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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

West Bank village braces for another two-state death blow

Hundreds gather in Khan Al Ahmar to defend Bedouin hamlet as eviction deadline passes

The Palestinian Bedouin encampment of Khan Al Ahmar village that Israel plans to demolish, in the occupied West Bank. Reuters
The Palestinian Bedouin encampment of Khan Al Ahmar village that Israel plans to demolish, in the occupied West Bank. Reuters

In the end, the threat of demolition has finally, in a way, put the makeshift Palestinian hamlet of Khan Al Ahmar in the occupied West Bank on the international map.

On Monday – as the village’s 180 residents, half of whom are children, braced for signs of Israeli bulldozers – residents and protesters gathered under a big tent in the Bedouin community of tin and wooden shacks tucked alongside a highway that runs from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. The mood was calm and sombre, but defiant.

By sunset, Israeli soldiers, for now, were nowhere in sight. The Palestinians – old friends by this point of their months-long struggle – gathered, shared coffee and chatted while bracing for what the night or morning or next day could bring.

Hundreds more, including Jewish and international activists, were expected to come by the day’s end to spend the night, sing songs and make one last stand, organisers said. Besides that, though, there isn't much that residents or the politically weakened and divided Palestinian leadership can do.

Today is the deadline for Khan Al Ahmar’s demolition – and, for many Palestinians, realistic hopes for a state of their own anytime soon.

"I am here defending my country and defending my land," said Abdullah Abu Rahman, a 47-year-old resident of the West Bank village of Bil’in, who has spent the past 104 days at Khan Al Ahmar since the latest round of threats began.

Bil’in for years was the site of weekly non-violent protests against Israel's separation wall, which still stands. "I see it as my duty to support and defend the rights of the people here," Mr Abu Rahman, a seasoned activist, said.

Still, Khan Al Ahmar's residents have had to compete for this attention. Palestinians across the West Bank and East Jerusalem are on a general strike today to protest a number of recent events: Israel’s new Nation State Law, which critics say codifies Palestinians as second-class; the Trump administration’s relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem, followed by cuts in aid to Palestinian institutions and refugee services; and, after nearly 10 years of court battles, what seems the end of the road for trying to stave off Khan Al Ahmar’s demolition.

Israel also put in place a military closure on Monday because of a Jewish holiday, so Palestinians from the West Bank cannot enter Jerusalem or Israel for work.

Residents of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, gather on September 26, 2018. AFP
Residents of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan Al Ahmar, east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, gather on September 26, 2018. AFP

The Palestinian Authority, unpopular among Palestinians and under assault from the Trump administration, has consequently not been able to do much, besides organise solidarity campaigns and issue statements condemning the plan.

Despite all of the global support for Khan al Ahmar – with leaders from the European Union to the United Nations warning Israel against demolishing the village as a violation of international law — this pressure has not, until now, changed the Israeli government’s plans. Protesters say they expect Israeli forces to move in on Tuesday, though they could arrive any day after that.

Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal against a demolition order by Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and ruled that the unrecognised village could be destroyed and its residents relocated.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International have called the “forcible transfer of its residents to make way for illegal Jewish settlements ... a war crime that lays bare the Israeli government’s callous disregard for the Palestinians”. European countries have warned the demolition will have a dramatic impact on the two-state solution's prospects and the EU has demanded Israel compensate the €315,000 (Dh1.34 million) in EU-funded infrastructure.

"There’s no justice, but more and more legitimising by Israeli law of all atrocities of occupation," Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of Israel's parliament, told The National.

Israel’s hard-right government, however, rejects claims that it is violating international law and says it’s a simple matter. They want to expand a highway and will move Khan Al Ahmar, which has always lacked basic infrastructure and official authorisation, to a more developed and safe area.

But for Palestinians, Khan Al Ahmar, just 12 kilometres long, has come to symbolise all the pressures they are collectively facing as Israel pushes ahead to expand its control of land the Palestinians say is theirs, Mr Abu Rahman said.

The Trump administration's backing of Israel, combined with a divided Palestinian leadership and its weakened international support, has further exacerbated these long-standing tensions.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the UN

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Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967, land the Palestinians have also claimed for their independent state. The 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, then intended as an interim deal, established the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority in parts of the West Bank, areas A and B, and left Israeli control in the largest part, Area C.

Khan Al Ahmar is in the latter, where in the decades since, Israeli settlements have continued to grow and make any unified Palestinian control that much harder.

Now, the highway Israel plans to expand in its place will act as a corridor between the West Bank’s north and south, connecting Israeli settlements (Khan Al Ahmar is surrounded by four: Kfar Adumim, Ma’ale Adumim, Alon, and Nofei Prat). The move will effectively cut off Palestinian parts of the West Bank from Jerusalem.

Villagers, who make a living raising goats and sheep, said they’ve tried to apply for permits to build, but Israel has denied their requests, a common practice according to human rights groups. The planned site for the village’s relocation, moreover, is near a rubbish tip where rubbish from Jerusalem has been dumped.

Now, for the past three days, residents told The National, settlers at nearby Kfar Adumim sent its sewage down into the village. Officials are yet to confirm the sewage is coming from that outpost.

The most immediate ones affected by the demolition will not only be residents, but also the neighbouring schoolchildren. The village's school, built from car tyres and with aid from the EU, serves 250 children who pool from some of the other 45 Bedouin villages in the area.

Israel also does not recognise these other hamlets and has similarly issued demolition orders.

Khan Al Ahmar on its own does not look very impressive: Palestinian flags line the main unpaved road, which leads to a makeshift school, clinic, mosque, reception tent and collection of homes and huts for animals.

For years, Israel has refused to connect the community to water supplies, roads and the electricity grid. Solar panels, financed by the EU, have met some of this need.

But residents say the place’s power is rooted in the history. The community is part of the Jahalin tribe, which originally came from an area called Tel Arad in the Negev desert, now part of Israel.

The Israeli military expelled the community from there in the 1950’s and it settled in the current area. The location met three basic needs for Bedouins, said resident and organiser Eyad Jahalin, 52: it was near to a water source, next to a road leading to a commercial centre, and in a largely arid and empty area.

But in the years since, the area has industrialised and the adjacent small road leading to Jerusalem, first built by the British, has turned into a major Israeli highway, said Mr Jahalin.

Tonight could be his last night at his home. But it also could not be: some activists have speculated that Israel will wait until the attention over Khan Al Ahmar has died down before destroying it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to visit Israel later this week, and destroying it during her visit could increase the outrage.

Either way, Mr Abu Rahman said he's still “optimistic and hopeful that we will succeed” in stopping the demolition. “Of course if it happens, I'll be very sad and it won't be easy to accept,” he said.

But, he added, he and his compatriots would be here to help the community rebuild.