Besieged Bedouin camp a microcosm of Israeli occupation and settlement policy

The Bedouin are under constant pressure to move but are determined to remain

A Palestinian Bedouin woman drinks tea amid the remains of her camp  that was demolished by the Israeli army in the West Bank village of Yarza, in the northern Jordan Valley, on February 17th, 2014. Photograph:  Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP Photo

A Palestinian Bedouin woman drinks tea amid the remains of her camp that was demolished by the Israeli army in the West Bank village of Yarza, in the northern Jordan Valley, on February 17th, 2014. Photograph: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP Photo

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 01:00

Sulaiman is a 75-year-old sheikh, or camp elder, in a Bedouin camp in the south Hebron hills over an hour’s drive from Ramallah in the so- called West Bank of Palestine.

This is an area referred to by John Kerry as having potential to be part of a future land swap, a reference to the Palestinian Authority and Israel agreeing to exchange land to accommodate illegal settlements as part of a peace agreement.

On a field trip there to observe the impact of Israeli settlement policy I found myself in a nearby Bedouin camp after our car broke down. Palestinians told me the Bedouin chose this way of life, but I was not convinced.

These Bedouin came here after fleeing their land around Beersheba soon after the state of Israel was founded in 1948. Unlike most Bedouin, they paid for the land with camels and have been there since. The Bedouin seemed to cling to the hillside, and their camp even had a woman living in a cave. In the 1980s settlers moved in alongside the camp and the settlement has expanded continuously since then.

Here is a microcosm of the implications of the Israeli occupation and settlement policy. Sulaiman is passionate and animated when outlining the daily obstacles to living in a specially designated zone by the Israeli military. We want to live in peace and buried the guns with Arafat, he says.

He asks if the British government will give them a home in England, as historically it is responsible for the predicament of the Palestinians.

The camp comprises a few temporary structures and poor quality accommodation, including what looks like a large shed, funded by Irish Aid. There were also solar panels supported by Irish Aid that provide electricity to the camp.

These people own a few miserable-looking sheep and goats, and the shelters they live in. Yet they are under constant pressure to move. Despite the obstacles, they are determined to remain and preserve their way of life. This is a lifestyle choice for these formerly nomadic people.

As this is an Israeli military restricted zone, anything built without permission will be demolished or removed. This even includes outside toilet facilities and children’s playground equipment provided by international aid organisations.

A specially built toilet for the disabled nephew of Sulaiman was removed in the middle of the night.

His nephew was brain damaged during a confrontation with Israeli security forces about four years ago when he tried to stop them demolishing the traditional clay cooker used by the Bedouin for baking, called a Tamboun. This is an enclosed cooker fuelled by dried animal waste that is usually kept lit all day.

One of the settler families has sued Sulaiman in the Israeli civil courts seeking substantial damages for the nuisance created by the smoke from the camp Tamboun. The court document served on Sulaiman is in Hebrew.

Israeli activists who regularly come to the camp to monitor the situation and lend support have helped with translation and advice. They too are often attacked by the settlers.

Violence against Palestinians from Israeli settlers is an increasing problem in the West Bank. On a previous visit to the city of Nablus and its hinterland, I experienced this first hand.

Israeli authorities are threatening to relocate thousands of Bedouin. The Israeli defence ministry is in the process of legalising another illegal outpost in the area to create a chain of settlements.

Haartez , the Israeli daily newspaper, reported that the gradual expansion of the residential and agricultural areas of Jewish settlements has been accompanied by well-documented efforts by settlers to block access by Palestinian farmers and shepherds to more and more of their land.

I thank Sulaiman for sharing his experience and his hospitality and promise to return.

He described himself as a simple illiterate Bedouin and thanked us for our concern. He demonstrates you don’t need a formal education to be articulate and compelling in arguing a case.

He said it helped to know that they are not forgotten and it gave him strength to endure.

Back on the road hitching a lift to the nearest village to catch a bus to Ramallah, Sulaiman’s predicament and spirit remind me why I had come to Palestine in the first place.

Meanwhile the peace negotiations continue and no one I meet, Israeli or Palestinian, is optimistic.

Prof Ray Murphy of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway, is a visiting scholar with Al-Haq, a Palestinian Human Rights Organi sation.