What the Palestinian Authority, the European Union, Israel's High Court of Justice, three Israeli towns, and the Jahalin tribe have in common is the Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Akhmar.
The battle for this Arab settlement has been waged in the international media and the Israeli Supreme Court for more than a decade, and its story is a microcosm of the Arab-Israel conflict, complete with alternative narratives, shifting alliances, unclear lines of responsibility and murky vested interests.
The first problem is that Khan al Akhmar is located in an area, unpoetically named Area C, where, according to the United Nations, "Israel retains near exclusive control, including over law enforcement, planning and construction."
This small cluster of Bedouin homes is actually sitting on land in an Israeli township, Kfar Adumim, at a strategic crossroads between Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the outlying Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, making it crucial both to the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Until fairly recently, the residents of the Arab settlement -- a branch of the Jahalin tribe of Bedouin -- had lived in southern Israel. At some point in the 1970s, a feud broke out between different branches of the tribe, and the Jahalin fled northward, and arrived in the Maaleh Adumim region in the late 1970s, where they have remained ever since.
Like almost all other Bedouin in the Middle East, they began to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in favor of more permanent settlements and livelihoods not dependent on shepherding. Unfortunately, this branch of the tribe set up camp in a strategically critical area near a major highway, and began tapping into municipal water and electricity lines for subsistence.
Here is the other problem: since the 1980s, when their squatter's camp began to take shape, it has always been illegal as well as impractical. Its proximity to the highway has been posing a safety hazard for the Bedouin children who play alongside it, as well as for the motorists who must avoid being hit by the rocks thrown at their vehicles. Out of literally dozens of these incidents reported in the press, here are a few examples:
From the day the Jahalin set up camp on this spot, they knew that they were squatting inside an Israeli municipality, and that it was not a long-term solution for their housing needs.
What they did not know was that the Palestinian Authority had designs on the same piece of land, but for different reasons, and that international forces would soon begin to use them as chess pieces in a high-stakes game against Israel.
An internationally-funded school building in Khan al-Akhmar, with Israeli Highway 1 in the background. (Image source: TrickyH/Wikimedia Commons)
On August 23, 2009, Salim Fayyad, then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), published his master plan for the creation of a Palestinian State. The basis of "The Fayyad Plan" (officially titled "Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State") was -- and remains -- the creation of a de facto state without the need for negotiation with Israel, through facts on the ground in areas under full Israeli administrative and security administration. One of the key areas in the "facts on the ground" vision of Palestinian statehood, as opposed to the mutually agreed-upon negotiations of the Oslo Accords, is precisely the region near the highway. The Jahalin Bedouin squatters presented a perfect means of establishing an extra-judicial foothold there.
For the Palestinian Authority, the best interests of the Jahalin Bedouin were beside the point. The real story was the land. Building on it was key to taking possession of an otherwise unattainable piece of territory, and then making this possession appear irreversible. So while the PA and the European Union continue to pay lip service to their commitment to a negotiated settlement, their behavior indicates that this is not their intention: The Palestinians have no interest in a negotiated settlement, and the EU's continued bankrolling of illegal construction in Area C actually encourages the Palestinians not to sit down and to talk to the Israelis. Why should they negotiate, if they can get everything they want by simply replicating the story of Khan al Akhmar in strategic points throughout Area C?
Like it or not, the Oslo Accords -- which the Palestinian Authority signed and the European Union witnessed -- clearly state that Israel has sole responsibility for issuing building permits, zoning and planning. Even without the Oslo Accords, the Hague Conventions -- the accepted basis for international law -- place sole responsibility for issuing building and zoning permits on the State of Israel.
Back to the Bedouin: some of them Bedouin in neighboring clusters signed relocation agreements; others simply pulled up stakes and moved elsewhere to avoid the construction and traffic around the highway; all of them understood that they could not remain where they were.
