School resumes with tough lessons for Bedouin kids

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By Khaled Diab

With their school slated for demolition, the children of Khan al-Ahmar wonder whether Israel believes that Bedouins do not deserve an education.

Friday 7 September 2012

Children line up for morning assembly at the threatened Khan al-Ahmar school. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In the twilight of the early morning, as the rising sun turns a nearby mountain a striking pinkish-red, Nujood emerges from the family shack ready for her first day back at school after the long summer holiday. The teenager is a member of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe which has lived in the West Bank since they were forcibly evicted from the Negev by Israel shortly after its creation in 1948.

Nujood greets us shyly as we sit with her father, Moussa, sipping sweet Bedouin tea in the family’s simple “garden”, the best the arid circumstances will allow. Despite the early hour, the 14-year-old, who is starting seventh grade, is excited about the prospect of resuming her education.

“I enjoyed the summer holiday but I prefer going to school to being on holiday because we study there and learn new things,” Nujood says in a barely audible whisper, betraying an attitude quite at odds with the mixed emotions with which I recall we greeted the new school year when I was a teenager.

We walk the short distance – past a herd of drowsy camels who follow us with bleary-eyed interest and a couple of donkeys apparently enjoying the splendour of the early morning light – to her modest school. Nujood, who is neatly turned out in a lime green striped uniform and white headscarf, tells me about her aspirations.

Shy Nujood overcomes her reserve to salute the flag. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“I want to become a teacher,” she says simply. Her reason? “I want to teach other [Bedouin] children because not everything is available here for them to learn,” she elaborates. Perhaps that explains why, despite her self-conscious bashfulness, she led the saluting of the flag during the morning assembly.

Her excitement at a new term notwithstanding, Nujood is apprehensive and worried, because her school – which she shares with around 100 other children, mostly of primary school age, from Khan al-Ahmar and other nearby Bedouin communities – may not stay open for much longer. In fact, shortly before the term began a nearby Israeli settlement unsuccessfully, for now, petitioned the Supreme Court not to allow the school to reopen, and it is only a matter of time before the Civil Administration – the IDF arm which governs the West Bank – will have to carry out the order to demolish the school.

The school, like 17 others in Area C of the West Bank, has had an Israeli demolition order against it since it was built, out of old tyres mixed with mud, with international assistance and local volunteer work, in 2009.

“When I hear they plan to demolish our school, I feel that they want to humiliate us and don’t want us to learn,” Nujood reflects sadly. “But we won’t let that happen,” she adds, though what more this embattled community can do to save this school is unclear, since the lawyer representing their case in the Israeli courts has reportedly exhausted all avenues and it is only international pressure and advocacy that seems to behind the ongoing stay of execution.

In addition, Khan al-Ahmar in its entirety and other Bedouin communities in the area are slated for demolition, and their 2,300 residents live under the constant threat of eviction.

Sandwiched between Kfar Adumim (population: 2,500) and Ma’ale Adumim (population: 39,000), the freedom of movement of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents has been severely curtailed. This is not only a harsh slap down for people who have for countless generations enjoyed the freedom to roam, but it also threatens the community’s traditional livelihood, which is based on herding. Moreover, the Bedouin complain that they can no longer reach Jerusalem, where they used to sell their livestock, nor are they allowed to work on settlements anymore.

The ostensible justification for these demolition and eviction orders is that the ramshackle collection of huts and tents that make up Khan al-Ahmar, like is the case with other Bedouin and Palestinian farming communities in Area C of the West Bank, was built “without a permit”. But acquiring such permission – according to the UN and international organisations, not to mention Israeli human rights groups – is nearly impossible.

For its part, the Israeli Civil Administration insists that it provides the Bedouin with alternative locations in which to settle, but the Bedouin say that these alternatives – such as the plan to move the 2,300 Bedouin of the Jerusalem periphery to a location near the stinking al-Abdali tip where the rubbish from the city is dumped – are not suitable and that they prefer to stay put because they do not wish to become “refugees all over again”, as numerous Bedouins in the area have told me.

The same applies for education, with the Israeli authorities insisting that alternatives to the Khan al-Ahmar and the 17 other schools exist or will be found. But locals are not convinced, saying that the closure of the school will force them to send their children to Jericho, as they used to before their modest and convenient local school was built.

Nujood remembers those days well. “My old school was hard to reach. I used to leave at dawn and come back at around 5pm,” she recounts. This left her with little time or energy to study and do homework, especially since electricity is a precious and rare commodity in Khan al-Ahmar, in contrast with the brightly lit settlements nearby. The journey was also a perilous one, with some children involved in road traffic accidents, including a number of fatalities.

The school, which is built of a mix of old tyres and mud, gives local girls a stab at an education.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In this deeply conservative and traditional Bedouin society, the greater distance and risk would lead many parents to keep their daughters at home. In fact, though the school was ill-equipped for it, the secondary school class –constructed with flimsy chipboard and wrought iron sheets – was introduced at Khan al-Ahmar expressly to enable girls to continue their education.

