Last week, I had the privilege of accompanying human rights activist and founder of Torat Tzedek, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, to the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which is slated for demolition by the Israeli government.
The village of 32 families is situated on the West Bank just outside of Jerusalem and between the large settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and the smaller one of Kfar Adumim. It is one of several Palestinian communities facing forced relocation because it falls within the “E1” area that the settlement movement aims to use to link up West Bank settlements with West Jerusalem — and to cut off access between Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The residents are from the Jahalin tribe of Bedouin who were expelled from southern Israel by the military in the 1950s.
The government wants to move the residents of Khan Al-Ahmar to another site near the Palestinian village of Abu Dis, which is close to a landfill that the residents believe is dangerous for their health. The legal basis for demolishing the village and transferring this community is that it did not obtain permits to build its modest structures. In reality, these permits are almost impossible to obtain — the Israeli authorities regularly deny over 90% of permit requests. A series of court cases has resulted in stays, including one issued just a few days ago. However, bulldozers also arrived a few days ago and began to clear a road for the demolition vehicles. Up until now, the government has not built any roads for the community nor has it provided water, electricty or sewage, and has restricted the village’s pastureland.
A decade ago, the village built a school for its children and those of the surrounding communities. Before that, the children were being bused to Jericho, about 12 miles away, but had no safe bus stops, so a number of them were killed. With no previous experience, the villagers searched on the internet for information on how to build a school. The school was eventually built by Italian NGO Terra di Vento, and is made of mud and rubber tires. Funding for construction and for other projects in the community was provided by Italy, Belgium and the European Union.
I was struck by the fact that the Torah portion for this past week was Pinchas, in which the daughters of Zelophehad come forward courageously to demand justice. Their father had no son — and therefore no legal heir to inherit his land. These five sisters demand that the law be modified to allow them to be the beneficiaries of their father’s estate. Moses brings the issue to God who says that their cause is just, and the law is changed to reflect this kind of situation.
It seems to me that the Bedouin of Khan Al Akhmar, as well as of those other Bedouin villages in Israel, are asking no less: a just distribution of the land, taking into account their legitimate concerns. They were displaced in the 1950s and have built a community to which they are attached. They do not want to be relocated again, especially to an undesirable location, in order to make room for the expansion of the Israeli settlements.
The lesson of the daughters of Zelophehad should guide us in recognizing that justice is served by supporting the claims of those who are powerless. Last week’s injunction from the Israeli Supreme Court gave the state until July 16 to respond to the villagers’ contention that they had been unfairly denied building permits. In the meantime, we need to encourage our elected officials to speak out about this issue, and oppose the destructive policy of demolitions.
Learn more about how you can contact your Member of Congress and help protect villages like Khan al-Ahmar.