Forced transfer of Palestinian Bedouin: A war crime on our watch

Word on the diplomatic and humanitarian street is that Israel is planning a war crime.[1]

In September this year, the Israeli government published six municipal plans to forcibly transfer more than 7,000 Palestinian Bedouin herders from their homes in the Jerusalem periphery and south Jordan Valley, both in the occupied West Bank, to townships. The largest is Nuwei’ma near Jericho, an open area where Bedouin already live, surrounded by military bases and settlements. Three different Bedouin tribes are to be forced together on the same land and expected to build themselves new homes: Ka’abne, Rasheideh and Jahaleen. This will clear the way for Israel’s E1 settlement expansion master plan, approved in 1999 and halted due to international pressure. The E1 expansion is to link the Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem and create a joined settlement block with Mishor Adumim and Kfar Adumim. This corridor will cut off East Jerusalem, the intended capital of any future Palestinian state, from the West Bank. The nail in the coffin of a two state solution. Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal under international humanitarian law. The UK government has consistently reiterated this position, they are illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Israeli plan for Nuwei'ma, September 2014; Photo Credit: Lea Pakkanen

Israeli plan for Nuwei’ma, September 2014; Photo Credit: Lea Pakkanen

Notwithstanding that motive is irrelevant to its illegality, the government has justified the plan claiming that the residents lack title over the land and that the transfer will improve their living conditions.

First lack of title. The point is that the land in question is not Israel’s to make the call. Israel can make that call anywhere it has sovereignty…Haifa, Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, the Negev, all of which is Israel. But the West Bank and East Jerusalem are occupied Palestine. The United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice have been as clear as day on this. Furthermore, if evictions are to make way for Israeli settlers, then they certainly have no title over the land.

Secondly, that the transfer will improve their living conditions. It’s true that the Bedouin life in the West Bank is hard. Israeli military law is imposed; 94% of building permits are refused; Israel demolishes the shelters they build in defiance, restricts their access to grazing land, water and electricity. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) stated that these practices have “created a coercive environment, which functions as a ‘push factor’ to make the Bedouin leave. It strikes me as a bizarre rationale: ‘It’s justified that we make you go, because we make life so bad for you here already.’ It is difficult to understand why they don’t just allow the Bedouin to connect to the nearby water and electricity network and accept their building applications so they can improve their own living conditions where they are. It seems to many here that they primarily want the land clear to move more Israeli settlers in.

The UN has emphasised that the 7,000 residents have not been genuinely consulted about the plan, and whether the transfer will improve their living conditions. So I have spent the past few weeks visiting these communities, sharing tea, learning about their lives, and asking them just that.

Selim Auda Jahaleen and grandson Jaffar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Selim Auda Jahaleen and grandson Jafar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

What better place to start than the oldest member of the Jahaleen tribe, Selim Auda. It was certainly worth the 40 minute hike up desert hills for the privilege of meeting a man who’s been on this earth for 107 years. And this Hadj has seen it all. He was born in the Negev desert in 1907, was a child under Ottoman rule, and a teenager under the British mandate. As a young man he saw the rise of Zionism and waves of persecuted Jews fleeing Europe for safety in Palestine. In his 40s he was made a refugee when the state of Israel was created. Along with thousands of Palestinian Bedouin, he was forced to leave his home in the Negev, and fled to the West Bank. For the last 66 years he has lived as an UN registered refugee. Home is now with his eldest son Mohammed in a tin and tarpaulin shack in Khan al Ahmar. I wish I could tell you that he lived out his final years in simple but happy conditions, with his family. But his home is in the E1 zone, so I can’t.

Selim's home in Khan al Ahmar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Selim’s home in Khan al Ahmar, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

In the past two years alone, Selim’s shack has been demolished by the Israeli army four times. His daughter in law Salma told me how elderly, quiet and at 107, understandably forgetful Selim, shouted at the soldiers when they came with their bulldozers to destroy his family’s home, yet again. I asked what he said to them, our translator looks sheepish and with traces of a smile and says “bad words”. Today Selim is more subdued, sitting there quietly hugging his 4 year old grandson Jafar as we talk, smoking a couple of cigarettes. From time to time he breaks into a song. Our translator doesn’t understand all the words, “Bedouin language” he says, and smiles. There is a lot of respect here for the old men who have survived it all.

Mohammad Selim Jahaleen, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

Mohammad Selim Jahaleen, September 2014; Photo credit: BG Saltnes

I wonder how aware he is of the next chapter of his displacement. I ask his son Mohammad what they will do: “We refuse to go” he says forcefully. I nod, admiring his steadfastness. Though everyone in the tent knows that when the Israeli military come, heavily armed, that they will demolish everything and physically force the family to leave. The only way of stopping it is a political decision, which requires international pressure.

Other than the fact that this is home, the place of memories, why would they not want to move?

I posed this question to Khalil Abdullah Hammadeen, a father of 7 from Sateh el Bahr, a community named “sea level” in Arabic, off the Jericho-Jerusalem road.

