In small corrugated-iron huts, amidst their camels and goats, surrounded by violent settlements in the desert 5,000 Bedouin are making a defining stand against Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank.
They are the residents of the ‘E-1’ zone, an area of Palestinian land in the West Bank to the east of Jerusalem which falls within the municipal boundary of the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The entire area has been slated for colonisation in the expansion of this settlement – a plan which has been largely on hold since 2009 as a result of international pressure.
The area is of pivotal importance to the diminishing prospects of a two-state solution in the region. Successful displacement of the Bedouin and their replacement with Israeli settlers would effectively cut the West Bank in two, with the only road connecting Bethlehem in the south to the administrative capital in Ramallah running through the narrow corridor. In addition, it occupies the front line of an attempt to encircle the Palestinian population of east Jerusalem with Israeli settlements, thereby deepening the siege they find themselves under.
Israel’s plan is to move the nomadic Bedouin to Abu Dis and settle them in suburban accommodation beside a dump that serves the city of Jerusalem. This is doubly egregious to the nomadic people – who would not only be removed from their home of fifty years but also forced to abandon their lifestyle. It would be just one part of a broader Israeli plan to resettle the entire Bedouin community of Palestine.
I visited the Kasarat camp to meet one of the families resisting these proposals. Cut off from the Palestinian Authority, deprived of basic services and sacked from employment they had once enjoyed in Israeli settlements their standard of life is basic. Their livelihood was further strangled by encroaching settlements, which cut off grazing land, water and most electricity by placing zones of restriction around newly built complexes.
Abu Maher, the father of the large family, told me about their life under siege.
“The Israelis came here and served us with eviction notices. They told us that the best life for us was in resettlement, tried to offer a deal. But we know that this future they are offering is not to exist.”
While the authorities offer deals, coercion comes in the form of settler violence.
“They come to our land regularly, threaten and insult us. Just last year three of my sheep were shot dead. We reported this to the authorities but when the Israelis came here they told us that the sheep had been poisoned, despite bullet holes in their heads.”
Despite living next to Jerusalem for fifty years, and hanging a picture of the Dome of the Rock on his family’s wall, Abu Maher has never been to the city. He has applied for permission to enter a number of times but been denied access. No reason was ever given by authorities.
The Bedouin, he says, had been free to move around for centuries before the foundation of the state of Israel – under the Ottoman empire and British mandate. But under the Israeli occupation they had been boxed in, first in the Negev then beside the southern border and finally to the east of Jerusalem, where he had lived since he was five.
Oxfam has been working with the community to develop capacity – education and economic infrastructure – which it is hoped might help them resist displacement. They have developed co-operatives which have boosted income. But this is barely able to keep up with the price inflation in animal food – augmented by the Israelis as a means of eroding the ability of the Bedouin to support themselves.
Marco Ricci, head of the Oxfam delegation, says the difficulties of day-to-day life are so significant that the Bedouin don’t have time to concern themselves with their pivotal position in the region’s politics.
“These communities are fighting for survival. In the last decade the number of animals held by the Bedouin here has halved and they have been cut off from markets where they traded. There is a risk that they will simply lose the basis for their existence.”
Despite this Abu Maher is clear that theirs is part of a larger struggle.
“I am a Palestinian. We are besieged like all of the Palestinians, we have a different culture but we are together with them.”
The illegal Israeli colonisation of the West Bank continues at pace – the number of settlers doubling in the last decade. The endless negotiation of this period has served as cover for a systematic dismantling of the prospect of a Palestinian state on the land delineated in 1967.
Abu Maher meets the military might of this colonial project with a familiar Palestinian mix of pessimism in the face of extraordinary odds and determination to resist. The communities are waiting for the inevitable. But when the Israeli army bulldozers arrive they will put up a fight.
“We know what is coming,” he says, “this is how we live.”