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On the Periphery in the West Bank
Across the region, Palestine refugees are vulnerable to the stress of conflict, displacement and emergencies. The challenges of daily life only increase as winter sets in. The West Bank is no exception, so we're beginning our wrap-up of this challenging year with a photo essay documenting some the difficulties facing Palestine refugees who live in a Bedouin community on the eastern periphery of Jerusalem.
Though they live so close to the city, the residents of this and similar communities are, in many ways, deeply isolated. They are cut off from important infrastructure and denied access to services like schools, clinics and markets. Even their traditional source of income - livestock - is no longer possible. Most crucial is the question of land: Because this is considered part of the municipal area of Ma'ale Adummim, the third-largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank, they are constantly threatened with displacement. They live in a state of perpetual insecurity, unable to solve the problems of today or plan for tomorrow.
To read more about the challenges these communities and others in the West Bank face - and to find out how you can help #GiveWrap this winter - click here.
Photo Credit: UNRWA Archive, Alaa Ghosheh
Abu Raed (second from left) is the mukhtar, or leader, of tens of families throughout Area C, including the ten families of Mihtawish, in the Khan al Ahmar cluster. This is 1 of 20 small Bedouin communities on the eastern periphery of Jerusalem that Israeli authorities intend to transfer in order to make room for the expansion of nearby settlements.
The Bedouin came to the West Bank after they were displaced, in 1948, from their ancestral lands in the Negev. They established new patterns of seasonal migration, moving from Jericho in the winter to the Jerusalem area in summer, grazing their livestock along the way and trading at city markets. Abu Raed still remembers the sweet water at Ein Fawwar, though he hasn't seen or tasted it in years: Since 1967, restrictive policies and practices have progressively limited their freedom of movement.
The Khan al Ahmar Mihtawish community is closely monitored by both the Israeli authorities and the settlers themselves, who 'visit' frequently to observe and take pictures. Any new construction or improvement, or even the presence of material that could be used for construction, is quickly reported and must be destroyed. If the community does not do it themselves, it is done for them.
As a result, families are obliged to live in sub-standard shelters constructed from metal and wood. For Abu Raed, the kitchens are a particular point of concern. They are low and unfinished, frequently open to the elements and vulnerable to insects and vermin. The structures the community depends on all feel temporary, made of plywood and hastily covered with tarp or plastic or zinc.
On one occasion, after months of work on a home for some newlyweds, word of an impending demolition by Israeli authorities prompted the women of the community to undo it all in minutes. The women were angry and frustrated, and for the children, the spirit of celebration was ruined.
Mihtawish is not that far from a few other small Bedouin communities, or even from Jerusalem itself (or the well-developed settlement of Kfar Adummim, visible to the right), but residents feel a profound sense of isolation. Especially when winter rains flood the nearby valleys, coming and going becomes impossible, even in 4x4s. Heavy rains also occasionally cause sewage from Jerusalem to flow down here.
Year-round, residents are cut off from many important services, like hospitals or clinics. Ambulances can't reach them, and because the community lacks a reliable vehicle of its own, any situation – from a broken limb to a complicated pregnancy – can become far more serious.
In the West Bank, UNRWA has six mobile health clinics that provide health services – from maternal health to screening for diseases like diabetes – to around 50 isolated communities. In Mihtawish, the constant state of alertness has taken a psychological toll as well, which the Agency's Community Mental Health Programme works to mitigate.
Water is one of the few municipal services that Mihtawish receives: After many years of difficulty, which saw settlers poisoning their wells and cutting previous water pipes, the community is connected to the supply from an Israeli company. The same water serves both the residents and their livestock.
They lack almost every other service, however, including gas and electricity. Abu Raed runs a generator for a few hours every night, managing to charge a mobile phone and light a few lamps, but appliances like washing machines or refrigerators are impossible. In order to receive some protection from the cold in winter, they depend on makeshift insulation, like sheets of plastic wrap or tarpaulin.
Wood is an important resource for the Mihtawish families. Because they are not connected to gas systems, wood provides the fuel with which they do everything from boiling water for tea and coffee to cooking their meals and making saaj, the famous bread of the Bedouin. The women in the community collect kindling on a daily basis, transporting it from the desert wadis to their communities by donkey, while larger logs are bought by the ton from local Palestinian traders.
