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Khan al-Ahmar write large: Peace initiative and local realities

Israeli and Palestinian leaders should take note of the conflict in Khan al-Ahmar, and write its lessons large
A boy walks through the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, near the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway, on  April 13, 2018. (Yaniv Nadav/ Flash90)
A boy walks through the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, near the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway, on April 13, 2018. (Yaniv Nadav/ Flash90)

This week, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will visit the region to discuss the unfolding American peace initiative. They will visit leaders in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (bypassing the Palestinian Authority), in a quest to jumpstart a new Israeli-Palestinian process within a robust regional framework. At the same time, one minute spot east of Jerusalem, the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, will continue to draw inordinate attention because it collapses in its tiny confines a microcosm of the historical, legal, humanitarian, political, economic, strategic, demographic, and moral components of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict today. What is the relationship between these mega and micro levels?

For over 25 years, persistent efforts to reach a fair and lasting agreement have stumbled on specifics. If “the devil is in the details,” what reason is there to expect broad plans to succeed if they cannot accommodate particular issues? Why and how can these converge? The answer to such questions rests on the linkage between local realities and broad strategic designs.

The village of Khan al-Ahmar was settled primarily by Bedouin of the Jahalin tribe, following their expulsion in the early 1950s from the Tel Arad area in the Negev. It is located between the Jewish settlements of Ma’ale Adumim and Kfar Adumim, on lands expropriated by Israel in the 1970s with the explicit purpose of creating — in the words of the then head of the Kfar Adumim Community Council and the current Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel — “a Jewish corridor from the sea, through Jerusalem, to the Jordan river, which will put a wedge in the territorial continuity of Arab inhabitation between Judea and Samaria.” From the outset, then, this area was viewed as a strategic target for Jewish settlement. With the expansion of Ma’ale Adumim, Kfar Adumim, Alon and Nofei Prat, Khan al-Ahmar remains one of the few Palestinian areas in the sensitive E1 zone connecting the north and the south of the West Bank.

In the summer of 2009, with the help of the Italian aid organization Vento Di Terra (Wind of the Earth), a school was constructed by the residents, serving over 150 children from Khan al-Ahmar and its surroundings. The Israeli Civil Administration immediately issued a demolition order, on the grounds that no license had been issued for the structure, since it was built in close proximity to Highway 1 (the main thoroughfare leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea), just as no approval had been granted for other units put up in the area.

Immediately, residents of the Jewish settlements petitioned the Israeli Court to carry out the demolition order. From 2009 until last month, the future of the Khan al-Ahmar School Community has been battled out in an extended series of suits brought by a host of competing forces. The litigation was initiated by the residents of Kfar Adumim, Alon, and Nofei Prat, with backing from Regavim — an organization promoting Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank. The State maintained that the implementation of the order is contingent on the successful relocation of the village – it should be noted that offers to move residents to an area north of Jericho were eventually dropped, and today the Jahalin refuse to transfer to a lot assigned to them near the garbage dump in Abu Dis with no grazing land for their herds. The people of Khan al-Ahmar have repeatedly tried to stay the injunction. They have been joined at various stages by other groups opposed to the order, most recently, some residents of Kfar Adumim, including former Jewish Agency chairman Salai Meridor. The protestors from Kfar Adumim came together under the banner “Not in My Name,” to oppose the wholesale expulsion of the Bedouin community by force.

Barely a month ago, on May 24, 2018, the Supreme Court handed down its decision, authorizing the Israeli Defense Forces to relocate the entire village, on the grounds that its residents had constructed the school and other units illegally. The order is set to be carried out any moment.

The story of Khan al-Ahmar has all the ingredients of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict collapsed into one small dot on the map. Ostensibly the human story of 32 Jahalin Bedouin families (numbering just over 170 individuals) barely subsisting as herders on a tiny strip being compelled once again to move against their will, it is also one of the victory of a persistent group of Jewish settlers — actively backed during the past two years by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — bent on obtaining Jewish control over the entire land. To paraphrase the words of the current chairman of the Kfar Adumim Community Council, Colonel (ret.) Danny Tirza (the architect of the separation barrier), the mission of settling the area and “preserving state land” has been achieved. At Khan al-Ahmar forceful strategy is trumping basic humanity.

Or is it? Multiple appeals spearheaded by civil society organizations, international actors and legal scholars spotlighting gross violations of international legal norms and conventions seem to have failed to safeguard a handful of Jahalin, who have not only been denied electricity, fresh water, and the right to improve their surroundings, but are now also being driven off the land on which they have eked out a bare subsistence for decades. Yet their cause is being picked up by a growing number of people throughout the world — including prominent Israelis and Arabs — many of whom signed a petition decrying what they consider to be a war crime in Ha’aretz this past week. The European Union has lodged an official complaint on the treatment of the Bedouin community. The United Kingdom and France have gone out of their way to protest the move. And, at the local level, some Jews and Palestinians are still looking for ways to salvage a semblance of coexistence in a toxic political environment in which racism backed by power politics is displacing historical continuity and common human decency.

Clearly, Khan al-Ahmar is not just a local dispute: its resolution cannot be divorced from the conflict as a whole. Following the Supreme Court’s edict, Israeli annexationists appear to have the upper hand, while those favoring a two-state solution are being systematically stymied at every turn. The ground under the residents of the School Community, however, is burning. The inequitable treatment of the Jahalin may serve as yet another in a long list of obstacles towards Palestinian self-determination; it cannot — as the persistent voices of protest demonstrate — impede its long-term realization.

Enter the American negotiators, who seek to bypass these tangible realities in search of an embracing agreement without delving into its nagging details. The Trump emissaries claim that they intend to lay the groundwork for fruitful talks between Israel and the Palestinians (while not engaging the latter and omitting talks with their admittedly more critical European counterparts). They would do well to test the principles they propose on the land of Khan al-Ahmar. Should their ideas not lead to a fair resolution of this conundrum, they would do well to revise their suggestions before they are disseminated as a basis for a full-scale agreement. The dealers and fixers of today must have their feet firmly implanted on the ground.

The lessons are clear. Local contestations between Jews and Palestinians, whatever their specific contours, contain elements that affect the overall balance of power between the parties and inevitably influence the prospects for reconciliation. Large-scale plans to foster a durable understanding hinge on their applicability to particular cases. If it won’t work for Khan al-Ahmar, there’s no reason to believe that it will last anywhere else.

The key to resolution lies at the meeting point between the micro and the mega levels. What is just for the residents of the Bedouin School Community and its neighbors can also filter up and become sustainable for Israeli and Palestinian leaders truly committed to a viable and lasting solution to what need not be an endless and intractable conflict. And if it is good for them, it should be good for everyone.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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