Then, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union jumped in, giving this cluster of tents and shacks a name, pumping money into "Khan al Akhmar," and kicking up a vast media storm about destitute Arabs being dispossessed from their "historic" community. An Italian NGO, Vento de Terra, built a school on the site to serve Bedouin children from across the region. They bombarded the media with images of barefoot Bedouin children living under the threat of dispossession and ethnic cleansing by Israel, and pressured the Jahalin to cooperate (as reported in the High Court decisions on the case).
The Bedouin buckled under the pressure and allowed their new "representatives" to take charge: The residents of Khan al Akhmar remained where the PA wanted them. The Jahalin Bedouin were "represented" by the PA and the EU in four separate lawsuits, stalling the relocation of the squatters for more than a decade. In each case, Israel's Supreme Court confirmed that the Bedouin encampment at Khan al Akhmar was illegal and needed to be evacuated to a State-sponsored alternative location.
For ten years, the Israeli government suspended the demolition and evacuation orders, considered any and all alternatives, and eventually created a new, legal option to relocate the Bedouin on State-owned land only five miles away near Abu Dis, an Arab neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The new neighborhood, "Jahalin West," offers a package worth more than half a million shekels (nearly $140,000) for each wife in each of the many-wived Jahalin households. Each wife would receive, free of charge, a large plot of land, completely developed and zoned for residential construction, with water and electricity. Jahalin West would offer services that these Bedouin have never had -- services the PA has never offered them: running water, electricity, permanent homes they themselves are free to design, health clinics, public transportation, schools, access to employment, and more.
Jahalin West is ready and waiting; it has been lying dormant for years. The "representatives" of the Jahalin have repeatedly rejected the State's relocation package and refused to allow the Jahalin to rebuild their lives in a new neighborhood if it means losing their grip on the land they are presently occupying.
After allowing the Jahalin's lawyers one last chance to come up with a feasible alternative to Jahalin West, which they were unable to do, the Supreme Court closed the book on Khan al Akhmar. The High Court's recent decision rejected two petitions that had been filed on behalf of the Bedouin. "There are no legal grounds to justify intervention in the Minister of Defense's decision to enforce the demolition orders that were issued against the illegal structures in Khan al Akhmar," wrote Justices Sohlberg, Willner and Baron.
"This decision does not make light of the complex human aspects that are unavoidable in a large-scale evacuation of illegal construction, despite its illegality. Law enforcement is important, as is the attempt to reach a resolution through dialogue and peaceful means.
"When all is said and done, we are long past the 'zero hour.' Demolition orders, we should recall, were first issued for these structures in 2009, and the calls we have heard in this courtroom for cooperation and dialogue, as worthy as they may be, should by all rights have been raised in real time, over the course of the intervening years, and should have been directed to policy- and decision-makers."
The judges criticized the plaintiffs' conduct, noting that they had repeatedly taken advantage of the State's willingness to reach an agreed-upon solution by presenting futile, unfeasible suggestions.
"The impression is that the aim of these alternative suggestion was to 'buy time.' ... Raising unrealistic suggestions at this point, after years in which the State postponed enforcement of demolition orders in order to consider alternatives, is unacceptable."
The decision denied the plaintiffs' request that the Court intervene in the State's decision to enforce the law, and expressed the hope that the matter could be resolved peacefully and in an atmosphere of cooperation.
The Palestinian Authority has already announced its intention to resist the relocation of the Jahalin to their new, legal neighborhood near Abu Dis "by all available means," and the international uproar has begun.
Israel is being condemned for "cruel and inhumane" treatment of the Jahalin, and for its attempts to commit supposed "ethnic cleansing" and "forced population transfer." The French government (which has a rather poor record of summarily deporting nomadic groups en masse) has declared Israel's High Court decision a violation of international law, while at the same time explaining that Khan al Akhmar is of "critical strategic importance to the contiguity of the future Palestinian State."
The coming weeks will be a test of Israel's sovereignty and resolve. At the same time, the weeks ahead will also expose the real intentions of the PA and the European NGOs and governments who continue to bankroll illegal construction and land seizure in areas recognized by international law to be under Israeli jurisdiction.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim Arab based in the Middle East.