By EA Penny
“Allahu akhbar!” (“God is most great”). Standing in the five metres of ground that now separates his property from the adjacent settlement, Suleiman, who is 70, waves his walking stick defiantly at the unwanted neighbours and calls out again: “Allahu akhbar!” As we sit drinking mint tea on the concrete base of an unfinished building on his property, the settlement security vehicle that sits watching us receives the same response.
Suleiman has a sparkle in his eye, a ready smile, and plenty to say! He is a Bedouin, born in 1948 near Abad in the Negev desert, now in Israel. The Bedouins of the Negev lived nomadic lives in tents, following the grazing with their herds. But Suleiman says that “All knew the boundaries of their land.” He tells us that, when the state of Israel was formed in May 1948, the Bedouin were given the choice of staying in Israel (thereby becoming Israeli citizens, with the usual duty to do military service) or leaving. His tribe, the Jahalin, chose to leave and thus became part of the nakba (catastrophe), when many Palestinians fled and became refugees. Suleiman’s family members still have refugee status. He says: “In some ways nakba was not a big deal for us. We were nomads, used to moving about. We did not have houses or crops. But what we lost was our freedom and our way of life.”
In about 1960 Suleiman’s grandfather paid one hundred camels for a large plot of land in Um al-Khair in the South Hebron Hills. Suleiman and his extended family still live on part of that land. Their initial flocks of two thousand animals have dwindled to around two hundred, since more than half the land has been confiscated for the building of an Israeli settlement. There are over 500,000 Israeli settlers living in settlements all over the West Bank; these are considered illegal under international law. The family now lives just a few metres from the boundary fence and is under constant surveillance from settlement security. Suleiman says: “We can’t move to graze flocks as we used to because if we left the land it would be confiscated.”
Harassment by settlers and soldiers has been a constant problem but the worst incident occurred in 2000. Suleiman’s nephew was walking goats along the settlement fence when a security guard shot him and then called the Israeli army. Soldiers beat him with rifles. He is now severely brain damaged and in need of care. There have been many other physical attacks on herders by settlers, as well as indirect obstruction such as planting olive trees where the goats graze. This means that the settlers can say that any action they take is in protection of the olive trees. “There’s no justice,” says Suleiman. “We are on our own land but we are not allowed even to repair our house. What right have they to treat us like this?”
In mid-September Suleiman was arrested in Khan al-Ahmar, a village east of Jerusalem. The Israeli government wants to demolish it, meaning the forcible removal of the inhabitants. The villagers are from the same tribe as Suleiman, and he went there to show support and to visit the friends with whom he journeyed to Mecca. He tells us how, when the army came to block the only road still giving access to the village, he was the first to sit down in front of the bulldozer. Along with five others he was arrested (with some rough handling) and detained for about 12 hours before being released on condition not to return.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention (which Israel signed in 1951) an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Article 49). Furthermore, occupying powers are required to protect the way of life of occupied peoples. These provisions are breached daily in the treatment of Suleiman, his family, the people of Khan al-Ahmar, and those of many other villages in the rural areas of the West Bank.
Recent international pressure has led the Israeli government to suspend the demolition of Khan al-Ahmer. Please maintain this momentum by writing to your elected representative as soon as possible. Demand that your government continues to press Israel on this issue and other breaches of International law in occupied Palestine.