Adonis Diaries

Israeli constant Aggression on village of Umm al-Kheir “Mother of Goodness”, a Palestinian Bedouin Community

Posted on: June 28, 2018

Umm al-Kheir: A Bedouin Community Struggles to Survive in the Face of Israeli Aggression

November 24th, 2017

Eid Suleiman Hathaleen’s job is to locate unexploded mines in the rugged hills in the southern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His life at home is, however, much more stressful.

Eid, thirty-four, lives in Umm al-Kheir, a small Palestinian hamlet south of Hebron.

For years, Umm al-Kheir has been under attack by both the Israeli army and Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Carmel. Recently, the situation has worsened considerably.

“We expect the bulldozers to come any day to demolish our homes,” Eid tells Muftah. “The authorities promised they wouldn’t demolish during Ramadan [May 26 – June 24], but since then they have demolished in other villages,” says Eid’s cousen, Tariq Hathaleen, twenty-four.

Israeli authorities engage in home demolitions all over the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

According to the Israeli NGO Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Israeli government has demolished nearly 50,000 Palestinian structures since 1967.

Home demolitions violate humanitarian law, which applies to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states:

“Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”

Umm al-Kheir

Translated as “Mother of Goodness,” Umm al-Kheir is a collection of dilapidated shacks, tents, water tanks, and animal pens. Its tallest structure is an enclosure that houses pigeons.

The village does not have running water and is not connected to the power grid.

Its meager electricity supply comes from a few solar panels donated by international NGOs.

Caption: The village of Umm al-Kheir in the West Bank. Credit: Cody O’Rourke

The poverty of Umm al-Kheir stands in stark contrast to the wealth of the illegal Israeli settlement of Carmel, located a few dozen feet away. It is so close an effort has to be made not to notice the settlement’s yellow stucco houses—complete with air-conditioning, drip-irrigation gardens, and goldfish ponds—on the other side of the fence that divides the two communities.

At night, one can see and hear the settlers in their living rooms.

Caption: The settlement of Carmel. Credit: Richard Hardigan

The difference between the settlers’ standard of living and that of the people of Umm al-Kheir is perhaps best exemplified by the nearby poultry barn, which the settlers of Carmel run as a business.

As Israeli human rights activist Elad Orian told Nicolas Kristof of The New York Times in 2010, “those chickens get more water and electricity than all the Palestinians around here.”

The residents of Umm al-Kheir are Bedouins from the Hathaleen clan.

The family is part of the larger Jahaleen tribe, which was expelled from the Negev desert (in what is now Israel) in 1948. Initially, the Hathaleen were nomads in the South Hebron Hills; they eventually settled down in their current location in 1961.

When the Hathaleen first arrived, the West Bank was under Jordanian control. “In 1961 our grandfather paid 100 camels to buy all of this land from the village of Yatta,” Eid says. The clan still has Jordanian papers proving its ownership of the land.

At first, Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank did not change life for the Hathaleen. “Israel was not interested in this area, and things were peaceful,” says Eid. “That changed when Israel began to build a line of settlements in the West Bank.”

Settlements in the West Bank

Since it is against international law for an occupying power to transfer its own population into occupied territory, Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered by the international community—including the United States—to be illegal, though Israel disputes this claim.

The settlements are a major stumbling block to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. According to Israeli NGO B’Tselem, there are currently 127 settlements in the West Bank, in addition to fifteen neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

600,000 settlers reside in the West Bank and another 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

In addition to the official settlements, there are roughly 100 outposts, which are not recognized by the Israeli government, but are supported financially by various governmental agencies and often protected by the Israeli army.

For the most part, the settlers fall into two camps.

Some are there to take advantage of the financial incentives—such as reduced housing costs—offered by the government to those residing in the settlements. Others choose to live in the settlements for ideological or religious reasons. Many of those in the South Hebron Hills, where Carmel is located, fall into the latter category, and believe they are doing God’s work by taking over the land.

The South Hebron Hills are part of Area C, a designation created under the Oslo Accords. Area C, which makes up 62% of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control.

In Area C, settlers have access to much more land than the Palestinians.

According to a 2015 report by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the average settler in Area C is allocated more than 13-times more land than a Palestinian – roughly 8500 square feet per settler and 650 square feet per Palestinian.

The Settlement of Carmel

In 1980, Israel built an army base on Umm al-Kheir’s land. Two years later, it was converted into the settlement of Carmel.

“At first, there was no trouble with the settlers,” Eid says. “They did not show their evil.” But the situation changed in the early 2000’s with the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

“The settlers would often throw stones,” says Eid. “A woman wandered too close to the settlement, and they shot at her. They beat another woman who was grazing her sheep.”

In 2004, Carmel’s head of security attacked Tariq’s brother, Muhammad, while he was tending his sheep. “He beat him with the butt of his rifle while other settlers held back the villagers who wanted to help him,” Tariq’s brother, Bilal, told writer Ben Ehrenreich.[1]Thirteen years later, Muhammad still suffers from severe mental disabilities, as a result of the attack.

“If you want to speak with Muhammad, he will run from you. He is always afraid,” says Eid. “He is a victim of the conflict.” The settler was never held accountable for his actions, and still lives in Carmel.

