“I want to live in the desert,” Eid, Mukhtar of Khan al-Ahmar, says. “not in Paris or New York, not even in Tel-Aviv, but in the desert.”
The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, comprising some 150 people, made international news a decade ago when Israel’s vaunted Supreme Court (which, notwithstanding the demonstrations in its defense before October 7, rarely sided with Palestinians) said it was legal for the prosperous Israeli town above it, Kfar Edumim, to evict the families. After a loud ruckus reaching even the International Criminal Court in the Hague, during which Eid testified in a US Congressional hearing, Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to go ahead with the eviction. For now, Khan al-Ahmar has stayed where it is.
But its people go hungry. When we come there, we find World Food Program vans and UN cars at the entrance bringing in heavy sacks of flour, salt and olive oil. They’re not starving as families do in Gaza, but they have very little.
We spent a number of hours in two Bedouin villages with their leaders, including Eid above. Before greeting Eid, we met with Samir, head of a family of some 100 members further to the east of Khan al-Ahmar. You take the highway descending from the Mr. Scopus hilltop in Jerusalem towards Jericho and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, watching the herds of goats and sheep nibble their way through the hills, young Bedouin boys behind them. You leave the highway at the sign marking sea level, turn right, try to control the car as it lurches over stone and gravel, and reach a group of huts and caravans.
Pasture is the big question here. Samir welcomes and guides us into a large tent to sit on low cushioned sofas, thin, worn rugs at our feet, used for official guests. A son offers strong black Arab coffee and sweet tea, reminding you that Arab hospitality and the welcoming of guests is of the highest importance in that culture.
The Bedouins are divided into families and clans, and Samir’s clan for centuries spent the winters down south and the summers up in the Judean hills outside Jerusalem, always in search of green pasture. Since 1948 things have changed, then changed again after the Six Day War in 1967. Some members of his large family are in Jordan, others remain down south all year round, while Samir’s family remain all year in the Judean Hills. He speaks very good English.
“We can’t use the other side of the highway for pasture,” he explains, pointing up and north to the other side of the highway, lined with the same hills as the ones where we are now.
“Why?” we ask.
He shrugs. The army calls it a military zone, and the boys are barred from bringing the herds to graze there. Security is the big mantra here. That’s the answer to most why’s, no more explanation needed.
We ask why lots of times. Why here and not also on the other side? Why aren’t there enough teachers in the school for Bedouin students at Khan al-Ahmar? Why the lack of food? Why the constant threat of eviction?
Their answers are accompanied by shrugs. Some are bureaucratic in nature, reflecting how they’re stuck between policies of the Israeli national government, local Israeli town priorities, and the Palestinian Authority, which also has governing power here, specifically to do with health and education.
The big issue with Khan al-Ahmar is its proximity to the main highway. The Israeli government want to control that land with the possible scenario of annexing all of it and creating a big suburb of Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority wants Khan al-Ahmar to stand firm, and prohibits them from moving even one meter into the hills though that would benefit their herds. Land is even a more powerful mantra than security.
It doesn’t help that the local Israeli inhabitants think of Bedouins as thieves, which riles Eid. “Go to the police station and ask if there’s even one formal police investigation of thievery against us,” he says. I’m reminded of European attitudes to another nomadic tribe, the gypsies.
If that’s not a complex enough tapestry, there are also clashes between Israeli farmers who farm the land and the Bedouins who use the land for grazing, reminding me of parallel battles between farmers and ranchers in the western United States 150 years ago.
There are some 3,000 Bedouins in the hills outside Jerusalem, all Muslim Palestinians who have grazed their sheep on these hills and valleys for hundreds of years. A few of their many children go to university and obtain degrees, but they find no jobs when they finish. Their families feel hemmed in on all sides.
I tell those who ask: “Being in Israel is like jumping into a bottle and then affixing the cap on top. You’re in a narrow and intense container, life and death all around, people feeling the glass walls of the container even as they fight each other for room and space.”
I remember arguing about Israel and Palestine many years ago with a former boyfriend, a Jew who was furious with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. “You don’t understand how close everything is there,” I told him, “you have to go there and experience it. You’re used to big American prairies, enormous plains and valleys, huge distances between cities and states. When you live in a place that is miniature in comparison, you’re elbowing for a fraction more land and air, for a fraction of more blue sky.”
Legally, economically, and socially, the Bedouins find themselves at the very margins. They’re illegal in Israel and would love to have legal rights (some of the Israeli hostages in Gaza are Bedouins), but they don’t care about national or statehood recognition. They want simply to be free to keep grazing their sheep, migrating from season to season.
They are besieged by political pressures on all sides, Israeli and Palestinian alike, but my sense is that somehow, they will find their way up and down the hills in search of food for their animals, will stay in their tents even as they connect with water and electricity, will continue to hide their wives when strangers are around.
They love the desert, and the desert takes care of its own.
Later that evening, after a day of rockets coming down on Tel-Aviv and central Israel, I had dinner with Iris and Tani Karz, members of Zen Peacemakers and peace activists for many years who live in a suburb of Tel-Aviv. Those impressions are for another post.