A team of people from the United Reformed Church (URC) went to Israel and Palestine last autumn, to learn more about the situation facing Christians in Palestine. The trip was part of the URC’s formal commitment to further its existing work around Holy Land issues, and to enable greater awareness, prayer and solidarity. Charissa King attended the trip as a reporter for the URC’s magazine, Reform. In this article, she shares stories from two of the people she met in the Bedouin village of Al-Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank.
According to international laws, education is a right. Here, it is forbidden.
Before we built our school, our children were either walking 22km (13.7m) down to Jericho, or 14km (8.7m) up the road to Al-Eizariya, biblical Bethany. Sometimes they would get a taxi or bus halfway but very often they had to walk all the way. Five children were killed on the road in traffic accidents and many were injured. Because they had to go so far, people weren’t sending their daughters.
I sent my daughter to school in Jericho but every evening, me or my wife had to look out for her in the mountains, halfway home. She didn’t have the same strength as her brothers to get home, so we asked the Israeli army in 1991 for permission to build a school in this area. They wouldn’t allow it. So, we asked for a school bus. Every Israeli settlement has a bus inside it, taking their children 4-500 metres to school. But they wouldn’t give us a bus. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) came into power, we asked them for the bus. They wrote it down that we’d get a big 50-seater. We came home and had a huge celebration. Everybody was working out how many little girls they had, how many little boys, and who would be going to school. To this day, that bus hasn’t arrived.
When we went to the schools in Jericho and Al-Eizariya, to find out how our kids were doing, the teachers would say they hadn’t been to school for ten days or two weeks. The kids would dress in school uniforms, go 2km down the road, hide in the mountains, have fun, come back at the end of the day and say they were in school. It was because it was so far away and the weather is difficult for walking. In the end, we decided to build the school here.
It’s completely forbidden for the Bedouin, or other Palestinians, to build with cement or blocks here, in Area C of the West Bank. We are not allowed to build anything unless we have a military issue building permit, and those permits are not issued. So, we looked on the internet and found that in South America, people are building with mud and used car tyres. We brought that idea here and got to work. People were here helping us from all over the world, including left-wing Israelis. I will remember this picture in my mind until my last days: when we had meal breaks, we all sat on the floor together, mud on our hands. Bedouin, Israelis and people from all over Europe sitting, eating together.
About two weeks into the building of the school, the military and the settlers up on the hill discovered that we were building, and issued a stop work order. Our response was to put our own watchmen out while workers carried on working inside. When the police or the army came, we would take all the women into our homes and dress them up as Bedouin women. The men we hid in the desert. If they had discovered our international volunteers, they would have been arrested, immediately taken to the airport and maybe denied entry to come back for the next ten years. The Israelis would have been arrested and sent to prison. This way, we finished building the school. We got teachers from the PA.
In the old days, the Bedouin had many, many animals. They had large flocks and wouldn’t need to work in any other undertaking or employment. In the morning, the men would go out with the animals and the women would go to the market with all of the products, especially dairy products, to sell. If she needed anything, she would not have to ask her husband for money, she would just go and buy it. In those days, if a man needed wanted to buy cigarettes, he had to go and beg her for money. Our women were the finance managers – the other way around to how it is today. We are becoming more conservative, more patriarchal. Women are stuck in the kitchen with nowhere to go, no money. Their situation is worse than ever, and stress levels are much, much higher. There’s now nowhere for us to legally take the animals out. Our income every year has been steadily going down. It’s very dangerous. It’s not sustainable.
We’re not allowed to have electricity. As for water, once the settlers got here, they wouldn’t allow us anywhere near it. We made holes in their pipe, to get water for ourselves and the animals, but we had no way of closing the hole. They arrested many of us. In the end, there were so many holes in the pipe that there was no pressure in the water to get up the hill to the settlers, and they complained. The military and the main water carrier gave us a water meter, which the Palestinian Authority pays for. The water comes by pipe, over land, and it’s very hot during the day. The women have to get up in the middle of the night to draw water so that it’s cool by the time it comes to us.
Every one of you has a member of parliament. Sit with them. Put pressure on them, so that they will put pressure on the Israeli side.
Bedouins are not gypsies. They’re not nomads. Israel calls them nomads in order to deprive them of having land rights. One Israeli minister went on BBC TV and said: ‘Who are these people? They weren’t here when we arrived in 1948. Where did they come from?’ But they’ve been there for over a thousand years. This idea that they are nomads makes it easy for Israel to dismiss them. People lose interest and think: ‘Ah well, they’re just from Nowhere Land.’ No. They are semi-nomadic landowners who move seasonally, traditionally on their own land.
An estimated 167,000 people have visited here in the past year. People from Europe, South Africa, the US, Canada and Australia. Eid to the point where there was so much noise, he had to go off for a week into the desert just to calm down. There was no privacy, no calm, no Bedouin culture here. But if they weren’t here, it would have been worse. Now, we have breathing space, but we’re very worried they might demolish as part of electioneering.
There is very strong support for the Jahalin Bedouin community but it tends to be only verbal. Recently, when annexation was proposed by Netanyahu during his electioneering, the EU put out a statement saying: If this goes ahead, we will consider what our next steps will be and we shall act accordingly. ‘Act accordingly’. I had goosebumps. There’s a whole range of possible actions that could stop this injustice, it doesn’t have to be sanctions.
I know Palestinian farmers who started defending their land in the 1980s, using their savings. The Israelis would find another way of taking them to court and wear them down until they don’t have any more ability to defend themselves. We then used legal aid from international donors, millions per year. That hasn’t worked. The legal track is not working. People are losing a lot of money. They’re putting their hopes in justice and somehow it’s not delivering. The situation is getting worse. The only small hope is that maybe we will have a less far right government, maybe there will be some level of sanity. But that’s not going to end the occupation.
They are not allowed electricity even though they live under all the electricity lines. They are not given easy access to water. The road was closed off on the day that the then UK minister of the Middle East peace process, Alistair Burt, was visiting here. I was very pleased. I thought: At least he sees what’s going on.
Not all the settlers are real bastards, some of them feel compromised. There’s even a small group that is in solidarity here, but they don’t say: ‘Let the Bedouin stay where they are,’ they say: ‘Let them have their culture somewhere else.’ So, they’re only partly in favour of a war crime.
Eid asked you to get involved; yes please. Any advocacy you can do through the Church would be helpful.
Angela Godfrey-Goldstein is Co-director of the Palestinian charity Jahalin Solidarity (www.jahalin.org). She translated Eid’s responses from Hebrew to English. Charissa King is Production and Marketing Officer for Reform magazine, produced by URC which provides fresh perspectives on theology, personal spirituality and Christian viewpoints on current affairs.
This article was published in the October issue of INSiGHT, CWM’s bi-monthly publication where we offer a shared platform to reflect and celebrate encounters and journeys in God’s mission. Browse more articles and back issues at https://www.cwmission.org/insight/