around the community to guard these areas?” he asked rhetorically.
“Nothing in the community’s regulations says we have a job to protect land and roads. This is the role of the state, not the people,” Turner argued.
The Kfar Adumim resident said he was convinced that a majority of his community would agree with him if they were made privy to all the details of what has been unfolding a mile away.
While Turner admitted that not everyone in his group of some 70 Kfar Adumim residents who have made visits to Khan al-Ahmar want the Jahalin to stay for good, they are all in agreement about one thing — “that the government should treat the Bedouin with the same standards that they treat the Jewish people.
“All we are asking is that the government talk to the residents so there can at least be an evacuation by consent,” he said.
Turner compared the Abu Dis proposal to moving a group of secular Israelis to Bnei Brak. “They’re Jews, so put them with Jews,” he said, mocking the state’s logic in placing the Bedouin in an area where they are unwanted.
As for Khamis, the Jahalin leader offered what he viewed as a simple solution to Khan al-Ahmar’s looming demolition. “Why can’t there be a Bedouin neighborhood in Kfar Adumim?
“There are Arab neighborhoods in cities all over Israel. Why should here be any different?” he asked candidly, though neglecting to mention that no such example exists across the Green Line.
The question was met with an uncomfortable silence that Khamis has likely become accustomed to during his fight to save his village.
In the meantime, the Bedouin leader can do nothing more than wait in hope that this time, maybe, he will be heard.