The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, inhabited by 173 people, may seem unassuming, with homes made of wood and tarpaulin and surrounded by animal pens. But its strategic location puts it at the heart of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
If Israel were to demolish the village and other surrounding Bedouin communities and build here as planned, Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank would be split in two, with a portion of it isolated from any future capital in East Jerusalem.
Khan al-Ahmar has been fighting demolition for decades, but Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in May that its destruction is legal, and in recent weeks, Israel has begun preparing to demolish the village with bulldozers.
While European nations including Ireland, France and Britain have spoken out against the plans, and human rights group decry the forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents as a war crime, the United States has remained silent.
Palestinian officials say the U.S. silence amounts to a green light. The Trump administration, they say, is allowing Israel to erode their rights without even limited censure.
“They want to kill our last hope for a state,” said Jahalin. The former tractor driver met with staffers of nearly 30 U.S. lawmakers of both parties during his visit to Washington. The trip was organized by Rebuilding Alliance, a California-based nonprofit organization.
A White House National Security Council spokeswoman said it would be “premature to comment on an ongoing legal process” and referred questions to the Israeli government.
“In general, we continue to encourage both sides to create an environment conducive to negotiations on a comprehensive and enduring peace,” the spokeswoman said.
Israeli officials say the Bedouins, historically nomadic Arabs whose tribes have long roamed desert regions in the Middle East and North Africa, are being manipulated by Palestinian authorities for political ends. The officials note that the Khan al-Ahmar villagers have been offered an alternative location, near the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis.
But residents say they are determined to stay.
“I was born here,” said Faisal Abu Dahouk, 43, a shepherd sitting under shade netting in the yard of Khan al-Ahmar’s school, which was built with funding from the European Union.
Most residents are members of the Jahalin tribe, which the Israeli military expelled from the Negev desert of southern Israel at the start of the 1950s. The Jahalin Bedouins were relocated to the area of Kfar Adumim in the West Bank in 1952, only to be moved again to their current location when an Israeli settlement was built there.
In 1954, many Bedouins who remained in Israeli territory were granted citizenship, but the relocated Jahalins were not. Thousands of Israeli Bedouins have served in the Israel Defense Forces, many as trackers, but even within Israel, unauthorized Bedouin communities live under threat of demolition.
Israeli restrictions have long forced Bedouin communities to give up their nomadic way of life, Abu Dahouk said. “Israel prevented us moving, one way or another,” he said. “It’s a military area or a settlement.”
From where he sits, the red roofs of Kfar Adumim, the Israeli settlement established in 1979, can be seen spilling down a nearby hillside.
“We are not allowed to build even one concrete room,” he said. The village’s school was constructed out of tires and mud to circumvent restrictions.
Israel deems Khan al-Ahmar illegal, as it was constructed without permits, although much of the international community maintains that it is Kfar Adumim that was built illegally. Residents of the Bedouin village say they have never been given a chance to get building permits.
The Israeli government is providing residents with an alternative site, but the community says it is unsuitable, being near a garbage dump and lacking access to grazing land.
In their fight, the Bedouins have garnered support from one unexpected corner: a group of Kfar Adumim residents. It was an Israeli magazine article about the village last fall that spurred them to act, said Ezra Korman, 56, a tour guide. A group of 41 residents wrote a letter in support of the Bedouins that was submitted to the court, urging a solution acceptable to the families of Khan al-Ahmar.
“We decided we wanted to help them from a human rights perspective,” Korman said. “We know they were there before we got there. They are our neighbors.”
But the petitioners are in the minority. Last week, members of a right-wing group gathered on a hilltop overlooking the village and demonstrated in favor of the demolition, holding up Israeli flags.
Residents below were preparing for the worst, as security forces declared the area a closed military zone. Journalists and activists were barred from entering the village. They had to trek through the hills to reach it. Yellow bulldozers trundled past as children played under the trees of the schoolyard.
Late last week, the village got a reprieve when the Supreme Court of Israel accepted a separate petition arguing that Israeli authorities had not examined Khan al-Ahmar residents’ plans for their village. The court gave the state until Wednesday to do so. A further injunction Monday delayed the forcible transfer of the village’s residents until at least next week.
Left-wing human rights groups have argued that removing the village may amount to a war crime. A spokesman for the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment, but Israel contends that governments worldwide rezone areas and move residents.
For the village’s residents, a long-term state of uncertainty continues. “We sleep afraid, we wake up afraid,” said Tahreer Abu Dahouk, 44, a mother of four. “Leave us alone,” she said. “This is the best place for us.”
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.