Joe Dyke
Last updated: 19 October, 2016

Bedouin village caught up in Israeli settlement rift

Abu Youssef is tired. He has already seen his family home destroyed once and now faces a second demolition. But this time he has a controversial opt out clause: agree to move his small Bedouin community less than a mile away, and Abu Youssef could get a brand new home with running water and electricity.

The catch is that the offer comes from Israel, and Palestinian leaders and those concerned with Israeli settlement building are vehemently opposed.

Any move, even if the 50 families who live in the tiny community of Wadi Abu Hindi agreed to it, would violate international law and could be disastrous for the Palestinian cause, they say.

“We are between two sides,” Abu Youssef told AFP.

It is a dilemma faced by other Bedouin communities in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory Israel occupied in 1967.

Palestinian leaders say moving Wadi Abu Hindi would amount to forcible transfer of a population by an occupying power — a breach of the Geneva Conventions — and could lead to more relocations.

The village is located east of Jerusalem, where rights groups fear demolitions could eventually clear the way for further Israeli settlement construction.

This could partly divide the West Bank between north and south while further isolating the territory from east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as their future capital.

That scenario would make a contiguous future Palestinian state difficult to achieve.

But for Abu Youssef, the issue is far more personal.

– Desert home –

Wadi Abu Hindi amounts to a collection of shacks of corrugated metal in a desert valley, unbearably hot in summer and freezing in winter.

Abu Youssef, 56, has lived there his entire life, but under two different rulers.

When he was six years old, Israel occupied the West Bank, seizing it from Jordan, in a move never recognised by the international community.

The government began building settlements, including on land formerly used by semi-nomadic Bedouin farmers.

There are now more than 400,000 Israelis living in the West Bank, according to Israeli statistics.

Wadi Abu Hindi was demolished by Israeli forces in the late 1990s then rebuilt, and since 2011 has faced a new demolition order.

Last year, the Israeli lawyer for the community, Shlomo Lecker, says he received an offer he felt he had to present to them.

He previously fought many proposed relocations of Bedouins as they would be moved far away, imperilling their traditional agricultural lifestyles, he said.

But this offer involved moving less than a mile to where many of their extended family members live.

Infrastructure would be available and, crucially, they would be free from the threat of demolition.

“Nobody wants to be transferred far away but if they can have a chance to build a village near where they come from that is good,” Lecker told AFP.

Abu Youssef said Lecker has won numerous battles for them, so they took the offer seriously.

He stressed they have not made a final decision, but added that personally he was “tired” and tempted.

“We need water, we need electricity and we want to live,” Abu Youssef said.

Israeli officials would not confirm details of the offer, but noted an agreement hadn’t yet been reached.

The temporary homes of Bedouin communities between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea are often demolished by Israel, which says they lack permits.

Such permits are nearly impossible for Palestinians, including Bedouins, to obtain.

Israel has offered to relocate more than 40 unrecognised Bedouin villages into pre-planned communities but so far none have accepted.

One successful agreement could pressure other Bedouin communities to move, Palestinian officials argue.

– ‘Forcible transfer’ –

The concerns of the Palestinians and the UN can be seen close to Wadi Abu Hindi.

A few hundred metres above the village, a shiny and clean Israeli settlement, Kedar, peeks over the hill.

Further away, the suburban-like settlement of Maale Adumim houses some 35,000 Israelis.

After a international NGO cut his funding when he recommended the villages discuss taking a deal, Lecker has worked pro bono for more than six months.

He says he can no longer do so, while the Bedouin don’t want a different lawyer.

The UN was considering stepping in, UN sources said, prompting senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat to protest earlier this month, in a letter seen by AFP.

It warned that lawyers paid by international organisations “have provided legal aid to negotiate and/or mediate on behalf of these communities to reach a settlement agreement for their own transfer.

“These legal aid actors have in fact facilitated the forcible transfer of these communities,” it added.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian territories Robert Piper said in a statement to AFP he was concerned by potential forcible transfer but also by the legal aid gap for Bedouin communities.

Lecker accused the Palestinian Authority of ignoring the villagers’ needs.

“They are soldiers of the PA without anyone asking them.”