“We [Bedouin] are the [Native Americans] of Palestine,” is how 60-year-old Mohammad Ahmad Abu Dahook introduced the author and a colleague to Beit Iksa. Located nine kilometers northwest of Jerusalem, the land of Beit Iksa’s 1,600 residents is among that targeted by Israel for the expanding of its illegal Ma’ale Adumim settlement. Abu Dahook is one of the approximately 50,000 Bedouin whose traditions and lifestyle have been nearly destroyed by Israeli colonization. Their communities are still being displaced by Israel’s illegal land annexation and the transfer of Israel’s civilian population to territory it occupies, in violation of international humanitarian law. Abu Dahook and others like him see no relief in sight as they are constantly dogged by Israeli threats of further displacement and neglect by the Palestinian Authority.
“My people were forcibly expelled by the Israelis in 1951, three years after the Nakba,” Abu Dahook explained, referring to the forced displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population from their homeland perpetrated by Zionist militias during the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 — the year of Abu Dahook’s birth. “The Israelis came to [my people’s] areas and killed people. They burned Bedouin tents and possessions and killed livestock. They used terrorist methods and instilled fear. People didn’t leave because of rumors; they left because they were forced out. Many were martyred.”
Abu Dahook’s personal history illustrates the human cost of Israel’s national project to establish a state exclusive for world Jewry that could only be realized through the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, land confiscation for the construction of armed Jewish-only settlements, and the confinement of the indigenous Palestinians into ever smaller spaces.
“When the Bedouin were expelled, they went first to the West Bank, to Hebron, Bethlehem, and the Jordan Valley. Some stayed in the West Bank, some went to Jordan, and some [emigrated] to Egypt and then returned to Gaza,” Abu Dahook explained. “A few families went to the Nusseirat camp in Gaza. The Jahalin tribe spread out, but the largest concentration was in the Jerusalem area, between ‘Azariya to the west and Nabi Musa to the east, the area between Jericho and Jerusalem.”
Abu Dahook’s extended family is one of three families, with the Salamat and the Sray’a, that together make up the Jahalin tribe which lived originally in the Arad area in the south Negev, now Israel. Before the Nakba, Arab al-Jahalin had Turkish deeds to their agricultural lands. Israel was deliberate about emptying the land and taking as much of it as it could.
“My family went to Bethlehem, to the Beit Sahour area. They lived there for two to three years and then they settled in the Jerusalem area. Sometimes we lived in the Khan al-Ahmar area, east of ‘Azariya, and in the summer we’d go to Nabi Samuel. A Bedouin moves around wherever there is food and water for the herds.”
Abu Dahook explained that “In the 1950s, we were considered well-off compared to those around us. My father owned 100 heads of sheep and 10 camels at the time, and he was the sheikh. I was one of 13 kids; my Â father had two wives.” According to Abu Dahook, “Some Bedouin were able to take their livestock with them; others had them taken by the Israelis.” They tried their best to adapt; some become tenant farmers on small plots of land. Others became laborers, though work was hard to come by in the 1950s and others still bought goats or camels.
Abu Dahook recalls long walks to school and that health care was nonexistent. The UN agency for Palestine refugees, “UNRWA was completely negligent with the Bedouin sector. All of the refugees were in camps.”
Although all of the members of the Jahalin tribe are refugees, only 80-85 percent are registered with UNRWA. “In 1952,” Abu Dahook explained, “UNRWA rented land from the Jordanian Insha’ wa ta’meer agency and established refugee camps, but it did nothing for the Bedouin. It didn’t even send them a mobile health clinic. Some families in the Abu Dahook clan were not even included in the UNRWA census; they are refugees from Tel Arad but they don’t have refugee Â cards. They never heard that there would be a census on a certain day and in a certain place, so they missed it. But I have a refugee card and so do my parents.”