But, unusually, as far as Nujood’s father is concerned, his daughter has a right to a full education, no matter the distance or cost. “Even if they demolish the school, we will carry on with Nujood’s schooling,” Moussa tells me. “I’d like Nujood to go as far in the education system as she wants.” He delivers a heart-felt plea to the Civil Administration and the Israeli public to think about how they would feel if the same were done to their children, before carrying out the death sentence on this school, which he helped build with his own hands.

The Bedouins of Khan al-Ahmar not only feel under attack by the Israeli occupation, but also have a sense that they have been abandoned to their fate by the Palestinian Authority, according to Eid Sweillam, also known as Abu Khamis, spokesman for Khan al-Ahmar.

“The occupation authorities do all they can to prevent the PA from performing its roles and responsibilities in Area C, and to restrict our ability to develop [it],” admitted Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad when I put the Bedouins’ concerns to him during a press conference he held at the school that same morning. “This does not mean that the PA has stood before the Israeli occupation with its hands tied. It has implemented hundreds of projects in what is called Area C.”

Boys page through their new school books in a makeshift classroom.Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Area C, which falls under full Israeli control, represents 60% of the surface area of the West Bank. It is currently populated by 150,000 Palestinians, mostly Bedouins and poor farmers, and more than 300,000 Israeli settlers (from around 110,000 in 1993 and only just over 1,000 in 1972).

Despite the restrictions imposed by the occupation, the Bedouin insist that the PA can do more. “The most important thing that the PA can do in Area C… is to help us find alternative livelihoods and provide us with legal support,” suggests Abu Khamis.

Failing to act will not only hurt the Bedouins of Area C, but also the Palestinian national project, insists Abu Khamis. “We are the final stone keeping a contiguous Palestinian state together,” he says. “If these Bedouin communities are uprooted… This will split the north of Palestine from the south.” It would also cut East Jerusalem off completely from its West Bank hinterland.

This Israeli-controlled sector possesses the majority of Palestinian agricultural and grazing land and is the only contiguous territory in the West Bank, which was supposed to provide, under the ‘land for peace’ formula, the bulk of the space upon which the future Palestinian state would be established. But as more and more space is swallowed up by settlements and pressure grows from settler groups for Israel to annex much of Area C, this prospect is looking increasingly dim.

To deal with this challenge, Palestinians need to borrow from Israel’s handbook of creating faits accomplis, Fayyad stressed. “We are fully intent on building facts on the ground that are consistent with the inevitability of the emergence of the fully independent sovereign state of Palestine on the territories occupied in 1967,” the Palestinian prime minister said.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 September 2012.

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Nomad with nowhere to go [Video]

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Salama is young, unemployed and so cut off by Israeli settlements that he has almost nowhere to go and no friends to hang out with except his brother.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Picture what life must be like when you not only have no job and no prospects but your community also faces eviction. Imagine being unable to enjoy the freedom of youth because you’re hemmed in by Israeli settlements and need a permit to travel to nearby Jerusalem. Imagine how lonely it must feel to rarely get the opportunity to hang out with people your own age and so your brother has to double up as your friend.

And to top it all off, think how frustrating it must be if you’ve been raised as a Bedouin to value the freedom to roam, yet you’re stuck between the rock of a settlement on one side and the hard place of a military training zone on the other.

Welcome to the world of Salama (22), who lives in an endangered Bedouin community on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The young man proved a friendly and conscientious host during the long wait for his father to arrive, yet the dull drudgery and hardship of his life had instilled in him an earnestness and solemnity beyond his years.

Since finishing high school, he’s only managed to work as a seasonal labourer and, at the moment, he has no work, which leaves him with wide expanses of free time, but no wide open spaces to misspend it in.

“There’s no one else my age here, except for my brother, who is older than me. We keep each other company by hanging out together, telling each other things. There’s time to kill and we don’t know what to do with it,” he confesses. “I don’t have anyone else and nor does he.”

Salama is frustrated at how circumstances have conspired to stop him from making something of his life. “I try to do something for myself. At night, I ask myself, ‘What have I done today?” I realise nothing. The day has passed with nothing to show for it. Sometimes, I just want to do something, so I knock something down and rebuild it. I have all this energy and I need an outlet for it.”

He is also frustrated that he cannot do something meaningful for his country, especially at a time when youth in neighbouring Egypt are struggling to transform theirs. “I have too much free time. Take Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]… He must account even for bathroom breaks. Now look at me and all the free time I have,” he reflects, a pastime he has plenty of time for. “When you come home, you think to yourself, what have you done for your country? You eat, you sleep, you get up, you come and you go… That is the sum of your life.”

And even on the rare occasion he manages to go out with friends, the endeavour can be risky, even when visiting nearby Jericho, which he is allowed to do. Salama relates the story of when he got arrested during Eid el-Fitr in 2011 for allegedly bothering an Israeli girl.

