Tribe expelled to house settlers

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL IS moving Bedouin who used to graze their flocks of sheep and goats in the Judean desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to a 50-acre shanty town of corrugated iron huts on a stony hilltop beside Jerusalem's main rubbish dump. The aim is to empty the area of Palestinians in order to expand Jewish settlements and make it easier for Israel to claim in negotiations on the future of the West Bank.

"They came with helicopters, police and soldiers and destroyed our tents," says Suleiman Mazara, a member of the 7,000-strong Jahalin tribe of Bedouin who used to encamp beside the road to Jericho. "People were dumped on this hilltop, where it is too rocky to drive in a tent peg. We live in houses made out of corrugated iron. It is very hot in summer and cold in winter."

On the road into the camp Bedouin children were scrabbling through rubbish, apparently brought from Jerusalem's main dump 500 yards away. There is a single water pipe, but no sewage system. In one place somebody had tried to build a garden, but had grownonly a few dried-out weeds.

"The general intent to take over the Judean desert is an important part of the policy of the government," says Shlomo Lecker, a lawyer in Jerusalem who is trying to stop demolition of the Jahalin homes. "It is ethnic cleansing. It is easier to get rid of the Bedouin than other Palestinians, because they are weaker. They don't care whose authority they live under, so long as they have the right to live."

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, makes the point that the areas on the West Bank Israel wants to keep are "98 per cent empty of Palestinians". What he does not say is that Israel has adopted a conscious policy of driving out Palestinians who do live there. After Israel captured the West Bank in 1967 much of the desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea was declared a military area. No building permits were issued. When the Bedouin erected tents or shacks, demolition orders were issued. Shlomo Lecker says: "There is no way for the Bedouin to remain within the law except to leave."

Some of the Bedouin's old encampments have already been engulfed by the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim, whose red roofs house 22,000 people, and is spreading to the east of Jerusalem. From the hilltop camp beside the rubbish dump Suleiman Mazara has a clear view of this settlement. He says bitterly: "When you look at Maaleh Adumim you see people living there who have just arrived from Russia and Ethiopia. But the people like us, who lived there before, get nothing."

In fact, the Jahalin have not always lived east of Jerusalem. Before 1950 they lived in the Negev desert near present-day Beersheva, a semi- settled tribe, which grew flowers as well as herding sheep and goats.

When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, half the Jahalin fled across the Jordan valley further into Jordan and half stayed where they were. But they found themselves under pressure because Israel did not recognise their right to live and build their homes in the desert, which was viewed as belonging to the government. It was set aside for military use or for settlements.

"My father was still hoping we can go back to our homes in Beersheva," says Suleiman Mazara. "When he heard of the Oslo accords [between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993] he welcomed it. Two weeks after Oslo, the Israelis told us to move from where we had been living since 1950. They stopped us grazing our flocks. They immediately started expanding Maaleh Adumim. They say it is military land and then use it for settlers."

The demolition orders and forced evictions have been stepped up. In February bulldozers demolished 100 shacks and tents in which 200 people were living.

The Jahalins' mood is generally despairing. "Our job is tending our animals," says one man. "Now we must sell them and go and work as labourers in Israel."

The campaign against the Jahalin is only one aspect of an Israeli effort to rid the Judean desert and the Jordan valley of as many Palestinians as possible.

However, the Jahalin say they would accept being moved from the Jericho road, if Israel would find them somewhere other than the rubbish dump. Suleiman Mazara points out that the land at Beersheva from which they were expelled in 1950 is still unused by Israel and there is no practical reason they should not go back there.