“We see him sometimes,” says Tariq angrily. “If I were an atheist, I would kill myself. I have to know that these people will be punished in the afterlife.” Eid sees things differently, saying he has good relations with at least one settler. “Sometimes, if one of our goats escapes across the fence, I call him, and we can get the goat back,” he says.

For the last two months, the settlers have been throwing rocks at Umm al-Kheir on a daily basis. It happens in the middle of the night—on some occasions several times a night—and the rocks make a great deal of noise when they land on the corrugated tin roofs of the village’s houses.

It makes it difficult for residents to sleep, and it frightens the children. No effort has been made by the army, the police, or the settlement coordinators to put an end to this activity, even though they have been continuously notified.

Israeli Demolitions in Area C

The army’s demolitions in Umm al-Kheir started in 2007, when the Israeli authorities began to build a new neighborhood in Carmel. The official reason for the demolitions has been the lack of proper building permits. Because Umm al-Kheir is in Area C, any construction project, even one as minor as a chicken coop, requires the Israeli military’s approval.

On the surface, the requirement for a building permit may seem reasonable, but because Palestinians are routinely denied permits, the policy is an intentionally discriminatory one. According to a June 2015 report published in +972 Magazine, 94% of Palestinian requests for construction permits are denied. Given these restrictions, Palestinians have no choice but to build illegally, making their homes vulnerable to Israeli demolition.

The Bulldozers Visit Umm al-Kheir

“The bulldozers came again in 2008,” Eid says. “They confiscated building materials in 2009. Then demolitions in 2011, 2012, 2013. In 2014, they destroyed seven buildings and confiscated humanitarian tents.”

A House Demolition, 2014

“2016 was the worst year in the history of Umm al-Kheir,” Eid says. “They came to demolish our homes four times that year alone.” According to OCHA, Israeli occupation authorities have come to the village for demolitions on twenty separate occasions since 2007. The data shows that since 2011, thirty-two structures have been destroyed.

Some of the demolitions would be ridiculous, if they were not so tragic. In October 2014, the village’s traditional oven was demolished after a protracted battle that began when an Israeli couple complained that the smoke emanating from the structure was a health hazard to them and their children. “The settlers laughed when it was demolished,” says Tariq. “The people of Umm al-Kheir offered to turn off the oven, if we could have access to electricity. But that was rejected. We told them that if we had a permit for an oven, we would build a proper one. Again they said no.”

The bread prepared in the oven was a staple of the villagers’ diet. Now, they are forced to buy their bread elsewhere, an expense the impoverished community can ill afford.

Tariq in front of the oven, the settlement Carmel can be seen in the background
Credit: Cody O’Rourke

Tariq’s own family has not been spared from the demolitions. In June 2013, soldiers confiscated a makeshift toilet built for his disabled brother Muhammad, who had previously been urinating and defecating in a river bed.

Tariq’s mother’s house has also been demolished on two occasions; she now lives in a caravan donated by the European Union. The small metal shack offers only minimal protection from the elements. “These things are like umbrellas,” Tariq says. “It blocks the sun and the rain, but it’s freezing in the winter and hot in the summer.”

Tariq’s brother, Bilal, built his own home in the village. When he came home from work one day in 2014, it was gone. Only the concrete floor remained, as well as the markings that indicated where the walls had stood. It looked like a floorplan.

The remains of Tariq’s house
Credit: Richard Hardigan

Eid has recounted the stories of the demolitions many times, and lists the statistics without much visible emotion. Only when he talks about his children do his eyes well up. “My daughters suffer so much from the demolitions. I suffer because they suffer,” he says. “Everybody is so afraid. Women. Children. The cloud has covered everybody.”

Eid deals with this persistent violence in an unique way – by making small sculptures. Since he was twelve-years-old, he has used scraps of metal and plastic to build miniature models of jeeps, bulldozers, and helicopters. He has even exhibited his work internationally. “While in real life, these vehicles represent the oppressive Israeli occupation,” Eid writes on his website, “in my work, I render them back into a constructive element that can be appreciated again for their positive use.”

The Future

There is little doubt the bulldozers are going to arrive at some point again, in the near future. A map produced by the Israeli human rights organization Bimkom indicates that almost every building in Umm al-Kheir has a pending demolition order.

Map of Umm al-Kheir, showing the pending demolition orders
Credit: Cody O’Rourke

Soldiers arrived recently with the intent, the villagers believe, of selecting homes for demolition.

On October 18, Tariq watched as a truck carrying two bulldozers passed Umm al-Kheir. The Israelis were on their way to the nearby village of Khirbat Halawa, where they demolished two buildings. Even then, the villagers of Umm al-Kheir were still afraid.

“We expected them to come to Umm al-Kheir on their way back,” says Tariq.

To raise awareness about their situation, Tariq and Eid have begun inviting foreign activists to stay in the village overnight. “We know that will not stop the army,” says Tariq, “but hopefully the world will find out what is going on here.” Even internationals are not safe from the violence of Camel’s settlers, however. In September, they attacked an activistwho was protesting their stone-throwing activities, breaking his hand.

Though Umm al-Kheir’s fate is tied up with the settler-colonialism created by the Israeli occupation, and institutionalized by the Oslo Accords, Eid’s focus is on his village. “We don’t care about the Oslo Accords,” he says. “We only care about the daily life. Just leave my land alone.”

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, (New York: Penguin, 2016).

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