Palestine: The End of the Bedouins?

Abu Rasmi Ayyub amid the ruins of his village, al-Hammeh, demolished by the Israeli army on September 27, 2016. (photo: Giy Hircefeld)

By David Shulman / The New York Review of Books
December 7, 2016

We are simple people. We want to graze our sheep, to feed our families, to educate our children. Only that. In the late 1980s, at the time of the Oslo agreements, there was hope, but in the end the disaster became even more terrible. They are doing whatever they can to drive us out. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the situation here should be frozen, and no more demolitions take place, but the soldiers pay no attention. When a soldier comes to tear down my house, where is the judge?  . . . My daughter was wounded in front of my eyes by an Israeli girl, a soldier. What am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to live with the Israeli people, in what they claim is the only democracy in the Middle East?

One way to tell the story of the Middle East as a whole is to describe the endemic struggle between peripatetic nomads and settled peasant farmers — a struggle attested already in ancient Mesopotamian documents. For centuries, all the political regimes of the region have tried, with varying success, to get the Bedouin to come to rest on the land. But in Israel and in the occupied territories we see, alongside this familiar policy, persistent attempts to uproot Bedouin populations who have already settled on the land, sometimes generations ago, and who usually have clear claims to ownership of these sites.

Today, most of the Jordan Valley, undoubtedly one of the most ravishing landscapes on the planet, is situated in what is known as Area C of occupied Palestinian territory. This means that, with the exception of the ancient city of Jericho and its surroundings (which are in Area A, under Palestinian rule), the valley is under direct and exclusive Israeli military, legal, and political control, and also that large parts of it are taken up by Israeli settlements or by lands that have been reserved for future Israeli settlement. It also means that a Palestinian population of some 15,000 Bedouins who are settled in the valley is tacitly targeted for expulsion.

According to the Oslo accords, the division of the West Bank into three different zones was intended as a preliminary stage leading eventually to the end of the Israeli occupation and to achieving Palestinian statehood. The policy of the present Israeli government appears to be aimed at eventually annexing to Israel the whole of Area C, which constitutes over half the territory of the West Bank; this goal has been explicitly and repeatedly stated by the minister of education, Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party and a major force in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. As a result, we are now witnessing in the Jordan Valley an accelerated process of what must, I fear, be called ethnic cleansing. It’s not a term I use lightly.

Let me show you what this means in human terms. Abu Rasmi Ayyub is a shepherd living with three generations of his extended family in a tiny hamlet, actually only a confabulation of tents and sheep pens, called al-Hammeh, toward the northern edge of the valley, only a few miles from the Israeli border crossing to the city of Beit Shean. He is in his sixties and presents an image of great dignity and serenity. The Ayyub family traces its ancestors on the land back to the Ottoman period, at the very least to the mid-nineteenth century. Now the Ayyubs’ historic grazing grounds, next door to al-Hammeh, are rapidly becoming inaccessible to them because of the expansion of the Israeli settlement of Givat Sal’it.

Until a few weeks ago, al-Hammeh, with its few tents and sheepfolds, was a tiny point in the desert, struggling to survive with no basic amenities, including no running water. On September 27, the Civil Administration — that is the Israeli occupation authority, a unit of the army — demolished the entire hamlet, leaving the Ayyub family without shelter from the overwhelming heat by day and the continually intensifying cold at night. October is also the annual birthing moment for the flocks, so there were many young lambs exposed to the heat and cold; they rapidly began to die. There is every reason to believe that the army chose its timing deliberately. Demolitions are one major instrument of dispossession in the occupied West Bank.

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