Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
January 3, 2010 - 1:00am

At first glance, the bedouin community of Ras al-Awja seem unaffected by the political turbulence that engulfs the rest of the region. Situated between the sprawling desert city of Jericho and the imposing mountains of the Judean desert, the bedouins' encampment is a hive of activity – not least because the birthing season is in full swing.

Scores of new-born lambs and kids swarm around the ramshackle huts and tents, while birds resting in the trees fill the air with their incessant chatter; shepherds drive their flocks to and from the camp, and the clan's mothers perform similar herding duties with the gaggle of children in their care. The set-up appears frozen in time, with the members of this Jahalin tribe seemingly having been rooted to the same spot for centuries, their current activities simply the latest act in a generations-old play performed throughout the ages.

However, time has not stood still, either for the members of this community or the area as a whole. The bedouin living in Ras al-Awja are relatively recent arrivals, having fled the Ein Gedi region during 1948, when the hostilities that followed Israel's creation forced them to become refugees from their homeland. Now they find themselves in limbo in Area C, living under Israeli military rule but denied the kind of rights offered to fully-fledged Israeli citizens. Their situation grows more precarious by the year, as settlements continue to spring up around their camp and ever-heavier pressure is applied on their tribe by the Israeli authorities in an attempt to drive them off their land.

Severely-restricted access to water is one of the main weapons in the Israeli arsenal when it comes to making life intolerable for the Jahalin nomads. All around the camp is evidence of the authorities' constricting policies: water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. While the neighbouring settlements boast lush foliage and pastures to rival farms in the Galil, the rest of the plain's residents exist in far more arid and parched conditions.

We are taken to a welded-shut filling station, where once bedouin farmers could take water for themselves and their animals, but which the Israeli water board decided to fence off with razor wire and permanently seal. As a result, the canal irrigation system that snakes alongside the main road is completely empty, its only function to act as monument to the oppressive sanctions put in place by an uncaring Israeli system.

Into the void has stepped an army of NGOs, who seek to ameliorate the bedouin's situation via hands-on assistance as well as advocacy campaigns. One such group is CISP, an Italian organisation working with Oxfam and others on the water and sanitation crisis facing the tribespeople. Despite their efforts, Israeli officials' intransigence on the issue is proving insurmountable; instead, the bedouin are forced to pay well over the odds for water, spending around four times as much on shipping-in water via tankers than they used to when they bought direct from the water board and were allowed access to their pipelines.

As a result, the community is sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Lack of affordable water means they can't grow produce, and have to rely on income from their livestock as a way to eke out a living, but it is proving a near-impossible task. The springs for which the Jericho region used to be famous are now almost all dried up, their sources having been diverted by the authorities and pumped to settlements in the West Bank and homes inside Israel.

On the outskirts of Jerusalem, the situation is even worse for the bedouin stranded in no man's land on the edge of Anata. They too are from the Jahalin tribe, they too fled their former homes in 1948, and they too are on the receiving end of spiteful and vindictive treatment meted out by Israeli officialdom. Their sparse patch of scrubland is entirely fenced in, thanks to a motorway on one side and the recently-erected separation wall around the rest of their domain.

They rely on handouts from NGOs and local Palestinians, though even then the army and civil authorities do their damndest to impede any palliative care aimed their way. The bedouin used to connect pipes to Palestinian houses nearby in order to access water, paying the homeowners the going rate per cubic metre, which was in turn paid to the water board. Now, however, they are forbidden from such practice, and – like the Ras al-Awja farmers – must pay extortionate prices to ship-in water via often-contaminated tankers.

Nor are the tribe's children spared any of the suffering: once they were permitted to walk the quick route to school through a gap in the wall; now the army has intervened and forced them to take a miles-long detour via the motorway and the rocky hillside simply in order to attend classes. No one is allowed into the bedouin's enclave other than family members, thanks to another cruel twist of Israeli policy; neither are the farmers allowed to get their produce out to sell at market – resulting in an inevitable collapse in their economic fortunes.

CISP, Oxfam and their partners do all they can to remedy the nomads' plight, but they are fighting a losing battle, and everyone involves knows it: the NGO workers, the beleaguered bedouin, and most of all the Israeli authorities. The situation is part of a far-wider scheme to drive out those stubborn or foolhardy enough to think they can stand up to a system which desires ever more land and ever more resources for itself and its people.

The bedouin speak fiercely of their determination to never give in to the bullying tactics of their opponents, but how long they can actually hold out is anyone's guess.


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