Repression and resistance in a Bedouin village

April 19, 2018

The Bedouin inhabitants of Umm al-Khair face a constant effort by Israel to wipe the Palestinian village off the map--but they refuse to surrender, writes Maddie Fenn.

FOR CENTURIES, Palestinian Bedouins thrived in the Naqab desert, guided by the seasons and the starlight. Now, those stars that are so important to the nomadic and autarkic Bedouin communities are dimmed by the lighting atop security fences constructed by Israeli setters and the Israeli state.

The security lighting helps the work of organizations that report every move of the Bedouins to the Israeli Civil Administration, the Israeli governing body in the West Bank, which does everything from expedite the demolition of village structures, to perpetuate the wrongful arrest of Palestinians, to levy astronomical fines for supposed "violations."

The paths that Bedouins once traveled in their seasonal migrations are now blocked with military checkpoints and makeshift roadblocks of dirt or rocks, bulldozed into large piles to prevent travel by car.

Still, while the occupation has undoubtedly disrupted the lives and lineages of the Bedouin Palestinians in the Naqab, an unwavering commitment to resistance holds communities like Umm al-Khair together.

The rubble of a home demolished by Israeli troops in the village of Umm al-Khair
The rubble of a home demolished by Israeli troops in the village of Umm al-Khair (Friends123 | Wikimedia Commons)

LOCATED WITHIN the Hebron Governorate of Palestine's West Bank, the village of Umm al-Khair lies adjacent to the illegal Israeli settlement of Carmel. With its name translating roughly to "Mother of Goodness," Umm al-Khair is home to over 150 Palestinians.

The Nakba (meaning "the catastrophe," as the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians by Zionist militias as prelude to the founding of Israel is known) displaced over 700,000 Palestinians. Umm al-Khair was established in 1949 by families forcefully expelled from Arad--the first planned city in the state of Israel.

Under constant attack from Israel's continuous settlement expansion projects, Umm al-Khair's struggle to exist and resist is coupled with vehemently anti-Palestinian discrimination from Zionist settlers in Carmel and the presence of the Israel Defense Force (IDF).

After the Nakba, many of the Bedouins now in Umm al-Khair lived as refugees on land previously owned by residents of Yatta. Shu'eb Hathaleen, one of the respected elders in Umm al-Khair, purchased the land from citizens in Yatta City for 121 camels in 1949 and has remained since, fighting the occupation's unceasing attempts to steal the land for Israeli settlement expansion.

In the time since Shu'eb purchased the land, officers with the Israeli Civil Administration attempted to bribe him into leaving with promises of as much money as the community needs, as many jobs as they can take, and more freedom than they could imagine.

Shu'eb refused to leave the land, however. Since he purchased the land, the Israeli Civil Administration has occupied nearly 55 percent of it for its illegal settlement projects that began in the 1970s.

The Bedouins work communally to maintain agricultural projects, livestock and community initiatives for education and community advancement.

In an interview, 64-year-old Khadra Hathaleen emphasized the importance of freedom as a Bedouin tradition--freedom to migrate, freedom for children and livestock to live openly and happily in safe and spacious areas, freedom to live in peace and share this peace with others.

Traditionally, Bedouin communities migrate seasonally between several known and established areas, often moving to larger encampments with more shelter from storms and the winter cold, and returning to more spacious areas when the weather allows. This lifestyle allows for the Bedouins to provide their communities and livestock with sustenance, water, areas for the animals to graze, and room for communities to thrive.

BEDOUIN LIFE is drastically different under occupation. Forced to stay within the same encampments year-round, the inhabitants of Umm al-Khair cannot migrate due to the risk of their land being appropriated by the IDF, settlers or other organizations acting for the Israeli state.

Being forced to remain in one location despite seasonal changes has been destructive to the livestock, making sheep and goats unable to graze, exercise and be cared for appropriately. Structures demolished by bad weather can't be rebuilt thanks to Israeli zoning restrictions, forcing families to cohabitate in cramped conditions that provide little to no protection from harsh weather.

Vacating the village, even for a short period of time, increases the risk of Israeli Civil Administration declaring the land abandoned or uninhabited, opening space for a land grab and settlement expansion.

Being stuck in the same location also opens the community to constant surveillance by the Israeli government and pro-settlement organizations--which petition for the demolition of tents and structures.

The local pro-settlement advocacy organization Regavim (named after a Zionist poem from the Ottoman era, "dunam by dunam, regev by regev," which translates roughly to "acre by acre, land by land") specifically targets Bedouin communities in Palestine for Israeli land grabs and intrudes in the lives of Bedouins in Umm al-Khair on a regular basis.

Representatives from Regavim spend their days filming, reporting and harassing the citizens of Umm al-Khair in an attempt to instigate tension and involve the IDF whenever possible.

Bedouin culture has been challenged by urbanized lifestyles.

Similar to the attempted erasure of Indigenous communities and practices within the U.S. and other colonizing nations, the process of assimilation is multifaceted, involving displacement and ever-increasing attacks on the livelihood and often the lives of the Bedouins.

Bedouins who seek housing in the city while attending university face socioeconomic discrimination, making renting apartments or homes and obtaining an education that much harder. Landlords often refuse to rent to Bedouins, or charge higher rent or deposits. Even the Palestinian Authority treats Bedouins unfavorably compared to non-Bedouin Palestinians, enforcing class stratifications by ostracizing Bedouins.

The biggest purveyor of tension among Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities are the soldiers of the IDF and the Israeli Civil Administration themselves.

