AL-KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank (Reuters) - Bedouin tents and wandering goats dot the barren hills on the drive from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, giving residents and visitors a glimpse of how the Holy Land must have looked in ancient times.
With their corrals, water cisterns and tractors the camps look more like rudimentary homesteads. But the Bedouin tradition is slowly dying out as Israel clears the camps to make way for expanding Jewish urban settlements.
The Bedouin say they are being forced to forgo many aspects of their traditional way of life which relies on land, livestock and tents. All have been targets of Israeli restrictions.
“Our lifestyle relies on being able to move around, to live in dispersed tents on large plots of land and raise animals, which we love doing,” said Mohammad Korshan, a resident of al-Khan al-Ahmar of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe.
“The Israeli authorities just don’t understand our lifestyle,” he added, sitting in his airy tent held up by wooden sticks, the rocky floor covered with a thick rug.
Israel says the camps are set up illegally without permits, and sometimes stand in the way of urban planning. In remoter parts of the occupied West Bank, the army evicts Bedouin it says are squatting inside live-firing ranges.
Critics say these are just excuses for land grabs.
The Bedouin in the hills east of Jerusalem have no running water, grid electricity, medical facilities or sanitation in their tent communities. They rely on open fires and water tanks. Goats and sheep and barefoot children wander around throughout the scorching summer months and short, sharp winters.
Jahalin Bedouin are descendants of refugees originally from a village near Beersheba from which they fled after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says approximately 17,000 Bedouin live in the occupied West Bank. Most struggle with Israeli restrictions on their movements and access to grazing fields that are located in so-called Area C, where Israel retains authority over planning and zoning.
Tens of thousands more Bedouin live in Israel. They too complain of discrimination, saying Israeli officials are looking to shunt them off the land and into urban environments that are at odds with their traditions.
The stench of garbage floats over the Palestinian Bedouin village of al Jabal on the fringes of the Abu Dis landfill. Noisy rubbish trucks carrying waste from nearby Jerusalem incessantly dump their contents.
Around 1,050 Palestinian Jahalin Bedouins were forcibly moved here in the late 1990s from land now annexed to the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim.
Once semi-nomadic herders, they were compensated through court orders for their move with cash, and electricity and water supplies. But their life as Bedouins ended as they had to sell off most of their livestock, residents say.
In 2006 Israel approved another plan to relocate some 20 other Bedouin communities — about 2,400 Jahalin — from the nearby rocky hills to a site even closer to the landfill.
“I would rather die than live in a closed-in area filled with garbage,” said Daoud Jahalin, a resident of al-Khan al-Ahmar, one of the communities slated for relocation.
Lawyers say the plan, which has been on hold for several years, may be enforced at any time. They say the Bedouin were not consulted, nor offered any compensation.
“It is a plan that is already approved and we fear that if a political opportunity arises, it might be enforced,” said Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer representing the Bedouin.
Bedouins have petitioned to stop the scheme, arguing that the site is not suitable for human habitation.
A spokesman for the Israeli civil administration, Guy Inbar, said the Bedouin are inhabiting the area “illegally and without a building plan”.
“It is an option to move them to the dump area. We are examining the area’s environmental condition, the levels of air pollution,” he said. “The idea is to put them in a legal place.”
The Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection says the landfill, which receives over 1,000 tons of garbage per day, is due to be closed next year as part of a nationwide plan to close all landfills for environmental reasons.
Rights groups say the displacement is part of a much larger political scheme that aims to build 3,900 housing units for Israelis on a stretch of land referred to as “E1”.
“E1”, short for “East 1”, is the administrative name given to nearly 3,000 acres of land northeast of Jerusalem, and west of the settlement of Maale Adumim.
“The sole purpose of relocating any Bedouin community is for Israel to empty the area of Palestinians in order to make way for more settlements,” said Lecker.
But the housing plan, which aims to establish Jewish urban contiguity from Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, is on hold following strong objections from the United States, which warned it would thwart the chances of establishing a viable Palestinian state.
About 311,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, with a further 200,000 living on annexed land in East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, which Israel disputes. Maale Adumim is the third largest settlement and home to some 38,000 Israelis.
“We would like to build in E1, but out of concern for what it would do to the peace process, we have decided to put it on hold,” said an Israeli official, who declined to be named.
Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said infrastructure for “E1”, proposed by the Housing Ministry and later approved by the government, includes a police station, a road network and street lights - all of which have already been installed.
Relocating the Bedouin, says Israeli rights group Ir Amim, is just one of the phases of a plan that would destroy any future possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, by cutting off East Jerusalem from much of the rest of the West Bank.
“E1 will turn Palestinian territory into small isolated islands,” said Ahmad Sublaban of Ir Amim.
In al-Khan al-Ahmar, residents say their day-to-day existence, once simple and ageless, is now consumed with the constant fear of destruction of their structures, loss of their livestock and the forcible relocation to an unhealthy site.
“We feel like the Israeli authorities are out to end our way of life and the clean air we breathe,” Jahalin said.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Sonya Hepinstall