Umm al-Kheir is under attack. You probably haven’t heard that the village has been on the receiving end of rocks thrown by settlers for more than 30 consecutive nights, or that Ta’ayush activist Guy Butavia was attacked during a solidarity visit to Umm al-Kheir last month after confronting the settlers about their harassment, or that the IDF came to erect a razor wire fence to cut off the villagers from even more of their own land. And yet none of this is new; Umm al-Kheir has been under attack for a long time.
The Israeli Civil Administration has been threatening this tiny village, home to 150 Bedouins, with demolition for more than two decades, while settler violence here has also been a commonality. What makes Umm al-Kheir such a target for demolitions and violent attacks? The primary factor is geographical: the village sits adjacent to the settlement of Carmel. Or rather, the settlement of Carmel sits on the land of Umm al-Kheir, purchased by the Hathaleen family – 1948 refugees from the Negev – in the early 1960s.
The Israeli government began the construction of several settlements in the South Hebron Hills (including Carmel, Maon and Susya) in the early 1980s, with no regard for the rights of the Palestinians in the region whose lands it was expropriating. The subsequent division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C at Oslo saw the villagers of Umm al-Kheir’s misfortune double; due to the cluster of recently constructed settlements, many of the small, rural Bedouin communities in the region found themselves under full Israeli control in Area C.
Hence, by the mid-90s, the villagers of Umm al-Kheir had lost not only a large chunk of their land but also the ability to build on that land, for with Oslo came an almost total prohibition on Palestinian construction in Area C, despite some 50% of that land being privately owned by Palestinians. According to B’Tselem, stated Israeli restrictions automatically block Palestinian construction in 70% of Area C (with 36.5% designated as “state land”, 30% firing zones etc), but this doesn’t mean the remaining 30% is available for unrestricted construction; the Civil Administration has exclusive authority over planning processes, and has refused to approve any master plans for more than 90% of the Palestinian villages in Area C. As such, it is almost impossible for Palestinians there to obtain building permits, making all construction (even on their own land) illegal and thus liable to demolition. Meanwhile, expansion in the settlement of Carmel continues.
What does the international community have to say about all this? The efforts of activists (for example the recent Center for Jewish Nonviolence-led Global Shabbat Against Demolitions to pressure the government into ending the demolitions in Umm al-Kheir and Susya in the West Bank as well as Umm al-Hiran and al-Araqib inside Israel, or the ongoing attempts to restore life to Sarura) have helped to raise the profile of these villages and put them on the international agenda somewhat. The Obama Administration was critical of the demolitions but failed to apply any real pressure on Netanyahu’s government, while the EU has funded structures to replace those that have been demolished. Still lacking the Civil Administration’s approval for building, however, these face the same risks of demolition as Palestinian-built structures, and Israel doesn’t hesitate to destroy these too.
In an attempt to add a carrot to the sticks of demolition threats and settler violence that are pressuring the residents of Umm al-Kheir to leave their lands, the Civil Administration has fully connected another village, a kilometre or so away, to the water supply and provided building permits for construction on site. Presently, Umm al-Kheir’s residents are unable even to dig water wells since this would constitute construction, forcing them to illegally tap into the system at the nearby village in order to fill up their own tanks. The settlers of Carmel have regularly been flying drones over Umm al-Kheir to spy on any secret construction the Palestinians might be attempting, ready to report any developments to the Civil Administration. But even in these conditions, the villagers see acquiescing to Israeli pressure as completely unfathomable, refusing to allow the government free rein to expand Carmel further onto their lands.
Regardless of their desire to remain, the situation for the residents of Umm al-Kheir, much like the situation for the residents of nearby Susya, is very grave. The recently erected fence cutting them off from their lands is another obstacle to grazing sheep, with settler harassment already preventing them from wandering freely with their flock. The reduction in the size and health of their flock that this has provoked has taken its toll on the villagers’ ability to be self-sufficient, forcing them in recent years to adapt to a new way of life.
One manifestation of this change has been a focus on education for the younger generation in the village, which in turn has led to a greater ability among residents to tell their story to a larger, global audience. With the Jewish Agency deciding that it doesn’t want young diaspora Jews collaborating with Palestinians on their programmes anymore, it is even more important to ensure that the story of Umm al-Kheir (and the many others like it) doesn’t fall on deaf ears.