On the topic of how the occupation affects Bedouin and non-Bedouin communities, 24-year-old Umm al-Khair resident Awdah al-Hathaleen says that if a non-Bedouin Palestinian feels they are at a lesser risk of attack due to their class, they are letting themselves be soothed by false security. "I know that if they take my village today, tomorrow they will take his."

EVERY HOME and structure in Umm al-Khair has a demolition order from the Israeli Civil Administration.

To contest a demolition order in court can cost the equivalent of $3,000 or $4,000 to travel to the courts, work with lawyers and seek a building permit. Building permits are seldom awarded to Palestinians, and any increased attention from the Civil Administration can lead to future retaliation.

Because residents do not know when the orders will be carried out, Khadra performs daily rounds to see if orders have been posted on the structures and homes. Umm al-Khair's community center, used for a library and a space for children to play indoors (when they are not on the only playground in the village) has been demolished twice, and now has a third pending demolition order.

This past winter, 12 tents in the village collapsed, and every housing structure experienced mild flooding. None have not been rebuilt due to the constant surveillance from settlers and other organizations.

With only seven hours of water allocated per week for the 150 residents of Umm al-Khair, providing sufficient water for the community's nourishment, cleaning, cooking and livestock is impossible. Because of this, the young and frail livestock die quickly. Many of the sheep and goats are too dehydrated or weak to be slaughtered for food.

The illegal Israeli settlement of Carmel has running and filtered water in all homes, in addition to a large water tank kept full for emergencies. When the water in the reserve has been sitting for a year or more, the settlers have been known to intentionally contaminate it before pouring the water onto the trees and za'atar fields in Umm al-Khair.

The area commonly used for planting and harvesting is at the bottom of a slight hill in the settlement, and it is common for settlers and their children to throw garbage, shoes and rocks at the residents in Umm al-Khair while they tend to their plants and while the children play soccer in the nearby field.

The preparation of traditional Bedouin taboon bread in an outdoor oven has been halted by the demolition of the only oven in the village--after it was falsely claimed that the oven caused health problems for settlers upwind of Umm al-Khair. The cost to repair and rebuild the oven is more than a quarter million dollars.

Without being able to prepare their own bread, residents must travel to Yatta to purchase bread. Traveling to Yatta presents its own problems--residents of Umm al-Khair have had more than five vehicles taken by the Israeli state in 2018 due to complaints of "dangerous" driving or vehicle condition.

Sometimes they are not given an explanation, but are required to pay upwards of $1,700 to retrieve stolen cars from the Israeli Civil Administration--if they are allowed to do so, and often they are not.

It has been common for settlers and soldiers to steal, attack and even kill livestock belonging to Umm al-Khair. Shepherds work in shifts herding and caring for livestock, aware of potential harassment from settlers as well as the risk of having livestock stolen or killed.

Traditionally, all members of the community would share the labor of caring for sheep and goats, but the Israeli state has a method of attacking a community by targeting the smaller, weaker or younger people first, putting women and children at risk if they are alone tending to the livestock.

Due to these threats, one person now cares for all of the village's livestock day and night, isolated from the community. Shu'eb Hathaleen sees this isolation of labor as a great detriment to the community, saying that "we are missing one of our own."

The isolation of individuals within the Bedouin community is an extension of the isolation of Bedouin communities from urban Palestine, a tactic used by the Israeli state to divide and conquer. Movement restrictions and community isolation are two of the many ways that Israel attempts to control Palestinian communities, but these efforts do not go unprotested.

FOR THE Bedouin community of Umm al-Khair, freedom is not only--to use the words of Angela Davis--a constant struggle, but a tradition taught and passed down through generations.

Residents who attend and graduate from university to return to Umm al-Khair and share knowledge, skills and training with their community. Members of the community, including elders, often get arrested or detained by the IDF when blocking the demolition of their homes and structures. When settlers throw stones from over their fence, and the village's children take the stones to build a small partition between the soccer field and the za'atar field.

Eid Suleiman Hadaleen of Umm al-Khair has been building miniature trucks, cars, bulldozers and more from scraps, trash and pieces of demolished homes and structure--which the artist Ai Weiwei has exhibited alongside other art inspired by refugees and resettlement themes.

In the face of relentless hostility, the elders of Umm al-Khair draw on the resistance of the youth and solidarity beyond the village.

For Shu'eb, there had been times when the future seemed darker than the past. "I lost hope after some time," he says. "I told myself that Palestine will never be free, we will not be able to continue, our village will be demolished, and it will be over." It was only when Shu'eb saw the children in the village work tirelessly toward their own education and their resistance that his hope was restored.

Shu'eb believes that education is the key to peace and justice, and that the yearning children have to learn and grow shows the potential for the future of all Palestinians. Solidarity and support from the community and its comrades, near and far, gives Shu'eb sumud, or steadfastness, in his choice to stand and protect his land.

Khadra feels hopeful when she is able to receive Palestinians, Israelis, Jews and international visitors as guests and welcome them into her community with open arms.

When her guests eat from her table and the food she has so lovingly prepared, from the bread made by hand to the traditional coffee and tea prepared meticulously, every meal is a chance to share not only nourishment, but generations of a culture that cannot be silenced or erased by Zionism or imperialism or colonialism.

Most of all, when her children and others in the village insist that they will stay on this land, no matter what, she is filled with hope and strength for the release of Palestine from the grip of the unjust Israeli occupation.

The same children who wake up at night to the sound of a car approaching and who fear demolitions are also the ones who refuse to be seen as anything less than the future of the Palestinian liberation movement. The children have helped their elders regain hope and strength over years of ruthless and unrelenting attacks.

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