“It will be very difficult if they move us to Nuwei’ma. We have 15 dunums of land now to keep our sheep, under the Nuwei’ma plan we will have only half a dunum [500m2]. There is no space for our family and our sheep. We make our living from the sheep, it is our life as Bedouin. But in the township there is no space for the sheep, where will we graze them? We will have to sell the sheep and then how will we support our families. Who will give us money for food. Also it is difficult to collect all the Bedouin in one place, we are different tribes and there are old rivalries. I worry that there may be fighting.”

Sateh el Bahr EU funded structures, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

Sateh el Bahr EU funded structures, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

I talk to Khalil’s wife, Fatmeh. A round and warm woman with a huge genuine smile that lights up her face. She has created a beautiful home here, bright cushions and clean furniture. I am aware there is no electricity or water connection and that the family’s homes have been demolished by the army regularly over the years, to be replaced by EU funded aluminium shelters. But when I ask Fatma about her life in Sateh el Bahr, she is more than satisfied: “Life is good, we are very grateful to the European Union for these rooms. It is hot in summer because of the metal but we are happy.”

I worry how a mixed tribe township will affect the women, given their cultural norms, so I ask if anything worries her about the plan. Her smile fades.

Fatmeh Hamadeen, September 2014; Photo credit: Lea Pakkanen

Fatmeh Hamadeen, September 2014; Photo credit: Lea Pakkanen

If we are forced to move to Nuwei’ma, then we’ll have to be all covered like this.” She pulls her headscarf down over her face and the other women in the room nod. “The Bedouin do not live near to each other, it is our way. Even my brother in law’s family live the other side of that hill.”  “Now I just go outside however I want because we are the same family and we are far from others.”

Fatmeh stands up, pulls her scarf eschewed, and comically acts out going to her door, waving her hands around and shouting at the kids to behave and come in for dinner. All the women laugh but she’s making a serious point. It is culturally inappropriate it is for her to be seen by men of other tribes, so normal life will be no more. The mass transfer will put an end to the traditional Bedouin culture in the Palestinian territories.

This is not actually the first time that Israel has transferred Palestinian Bedouin refugees. Between 1996 and 2007, 150 families were transferred from rural kinships to a site directly next to the Jerusalem municipality rubbish dump. Many had to sell all or most of their sheep, their income, and use the money to build a new house, now the village of Al Jabal. All the while, watching the illegal Israeli settlement of Male Adumim rise on their former homes. I went to speak with Ali Abu Ghalia, one of the Muktar’s (community leaders) of Al Jabal, a congenial man who drives a school bus, to get a sense of how this turned out last time. He recounts the trauma of the move 15 years ago and how families were put next to the dump with no shelter, water or electricity. Today the community is more settled, and he is satisfied with his life, but there are high levels of unemployment, social difficulties, and serious health problems due to the proximity of the dump. “Many children have skin problems, and there are cancers in the village that were not common before. Abu Dis University did a study and found that the methane gas in the village is 3 times what is healthy.”

Jerusalem rubbish dump as seen from Al Jabal village, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

Jerusalem rubbish dump as seen from Al Jabal village, September 2014; Photo credit: Sophie W

You can’t help but smell it when you drive into the village. Never mind how nice your house is, it’s not the kind of place you’d want your children to grow up. But the government deemed it appropriate site for Palestinian refugees. In addition, the UN reports that the move “ignited deep discontent” with the local community of Abu Dis. The land was taken from the Palestinian landowners, declared Israeli state land, and then allocated out to the Bedouin.

One thing Ali said really struck a chord with me: “The TV says that the Bedouin do not want village life, but it’s not true. Sometimes it can be better, though not all the people agree with me. But if you change your life, it must come from your heart. You must choose. Not others forcing you.

I think this hits the nail on the head, voluntary moves are fine, a mass forced transfer is just plain wrong. This is reflected in International Humanitarian Law: regardless of motive, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the forced transfer of persons from occupied territory. Article 49 is such a fundamental rule that it’s violation is considered a “grave breach”. Legally, a grave breach is a war crime.

EAs in Sateh el Bahr, settlement Ma'ale Adummim on top of the hill; Photo credit: Sophie W

EAs in Sateh el Bahr, settlement Ma’ale Adummim on top of the hill; Photo credit: Sophie W

The United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees has urged the international community to oppose the plans. The deadline for objections locally is 25th October 2014. Experience shows that domestic objections in Palestine and Israel mean very little, but international objections do. International pressure has halted some moves in the past, and we can do it again.

You’re not alone here, the US ambassador visited Sateh el Bahr last week about the plan. 42 organisations have issued a public statement and Tobias Ellwood, a UK Foreign Office Minister for the region referred to the risks and illegality of the forced transfer plan in his address to the House of Commons in Monday’s debate on the recognition of Palestine, saying “Israel needs to change course…now”. It’s on the international community’s radar. But voices need to be louder to stop it actually happening.

Email your MP to ask them and the UK government to object more forcefully, and do it quickly, time is running out. I desperately want Selim to live his last days in peace.

[1] Forced transfer of protected persons are prohibited by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, violation of which is a “grave breach” as per Article 147. Grave breaches are codified as war crimes under Article 8(2)(a)(vii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Statute but this does not alter the status of such acts in international law since the statute codified customary international law.

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