Khan al-Ahmar: The human rights impact of Israel’s settlement expansion

Khan al-Ahmar primary school, threatened with demolition by the Israeli army. ©Amnesty International

For more than 60 years, the Jahalin Bedouin tribe has been struggling to maintain their way of life. Forced from their tribal lands in the Negev/Naqab desert in the1950s, they have been continually harassed, pressured and resettled by successive Israeli governments, seemingly intent on squeezing them out of existence. And the latest Israeli decisions to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank will mean further hardships for these communities.

Just yesterday, plans were approved for about 900 new apartments in Gilo, a settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.

On Sunday, the Israeli Ministry of Housing announced tenders for the construction of 1,200 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The announcement includes the Israeli settlements of Ma’ale Adumim and Pisgat Ze’ev, which surround the area where several Jahalin communities have lived for decades. Several other plans for settlement construction have been pushed forward recently.

All this brought to mind my latest visit to the Jahalin community in Khan al-Ahmar two months ago.Entering the village in a vehicle was impossible. As we approached on the main highway, built to connect illegal Israeli settlements in the rest of the West Bank with those in East Jerusalem, we could clearly see the village on the hillside next to the road. But there was no route in.

The village of Khan al-Ahmar is home to one of the 20 Jahalin Bedouin communities who have been threatened by Israeli settlement expansion in the area east of Jerusalem, also known as “E1”, for years. The communities are made up of 2,300 refugees who were originally displaced by Israel in the 1950s.

The Israeli authorities have blocked the old road leading to the village, and failed to provide safe alternative access. It’s as if Khan al-Ahmar has been wiped off Israeli maps. The Israeli authorities are still seeking to forcibly transfer its residents.

To reach the village I, together with other delegates from Amnesty International, had to get off our bus on the busy highway and climb down into the dirt track beneath the main road and then climb up the hill to Khan al-Ahmar on foot. While the cars and trucks hurtled by behind us, we realized that school children take this path every day.

Traditionally, the Jahalin earned their living from a pastoral economy which depends on access to grazing lands. For decades their ability to maintain their way of life has been squeezed by the building of Jewish-only settlements, military bases, and nature reserves that encroached on the lands they use.

The relentless wave of illegal settlements continues. The announcements yesterday and on Sunday are in addition to Israeli proposals mooted last year to expand settlements in the E1 area. At the time the plans attracted widespread condemnation from governments around the world.

Such announcements are far more than just another “obstacle” to the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israel’s continuing settlement construction directly affects the rights of Palestinians living under military occupation in communities like Khan al-Ahmar. It compounds the litany of human rights violations they face on a daily basis, including the denial of their rights to adequate housing and water.

Many homes in the Jahalin communities have been destroyed by the Israeli military, and most others, as well as two primary schools, have demolition orders. The communities also suffer from recurring Israeli settler attacks on residents, including children, as well as on homes and water supplies. Those who commit these acts benefit from near-total impunity.

During our visit to Khan al-Ahmar, residents told us of their struggle to continue daily activities like herding their sheep and educating their children in the face of the settlements and the Israeli army. They stressed that the current Israeli plan to transfer the Jahalin communities represents the biggest threat to their existence yet.

For nearly two years, these communities have been fighting Israeli plans to forcibly transfer them from their homes. Initially the Israeli military proposed moving the Jahalin to a site very close to a municipal garbage dump, without consulting the communities. It was only following pressure from local NGOs and the international community that the Israeli authorities agreed to look at alternative sites. However, no genuine consultations have taken place yet.

Israel’s policies of settling Israeli civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and forcibly transferring Palestinians living under occupation violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and are considered war crimes, according to the statute of the International Criminal Court.

The USA, which is sponsoring the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as the EU and all concerned countries, must ensure that Israel complies with international law.

Israel must immediately scrap plans to forcibly transfer the Jahalin from their land, and cancel all demolition orders against their homes. It must also immediately halt the construction or expansion of Israeli settlements and related infrastructure in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a first step towards removing Israeli civilians living in such settlements.

Driving away and looking back, we could see Khan al-Ahmar and the other Bedouin hamlets scattered in the midst of one of Israel’s biggest settlements projects. These refugee shepherds are isolated, standing in the face of this human rights crisis. They should not be left to stand alone.