Betty Soibel
Bimkom NIF Shatil Fellow 2018-2019

While we wait for an agreement: Reflections on Khan al Ahmar

Early in the morning two weeks ago, following panicked messages the night before hinting that demolition was imminent, I joined a group of Bimkom employees heading to Khan al Ahmar. Bimkom has been working with Khan al-Ahmar for over a decade, providing planning and legal assistance to the community in its battle with the Civil Administration and the Supreme Court. Now that it seemed that all outlets had been exhausted, it was vital to the team to be with the community in their village.

Our drive to Khan al-Ahmar felt similar to the other trips I had to unrecognized villages in Area C (Israeli military and civilian control). We exited bustling, developed Jerusalem, wound around the separation wall, passed through the checkpoint, and instantly, the world around us changed. The colors faded from gold to brown, the neat suburbs turned to rolling pastoral lands, the hills were peppered with Bedouin tents, grazing herds, and the red roofs of nearby settlements.

As we got closer to Khan Al Ahmar, the two lane road shared by civilian Palestinian and Israeli cars became congested with police cars, border patrol vehicles, and army jeeps. To get as close to the village as possible, we inched forward on the narrow dirt road that winded off the main highway among a slew of other activists, news teams, and politicians.This last leg of the journey felt like we were walking towards a frenzied beehive that was just waiting for someone to give it a nice jab.

As we parked, Diana, Bimkom’s Area C field worker, rolled down a window to ask a tall soldier who was strolling about while speaking on the phone. Had the demolition began?

The handsome soldier laughed, covered his phone’s speaker and said “What are you talking about? There’s no demolition today.” and then, just as casually as if we were his buddies, suggested the most favorable location to park. The interaction was bewildering and yet so Israeli; he came to oversee the heinous demolition of a community, we had come to protest and hopefully delay it. And yet, in the neutral arena of parking logistics, our interactions were practically normal.

We got out of the car at the same time as another Palestinian news crew arrived. The atmosphere was surreal-I could see dozens of activists gathered at the mouth of the village, watching as a bulldozer cleared a sewage spill from Kfar Adumim, the neighboring settlement.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was a traditionally dressed Bedouin man performing his morning prayers on a mat. As he concluded, he stood, raising his arms and eyes to the sky. He stood silently, quivering slightly, as if beseeching the rising sun to hear his pleas. At first, I was awestruck-framed by the reddish terrain behind him, his stance was powerful. However, moments later, I noticed photographers with huge cameras, orbiting around him like fruit flies, taking shots of him from every angle. The scene felt performative; a sincere spiritual moment manipulated into a political stunt.

Walking past this photo-op, we ascended up the hill to where the men of the village were sitting in the shade of a large tree. The mix was interesting-men in dusty work clothes reclined on mats next to freshly dressed representatives from Palestinian news agencies, wizened old Bedouin men in traditional garb drank coffee with peppy-looking young activists from political organizations and nonprofits. And even though Khan al Ahmar isn’t connected to an electrical grid, smartphones, tablets, and laptops abounded, making the group under the tree look like a radical intersection of the technological revolution and traditional culture.

The fences, cars, and chairs surrounding the mingling of activists were plastered in political posters, and slogans. Every Palestinian and human rights NGO I had ever heard of had left their mark; the logos shining down ranged from the Palestinian communist party to the Neturei Karta to the P.LO. It felt like expressing solidarity with Khan al Ahmar’s struggle had evolved into an advertising opportunity for NGOs of every stripe. Looking around me, I wondered if all the present NGOs had been active in aiding the Bedouin community before the recent Supreme Court case had thrust the village’s struggle into the international limelight.

We continued on to a short tour of the Italian tire school, a warm and quaint space where each classroom was filled with studious children. We saw children study as if there was no commotion, no impending demolition, no press conferences right outside. I couldn’t believe how much they acted as if this was just like a normal day of school-until I realized that in the last year, impending demolition and a storm of activists was their daily reality.

The teachers in the school were the only Bedouin women I saw during my visit to Khan al Ahmar- an observation that Diana expounded upon with great passion. She felt that when well-meaning activists and media personnel poured into Bedouin villages, they did not take into account their effect on local women’s daily lives. In conservative Bedouin culture, where women do not venture into public spaces if there are foreign men present, constant visits from allies mean women cannot leave their homes, thus further disrupting a community already under threat.

Towards the end of our visit, an army representative asked a community leader to relay to visitors that their cars needed to be re-parked. The Bedouin man went up a microphone, repeated the message, and in an orderly fashion, everyone complied with the army’s request.

In the context of dozens of activists and residents waiting with subdued antagonism for the demolition, this orderly compliance felt bizarre. It peeled off a layer of political peacocking and staged photo ops, revealing the true issue at hand. The Khan al Ahmar community seeks to live in peace and mutual respect with its neighbors. The willing collaboration I witnessed reminded me how the essence of the Khan al Ahmar’s struggle is for the right of a historically marginalized group to not only independently determine their communal future, but to negotiate on their own terms how to complement traditional Bedouin culture with the outside Western world.

About the Author
Betty Soibel is the current Shatil Fellow at Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, which pursues human rights and democracy in the field of planning. She is a recent graduate of the Urban Studies program at Columbia University ('17) and is interested in how issues of urban development play out on the stage of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She can be reached at bs2829@columbia.edu.
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