Beduin settlements

On Thursday, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Beduin community of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank could be demolished by the state and its residents moved to a new community near Abu Dis. The ruling is part of a larger series of controversies involving Israel’s actions in the West Bank related to Beduin settlements and a cycle of court rulings, state inaction and protests.

 Three days earlier, 74 US Members of Congress signed a letter urging Israel not to demolish Khan al-Ahmar or Sussiya, a Palestinian village in the South Hebron hills. “The destruction and displacement of such communities would run counter to shared US and Israeli values,” they said. They argued that forcible eviction and expansion of Jewish communities in the same areas would undermine a future Palestinian state. “This endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy and prohibitively impacts Palestinian national aspirations.”

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The court cases and state indecision over what to do regarding both Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar have gone on for decades. In Khan al-Ahmar, located near Ma’aleh Adumim on a small hillside next to Route 1 which connects Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, around 52 families reside in tents and shacks. For a decade they have been contesting court cases about their community.

In April, a delegation that include the UNRWA director of operations in the West Bank visited the community and said the UN was deeply concerned about what might happen to people it said were among “the most vulnerable Beduin communities in the West Bank.” The delegation noted that there are 46 similar Beduin communities at risk of “forcible transfer… International humanitarian law prohibits the individual or mass forcible transfer of the protected population of an occupied territory, regardless of the motive,” the April UN Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report notes.

 This leaves Israel in a bind. Moving a few dozen families has become a lightning rod of global criticism. The lead editorial of UAE’s The National said, “Khan al-Ahmar is a symbol of the world’s failure to protect refugees.” The newspaper, which is usually moderate in its criticism of Israel, said attempts to move the people “calls on us to challenge the greed and barbarism that has rendered them refugees.”

 For years Israel has postponed following through on court orders to demolish illegal structures in Sussiya. In May 2015, the High Court denied a petition to block the demolition of illegally built structures in Sussiya. The Civil Administration wanted to remove 30 of the tents and shacks in the village. Yet years later, the story of Sussiya remains largely the same. Another demolition order to remove several structures got the green light. It was that decision which prompted the letter from US Congressional representatives.
 Jerusalem has tended to allow these cycles of court orders, demolition orders, protests and inaction to play themselves out every year. The state plods along, using the cover of legality to justify demolitions that never happen. For groups like Regavim that support the government’s policy the issue is clear: The residents of Khan al-Ahmar are squatters living on state land and the new neighborhood they will be moved to “will offer services that the Jahalin [tribe] can only dream of today… health clinics, public transportation, proper schools, access to employment.”

The problem is that the story is larger than Khan al-Ahmar. The people there and in Sussiya have become a symbol and are cognizant of their role. Israel has enabled this symbolism often by not enforcing the law decades ago. But there is no reason the state could not formalize these settlements on state land, as it has retroactively done with some Jewish communities in the West Bank. The larger context requires that the authorities see Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar as the symbols they are and look at long-term strategic goals. That might involve resolving these cases by providing the people the land on which they live, or by moving them. But it should involve a transparent and clear process of enforcing the law, rather than an endless cycle of court cases, international outrage and doing nothing.