14 April 2010
Twenty-two families live in the Bedouin community of Um Al Khayr on a hilltop southeast of Hebron. Mere metres away, on the other side of a high wire fence, live some 70 families in the Israeli settlement of Karmel. Though they share a hilltop, life for the residents of these two communities is a world apart.
The residents of Um Al Khayr are Bedouin refugees whose traditional tribal territories were in the Negev desert. In 1948 their tribe was displaced; some tribe members came to make Um Al Khayr their home. In 1980 Karmel was established, encroaching on the community’s land.
The residents of Karmel live in large red-roofed villas. The residents of Um al Khayr live in a mixture of traditional tents and concrete houses. The irony of the contrast of life in these neighbouring communities is not lost on the families of Um al Khayr.
“It is the 21st century and the tent we are sitting in is under threat of demolition,” explains one of the community’s leaders. In the last three years people of Um al Khayr have suffered two incidents of home demolitions. In the most recent eight families were made homeless, including 28 children – one of which was a nine-day-old baby.
While homes have been destroyed in Um al Khayr, building goes on in Karmel. In 2005 Karmel was expanded. Later a patrol road was built around this extension which took even more of the Um al Khayr’s private land. Meanwhile, 17 homes in Um al Khayr remain under threat of demolition.
In contrast to the residents of Karmel, who live behind a fence surrounded by the patrol road, have a big iron gate and armed guards, the residents of Um al Khayr have little security.
"We live in a daily state of insecurity," explains one resident. "We have had animals shot, our homes torn down, our children are scared."
The community has suffered incidents of harassment at the hands of settlers and the Israeli military. These incidents have ranged from settlement children throwing stones to night search operations and physical violence.
Harassment, compounded by the anxiety resulting from demolitions, has had a significant psychological impact. Many of the community’s children display signs of psychological trauma such as speech defects, insomnia and bed-wetting.
The insecurity is not only physical and psychological, the community’s livelihood is also under threat due to the permit and closure regime imposed by Israel.
While the residents of Karmel are free to come and go as they please the residents of Um al Khayr are subjected to severe movement restrictions, making it increasingly difficult for them to make a living.
The permit system and closure regime, implemented following the start of the second intifada, meant that the community could no longer rely on work in Israel and reverted to dependence on herding. However, available grazing land is shrinking because of increasing restrictions on movement and the effects of drought. Today, herding can no longer support the community, which is sinking into debt.
Um al Khayr is a community in crisis; the problems it faces are typical of the situation of many of the Bedouin and herding communities in the West Bank. Like their counterparts throughout the West Bank, the residents of Um al Khayr feel they are a "forgotten people".
This mantra is repeated by many in the community; as you look across the wire fence from the tent that is under threat of demolition to the villas and lush greenery of Karmel, it is easy to see why.