He says that he did not bother anyone and that he has photographic evidence to prove it. At the time of the alleged incident, he was having his photo taken with a friend at a studio in Jericho. Salama claims that the real reason he got taken in was because he had answered back to the soldier. While arresting him, the soldier kicked him in the shins, Salama claims.

Although no formal charges were brought against him, Salama says he spent over two months in detention. “In prison, I truly felt the suffering of the Palestinian people for the first time. Before that I’d heard about prisoners and that freedom is a blessing. But I didn’t expect it to be like this. We were in a room that was 3m by 3m.”

And the wide expanses of time got even wider in the narrow confines of his cell: “At times I got so bored that I began to count the tiles.”

“In detention, you see terrible suffering,” Salama adds. “You meet people who say they’ve been here for a year. You ask them if they’ve appeared in court. They say, no.”

This experience makes him pine for liberty all the more. “Freedom is the foundation of a person. Without freedom, you are worthless,” he opines. “I have no personal freedom. I’ll tell you, if I go just outside, 50m down the hill, I reach the boundaries of the settlement next door, Kifar Adumim. I’m not allowed to enter it.”

After answering his numerous questions about my travels, I asked where he would go if he had the freedom to go where he pleased?.“My dream is to see our ancestral land [in the Naqab/Negev],” he replies.

And how about abroad, where he can shake of the restrictions? “When I have the freedom to travel at home, then I can think about going abroad,” he says.

Scroll up to the top of the article to watch the video (in Arabic).

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Travelling without political baggage

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By Dara Frank

Israelis and Palestinians travelling together without their political baggage can help pave the way to the mutual respect eventual peace requires.

Monday 13 February 2012

Photo: ©Dara Frank

“Why are you even going on this trip?” a friend of mine asked as I was heading out to meet the group Tiyul-Rihla (“trip” in Hebrew and Arabic) to begin our two-day tour through the West Bank. “Do you think this will solve the conflict?” I honestly don’t know what I thought. I half-expected the trip to be another one of “those” tours that takes you into the West Bank and just burdens you with the conflict, hatred and politics.

The group assembled outside our hotel in Beit Jalah was an even mix of Israelis and Palestinians. At first we awkwardly mulled around, waiting for instructions, making small talk. Then some members of the group who attended Tiyul-Rihla Part I – when the group travelled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – started arriving and greeting their friends from the first trip with huge hugs and shining smiles (that kind you only see on a person who has not seen a close friend in a long time). I think it was the first time I’d seen Israelis and Palestinians actively embracing one another.

The agenda of the trip was non-political in nature, with the idea that we would travel to places that have historical and cultural significance to the members of the group. That way, we could teach and learn from one another about our about our respective religions, histories and cultures. At the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho, we were able to focus on the significance of the menorah mosaic on the floor and not the recent political struggle involving the building. At Hisham’s Palace, our Palestinian group members were able to proudly tour us around the remains of this magnificent structure that was erected hundreds of years ago.

For security reasons, we had to be very careful not to identify ourselves as Israelis. However, one of the guides at the Sycamore Tree site saw right through our cover. After he told us the history of the place, he concluded by saying, “Now go home and tell your friends, tell your country, that we want peace.” This comment made the whole group smile – after all, that’s why we were there in the first place. I was particularly excited by this encounter because, as simple as it sounds, it is not obvious that everyone wants peace; hearing our guide say this gave me hope.

As the day continued, I started to think about the implications of what this man had said. I thought: good, we’re at a good starting point, we both want peace. This means that we’re not engaged in a fight between one side who wants peace and one side who does not want peace and we both recognise that. But what does his peace look like? Does it look like my peace?

The remainder of the evening involved dancing in a park in Jericho, drinking coffee at a café in the center of town, walking through the streets with my new friends, lighting Chanukah candles and singing songs with the group.

It was reflecting on these moments that I was able to see what peace would have to entail. In the end, if I truly want peace, my definition has to overlap with my Palestinian friends’ definition of peace, and theirs with mine. It is trips like Tiyul-Rihla that help achieve the first step towards this recognition because we, as participants, can all now match a face to an idea. When “the Palestinians” are no longer just this group of people that exist in the abstract but a nationality that my friends define themselves as, it is easier to look at the question of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. And when my new friends see Israel not as the enemy but as a nation where I live, hopefully they can also see that I have the right to live here too, as a Jew, in my own sovereign nation-state.

We can’t solve the conflict or bring peace, but we can help pave the way for people to respect the other’s rights – on both sides of the divide. On the most basic level, encounters like this allow us to realise and understand the right for the other to exist. In turn, on a slightly more nuanced level, it allows each side to respect the sovereignty and legitimacy of the other.  Without this seemingly simple recognition, it does not matter how much each side wants peace because our “peaces” won’t be the same.

To answer my friend’s question, no, I don’t think it will solve the conflict. But I do think it is paramount to the success of any resolution.

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