Facing Demolition: The Khan al Ahmar Bedouin Community

In the early morning of Sunday the 19 February, 2017, Israeli forces raided Khan al Ahmar, a Bedouin community located northeast of Jerusalem. Civil defense personnel cordoned off the area surrounding the primary school and a nearby mosque before declaring it a closed military zone. Thirty-nine stop-work orders were served to homes and community buildings in the village, including the classrooms of the primary school.

According to B’tselem Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, stop-work orders are a formality preceding demolition. Local news agencies skipped the formality in favor of the inevitable; they reported the handouts as orders for demolition. After all, the effect is the same, as residents of Khan al Ahmar well know. This community is no stranger to raids, demolitions, or threats of the same. On the contrary, the village, and the school in particular, has been the target of relocation efforts for years.

Khan al Ahmar Village, Jordan Valley, by Simon Rawles/Oxfam

Yet, locals told Ma’an News Agency that issuing warrants to this many homes was an unheard of move. Likewise, Haaretz News reported that Israeli forces confirmed that such a widespread issuance of orders was unprecedented and that the raid was a declaration of an attempt to evacuate the entire village.

Khan al Ahmar is a community of under 200 people. It is one of about twenty Bedouin villages in the vicinity of Ma’ale Adumim that altogether comprise roughly 3,000 people, half of whom are children. Most of the Bedouin communities are of the Jahalin tribe, who were relocated from the Tal Arad area of the Negev in southern Israel in the 1950s. This land to which the Jahalin relocated has been gradually constricted, forcing them into the area of the Jerusalem-Jericho road.

The Bedouin of this region live in tent encampments and sheet metal shacks, which are visible from the highway. This is because Khan al Ahmar and its neighboring communities fall within Area C of the West Bank. A consequence of this location little-known to outsiders is that all construction must be approved by permit. Although the Jahalin Bedouin have lived on the same strip of land for decades, the Israeli Civil Administration that governs the West Bank has yet to draw up a master building plan for these villages. This means that any kind of brick-and-mortar construction is subject to demolition. Thus, sheet metal and tents are the most permanent legal structures available to the Bedouin.

Furthermore, try as they might to maintain their shepherding lifestyle, access to grazing ground and markets is limited. Sewage, electricity, and travel infrastructure is nonexistent, and only half of these communities are connected to water pipelines. Access to health, welfare, and educational services is minimal at best.

Consequently, in 2009, the Khan al Ahmar community rallied to build the Khan al Ahmar Rubber Tyre primary school with the help of Italian aid organization Vento Di Terra. This school, constructed entirely out of clay, wood, and rubber tires, remains structurally temporary and is therefore in compliance with Israeli military regulations. This feature is legally significant; although recognized by the Palestinian Ministry of Education in 2009, the building was constructed without a permit. The local school was created because village children were undertaking dangerous and costly trips to attend distant schools. This problem was ably remedied, and the Rubber Tyre school now educates 170 children from five different Bedouin communities.

Ma’ale Adumim, by David Mosberg

One month after construction of the school was complete, however, the school was served a demolition order by the Civil Administration. The justification for the order was the school’s proximity to the Jerusalem-Jericho road. This order was petitioned and delayed, but more warrants followed. Another demolition order from August 2016 was met with international scrutiny, and a solidarity protest was organized by the Palestinian Minister of Education, after village residents and the Italian ambassador were informed in writing of the Civil Administration’s decision.

This 2016 move to demolish the Rubber Tyre school was interpreted not merely as an attack on the Khan al Ahmar community, but also as an assault on Palestinian education. The Prime Minister of Palestine, Rami Hamdallah, issued a statement saying “Everyone is entitled to education; it is a fundamental human right.” Jamal Dajani, the Prime Minister’s director of strategic communications, asked in another statement “Is Palestinian education a threat to Israel?”

Part of the challenge that the Khan al Ahmar community poses to the Israeli Civil Administration is its location in the E1 district, which connects the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem. With a population of 41,000, Ma’ale Adumim is one of the largest and most established Israeli outposts in the West Bank. For this reason, it has become a flashpoint in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

After the United Nations issued Resolution 2334 last December, the world appeared to cast a more critical eye on Israel’s settlements, but once Donald Trump took office one month later, the Israeli government cast off international criticism and approved thousands of new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It may be a critical moment for Ma’ale Adumim, which is often thought by both Palestinians and Israelis to be an inevitable part of Israel because of its size and impermeability. If it is, it will be a critical moment for its neighbor, Khan al Ahmar, too.

A Palestinian flag recently appeared in a park in Ma’ale Adumim, worrying residents who fear that its presence could signal change for them. This flag and these demolition orders may indeed be signs of change in a situation that has long been protracted and stalled. The appearance of one may also be more connected to the other than either party wishes to acknowledge.

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