By Khaled Diab
Friday 7 September 2012
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 6 September 2012.