Abu Raed says there are around 10 families living in Mihtawish. As winter approaches, a few more will come to join them. There are a lot of children, too, including those of school-going age and around 14 who have yet to begin school. Abu Raed regrets that the community cannot offer them the kind of safe, protected environment that such young children need and deserve, but even putting a fence around a makeshift playground would be seen as construction and could therefore be demolished by the Israeli authorities, allegedly for lack of building permit.
Cooking is a major daily task for Mihtawish families, since they do not have the services they would need to store or preserve food for long periods of time. Every family has its own kitchen, slightly removed and separated from the structures in which the family lives, eats and sleeps.
Food insecurity is high among these communities, standing at 55 per cent post-assistance, compared to the West Bank average of 22 per cent. Without enough land to provide for livestock or agriculture, Bedouin must buy most of the food they consume – which is difficult for communities that have lost traditional sources of income and face high rates of unemployment.
In partnership with the World Food Programme, UNRWA provides emergency food distributions to all Bedouin families in Area C of the West Bank, helping the poorest Palestine refugee families meet at least their basic needs.
When the adults in Mihtawish talk about their living situation, it's easy to sense their frustration. They feel trapped in every way: Unable to come and go freely, unable to leave their homes or their wells unguarded and unable even to undertake the physical development of their community. They live in a constant state of insecurity and instability, subject to regular visits from Israeli settlers and the bureaucratic abuse of punitive laws and policies. They worry about how they can protect their children from this environment, and what they can offer them for the future.
In July 2011, the Israeli authorities confirmed their intention to transfer these Bedouin communities from their homes as part of the E1 plan for expanding the Ma'ale Adummim settlement and increasing its linkages to Jerusalem. Some communities would be transferred to al-Jabal, an area near the Jerusalem municipal dump to which Bedouin communities began being transferred in the 1990s, while others have been earmarked for a second site in the Nweima area of Jericho.
Diplomatic pressure and legal support from international organizations have helped the Bedouin begin to protect themselves. To help advocate for their rights, they have also formed committees of their own, like the Protection Committee for Bedouin Communities in the Jerusalem Periphery, which has expressed three main requests. They ask that they be allowed to return to their traditional tribal territories in the Negev, and that they remain in their current locations until such a return is possible. In the event that a transfer becomes inevitable, they ask that it be done with the full, prior and informed consent of all communities.
Getting ready for school is a process in Mihtawish, and because of long commutes, it has to start early - soon after 6 a.m. Younger children, between first and ninth grades, go to the Rubber Tyre School in Khan al-Ahmar. Around 40 of the school's 128 students come from Mihtawish and a nearby community. Older children attend an UNRWA secondary school in Aqbat Jabr camp, in Jericho. Recently, a bus provided by the Palestinian Authority has made their long and perilous trek a little easier.
Despite the many challenges, the parents of the community believe that getting an education is a priority. But with the many challenges they face, sometimes it's difficult for the children to focus on their schoolwork. In winter, even doing homework becomes an extra challenge, as short days and limited electricity mean many hours of darkness.
Watching the children walk off to school, Abu Raed points out the bags they carry. "Much heavier than they used to be," he says, counting off with a touch of pride all the subjects the Mihtawish children study. But, he adds, "It'd be hard even for a grown man to carry such a weight all that way." How can a child of 6 or 7 manage? That's before he mentions the cruel heat in the summer and the cold in winter.
Construction of the West Bank Barrier cut children from these communities off from UNRWA schools in Jerusalem, forcing them to make an expensive and time-consuming journey to Jericho instead. For those who could not afford the bus, the walk could also be dangerous.
In 2009, the communities of the Khan al Ahmar cluster decided to build their own school. With technical advice from an Italian NGO, the 'eco-build' school was constructed using rubber tyres and mud to both control costs and provide some insulation from the weather. Built with help from various NGOs and volunteer groups, the school has grown over the past four years, both in size and in number of students.
The school's presence has not gone unnoticed by the authorities, however. It has faced repeated demolition orders from the Israeli authorities. The Israeli High Court suspended immediate demolition, but recently, settlers filed their third appeal against the court's order.
The Bedouin have traditionally depended on livestock management as a principal income. The animals provided both a source of sustenance and a source of income through the sale of milk products and meat. But animals require land on which they can graze, and with their mobility severely restricted, the Bedouin cannot pasture their animals. The only other option is to buy fodder, which is very expensive. A few years ago, Abu Raed had over a hundred animals of his own. Now, he's down to five. This decimation of the community's traditional livelihood has had far-reaching impacts on the men, the women and the children.
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