Something extraordinary happened in Israel this week . . .

Villagers and activists facing arrest for protesting the attempted demolition of Bedouin Palestinian dwellings at al-Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank, Oct 15, 2018. (photo: Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
. . . The Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar halted the bulldozers.

By David Shulman | The New York Review of Books | Oct 26, 2018

Already it can be said that a small group of unarmed, ordinary human beings, appalled by the injustice about to be inflicted upon innocents and prepared to face reckless violence without flinching, have achieved a moral victory that cannot be measured in purely instrumental terms.

Something extraordinary has happened this week at the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Khan al-Ahmar, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem and adjacent to the main road going south toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. First, there is the remarkable fact that the village still exists — after months of waiting, day by day, for the bulldozers of the Israeli army to arrive to demolish it. But even more astonishing is the fact that, for several days, over a hundred activists — Palestinians, Israelis, and a few internationals — faced the heavily armed soldiers and the riot police, not known for their gentle ways, and triumphed, at least for the moment. The imminent demolition of the entire site and the violent expulsion of its inhabitants have now been postponed for some weeks, according to the Israeli cabinet’s decision on October 21.

There is even a chance, however slight, that the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar will in the end be moved to a site only a few hundred yards from their present place, according to the plan that they themselves proposed, long ago, to the Israeli authorities, who rejected it at the time out of hand. Sometimes, it happens that a certain place, like this rocky hill, becomes a battleground between opposing value systems and opposing forces, each of which recognizes what is at stake. For the Israeli right, the Bedouins of al-Khan al-Ahmar are one of the last obstacles to a far-reaching annexationist program. They also have the incorrigible flaw of not being Jews in a Jewish state now run on exclusionary ethno-nationalist principles.

But the story really begins in 1953, when the Jahalin Bedouins were driven from their home in the Negev desert by soldiers of the newly formed state of Israel. The tribe wandered north into what was then Jordan—specifically, to the sandy hills and rocky wadis just to the east of Jerusalem. They were still there, living in tents and shepherding their sheep and goats, when Israel occupied the whole of the West Bank after the war in June 1967. At first, the Jahalin were left largely to their own devices. But with the establishment of the large Israeli settler suburb of Ma’ale Adumim in the mid-1970s, and later of the satellite settlements of Kfar Adumim (1979), Nofei Prat (1992), and Alon (1990), the Abu Dahouk branch of the Jahalin Bedouins lost access to most of their grazing grounds. They have been at the present site of al-Khan al-Ahmar, which sits mainly on land owned privately and leased to them by Palestinians from the nearby town of Anata, since the late 1970s, at least, as aerial photographs show. Even before that, my wife and I used to see them there every time we drove from Jerusalem to Jericho.

It’s an ancient site — the name means the Red Caravanserai, because of the red stones coloring the hillsides — on the old pilgrimage route from Jerusalem to Mecca and close to the supposed setting of the New Testament tale of the Good Samaritan. The place is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. The monastery of the fifth-century ascetic St. Euthymius is just across the wadi. Like everywhere else in Israel-Palestine, al-Khan al-Ahmar is soaked in the sanctity of rival — or, at better times, complementary — religions. But what has happened there in recent years, under Israeli rule, reeks of sacrilege.

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