JABAL AL-BABA, West Bank (AP) — Over the course of just three weeks, Israeli forces destroyed Suleiman Qaed’s small cinderblock house and the trailer home an aid group sent him as a replacement. Even the Red Cross tent his family now calls home appears at risk of being torn down, with Israeli officers taking pictures of it and warning him that it’s in an illegal location.
But Qaed, 54, fears far worse is in store – the dismantling of his entire Bedouin community called Jabal al-Baba. The hilltop encampment of shacks and sheep pens is located just east of Jerusalem in one of the most strategic areas of the West Bank. Its fate could help determine if setting up a Palestinian state next to Israel will soon no longer be possible.
Leaders of the area’s Jahalin tribe, rights activists and international aid officials believe the demolitions in Jabal al-Baba and eviction orders for another village are part of a push by Israel to relocate hundreds of Palestinian Bedouins and make way for Israeli settlements. Jabal al-Baba sits on land earmarked for a settlement for 20,000 Israelis, known as E-1.
“We fear it and we expect it,” said Qaed, a blind father of eight.
Israeli officials confirmed plans to relocate Bedouins but said discussions with the communities are continuing. The Bedouins would be concentrated in more urban settings, including a new town in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley.
There is precedent. Between 1997 and 2007, Israel evicted about 150 Jahalin families from their communities to make way for the expansion of the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, across a main highway from where E-1 would be built.
The Jahalin were resettled near Jerusalem’s municipal garbage dump, in an area rife with pests and packs of dogs. While they received compensation and land, they had to sell most of their herds for lack of grazing space.
“All our relatives in Jabal al-Baba and the other communities know our suffering,” said Mohammed Miqbel, a leader of the uprooted Jahalin. “They are fervently pleading not to be moved here.”
The United Nations and the European Union have been monitoring Israel’s plans with alarm.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for a U.N. aid agency, said some 2,800 Bedouins are at risk of forced displacement.
The EU also has expressed concern and criticized Israel for dismantling three EU-funded trailer homes in Jabal al-Baba and issuing final demolition orders for an additional 18. In all, EU-funded aid agencies have distributed some 200 trailers, latrines and water tanks to Bedouin communities in the Jerusalem area.
John Gatt-Rutter, the local EU representative, said the issue of compensation was raised with Israeli officials.
Underlying the tensions are conflicting views of the rights of the Jahalin, who were displaced from the Negev Desert during the war over Israel’s 1948 creation and settled between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley in the 1950s.
In 2012, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Israel’s Bedouin plans “would amount to individual and mass forcible transfers” in violation of international law, even if some gave consent.
Israel largely views the Bedouins as squatters and says its relocation plan is meant to legalize their status and improve their quality of life. “In order to do that, we need to … move people from where they are living today and move them a few kilometers (miles),” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a Defense Ministry official.
Inbar said the preliminary plans call for Bedouins to be concentrated in three areas – the community next to the garbage dump and two new towns in the southern Jordan Valley. He declined to elaborate.
David Elhayani, leader of the Jordan Valley’s 7,000 Israeli settlers, said a plan shown to him by Israeli officials called for more than 1,400 construction plots near the village of Nuemeh. Elhayani said he objected, in part, because the town would be established in an area under the jurisdiction of his settlement council.
Israel is promoting the relocation plans at a time when hopes are fading for a U.S.-brokered peace deal with the Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 war. The latest round of talks ended in late April, after nine months, and there’s little chance they will resume soon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will not partition Jerusalem and keep large chunks of the West Bank. Some 550,000 Israelis now live in lands captured in 1967.
Under Israeli plans dating back to the 1990s, the lands of Jabal al-Baba and neighboring areas are earmarked for E-1, a settlement with 3,500 apartments. Israel would also build a new loop of its West Bank separation barrier – seen by some in Israel as a possible future border – to bring E-1 and Maaleh Adumim on the “Israeli side.”
Israel froze the plans for years under pressure from the U.S., which feared E-1 and a barrier jutting deep into the West Bank would break up the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state. E-1 in particular would prevent development in Arab areas of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital, by cutting it off from the West Bank.
In 2012, Netanyahu announced he would move forward with planning for E-1 after the Palestinians won U.N. General Assembly recognition of a state of Palestine. Israel has said construction is years away, but even before the U.N. vote, officials set up a towering hilltop police station there as a first foothold.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev denied any connection between settlement plans and a possible relocation of Bedouins. “There is no such policy,” he said, adding that no decision has been taken to start building in E-1.
But Bedouins are nervous as pressure by Israeli authorities mounts. In March, Qaed’s house was razed because he didn’t have a building permit. In April, Israeli forces destroyed six more structures and dismantled three trailer homes, including Qaed’s.
“We feel there is a lot of pressure,” community leader Atallah Masara said. “It’s unacceptable for us to leave this land unless we are forced out.”