Carving a life among Israel’s facts on the ground
“After the 1967 war, the Israeli army imposed a curfew on large cities. But our areas had no built houses; there were no towns for them to impose a curfew on them. Open areas can’t be closed off easily,” Abu Dahook explained. As the West Bank fell under Israeli occupation, Abu Dahook’s family which lived in the Hizma triangle, east of Jerusalem, had once again to contend with Israel’s tactics Â aimed at removing them from their land.
“When Israel came, it deliberately sowed fear among people, because its policy was to expel people and to empty the land from its residents. We Bedouins went in the direction of Fara’a, to avoid the Jordanian army camp nearby, so we took the children further away, toward the running stream of Ain Fara’a. People started to come from the western villages, from the Jerusalem area and from Ramallah and al-Bireh.
“The Jews were lining people up, killing the infant before the old man, the woman before the man. Some people were afraid and went to Jordan; some remained,” Abu Dahook recalled.
Israel considers Wadi Qilt and Fara’a to be nature preserves under state protection, and it became forbidden for anyone to use it as grazing land or anything else. Settlers and tourists were never prevented from going there, but Bedouins were banned from doing so. Abu Dahook said that “other areas were declared to be closed military areas, even though there had never been a single bullet fired or even a stone thrown from them. It was just a way to deny the land to people. They destroyed people’s tents and took them to military court Â and imposed fines on them or imprisoned them, and that slowly Â decreased the number of people there.”
When the Israelis declared an area to be a closed military area, Abu Dahook said, “People didn’t listen, they’d go anyway, but then [the Israelis] would shoot at their sheep. And when the Israelis saw that shooting the sheep wasn’t a deterrent, they started to arrest the owner of the sheep or the shepherd, sometimes taking them away in military cars and sometimes in helicopters, and this happened to large numbers of people. They surrounded mountains and picked up whoever they found, 10, 15 people, send them in a helicopter to Bethlehem or Ramallah. [They’d] put them in a military court, impose a fine, and if he [didn’t] pay it, they put him in prison. Fines at that time were high, about 1,000 lira, and at that time every nine Israeli liras was the equivalent of one Jordanian dinar. This was a large amount for people.
“The first time the green patrols came to Beit Iksa, they took my sheep to Qarantina in Beer Saba [now Beer Sheva] and fined me about 10,000 shekels. They claimed we were in Israel, but Beit Iksa is not within what they call the Green Line, it is the West Bank, and its residents hold West Bank ID cards. People who couldn’t afford to pay would have to borrow money; they couldn’t afford to let the Israelis take them. If I have sheep, I am tied to the land. I consider the Â sheep part of the cultural heritage and a national treasure at the same time.”
Abu Dahook added, “In the 1970s it was still possible to criss-cross the West Bank from north to south. The army created problems when it found you, though. In the beginning, the Israelis paid no attention [if you moved your tent from one area to another]. But things changed after 1978. Then they would move you from where you were, and if they did, it was forbidden to you to return to it. If you try to return, they tear down your tent and expel you again. Khan al-Ahmar and other areas were considered closed military areas.”
Abu Dahook explained that 1978 was a pivotal year for him and his extended family; in that year “Israeli soldiers came in large numbers with the dawn prayers and destroyed our homes and their contents. They came without warning. Before we knew it, they were just demolishing our tents with their cars. When a tent is held up by five or six ropes and a car comes and cuts them down, it collapses. And if it doesn’t, the military car drives right through it and brings it down. They told us it was forbidden for us to live where we were, and they destroyed the area in a single day. What happened to me and my community [more than 300 families] in the Khan al-Ahmar area happened from the far north to the far south. They didn’t spare anyone. If they came to me in 1978, they got to some people in 1977 and some in 1979.”
When he and his family lived on private property in Anata and Abu Dis, Abu Dahook explained, “No one bothered us. The people in our towns and villages are honorable people. If the land is empty, what difference does it make to the owner whether we live on it? On the contrary, when we live on the property, we protect it. That’s how people looked at it. None of them ever asked the Bedouin to leave the lands they lived on.”