Bedouins Caught in Middle Of Arab-Israeli Conflict

Piles of twisted tin and broken wood line the ravine, the aftermath of an attempt by the Israeli government to move 35 Bedouin families off this land east of Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, the Israeli Civil Administration came with bulldozers and tore down the homes of the Jahalin clan, implementing a court decision that the once-nomadic Bedouins were squatting on state-owned land. Their belongings were scooped up and moved to a hilltop adjacent to Abu Dis, a built-up Arab area on Jerusalem's outskirts.

But the Bedouins refused to go, waiting shelterless for several nights before international aid agencies came to help. The Bedouin's Israeli lawyer, Shlomo Lecker, appealed to the Supreme Court, which has ordered the Civil Administration and the Bedouins to reach a compromise plan.

The Bedouins say the alternative site on which the government wants them to live is too small for grazing, too crowded, and belongs to local Arabs, not them. Moreover, it defeats the purpose of the Bedouin lifestyle.

The designated site will soon look like "a very dense refugee camp," Mr. Lecker says, if hundreds more have to live there.

The Israeli Civil Administration says it gave the Bedouins ample notice to move off the land, but no specific deadline for demolition. And, contrary to reports that the Bedouins are being kicked out in order to expand the settlement of Maale Adumim, a Civil Administration spokesman says it was to build an access road to it.

Either way, this Bedouin clan - which once lived in Arad, now inside Israel - is being asked to move from the land it has occupied since the 1948 war, when this area was part of Jordan. Israeli authorities say the Bedouins have wandered the region since the 1950s, but did not actually settle down on this piece of land until the late 1980s, years after it was claimed as the state's.

The dispute is the latest chapter in a long history of disagreements. On many occasions, Bedouins have been forcibly relocated when the area they lived on was declared a "closed military zone" or state-owned. And Israeli attempts to get the Bedouin to live in permanent housing have been met with backlash.

Israeli officials say that such towns allow the Bedouins to receive basic services. But many Bedouins express a desire to continue their traditional way of life as desert shepherds.

Due to constant run-ins with Israeli authorities about where they're allowed to live, however, Bedouins are beginning to demand permanent houses - next to which they can build tents and enjoy their ancient customs: lounging on flat cushions and mats, dinner in the fresh air, coffee made on an open fire. That stems not from a desire to change their lifestyles, but as a protection against being forcibly moved, says Mohammed Bassis Jahalin, one of the Jahalin leaders, "We want houses with tents next to them so that we can be sure that in two years, we won't have this problem again," he says.

Mr. Jahalin says his group is willing to move to an area in the desert between here and Jericho. "We need lots of room to graze our sheep," he says.

But the Jahalin's lawyer says that the government probably won't agree.

Israel wants to hold onto that stretch of the West Bank in a final peace settlement with the Palestinians and is meanwhile trying to move the Bedouins to the outskirts of urban Arab areas.

But the Palestinian Authority, which wants to keep the Bedouins where they are as a buffer against the Israeli annexation of any more West Bank land, has recently given them financial support to help them fight to stay put.

"It's a political story," says Lecker. "Israel wants to claim that the Judean desert is not inhabited. It's much easier for them to claim it if there are not any inhabitants there. The Palestinian Authority is pushing them to stay."

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