KHAN AL-AHMAR, West Bank — A plan by the Israeli authorities to relocate about 2,000 Palestinian Bedouins living in the desert hills east of Jerusalem is raising concerns among U.N. officials and human rights advocates about Israel’s aims in a strategic area of the West Bank.
The hills are dotted with more than 20 encampments of Bedouins, formerly nomadic goat and sheep herders who migrated from Israel’s southern Negev region in the early 1950s to the West Bank. Their hamlets, consisting of groups of corrugated metal and wooden shacks covered with plastic sheeting, are visible from roads crisscrossing the area.
The Bedouin clusters are near the sprawling Israeli settlement town of Maaleh Adumim, a community of 40,000 that is seeking to expand into an area that would link it to Jerusalem and effectively drive a wedge between Palestinian population centers in the northern and southern West Bank.
The area of planned expansion, known as E-1, already has a large Israeli police station and a major road with lighting and infrastructure for power supply. A plaque put up at the site at a cornerstone-laying ceremony in 2009 testifies to the determination of Maaleh Adumim’s city fathers to extend their community into the zone.
However, stiff opposition from Washington, prompted by concerns that the project could scuttle prospects for a territorially contiguous Palestinian state, has held Israeli governments back from authorizing building in the contested area.
The plan to move out the Bedouins, many of whom live in the E-1 zone or its outskirts, has brought expressions of concern from U.N. agencies in the West Bank and Israeli and foreign human rights groups, which say that the step would violate international law and could pave the way for settlement expansion in a politically sensitive area.
The Bedouins near Maaleh Adumim live in part of Area C, the more than 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under direct Israeli control, where Palestinian building is severely restricted. Israeli authorities say the Bedouin camps are illegally constructed. Demolition orders have been issued for many structures; others have been razed.
Maj. Guy Inbar, the spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s department responsible for the West Bank, acknowledged that a plan to relocate the Bedouins in the Maaleh Adumim area has existed for several years. He said it was part of a broader blueprint to provide the Bedouins across the West Bank with sites where they can build legally with access to water, electricity and government services.
Inbar said that in the past year, the Israeli military administration in the West Bank had adopted a two-pronged policy: not only cracking down on illegal Palestinian building in Israeli-controlled areas but also drawing up master plans that would allow for legal construction in certain communities. He said that many of the Bedouin encampments were in army firing zones or on state land that had not been licensed for construction.
The plan to relocate the Bedouins around Maaleh Adumim is “still in its early stages,” Inbar said, adding that it would not be carried out before feasibility studies were complete and talks were held with Bedouin tribal leaders, a process he said could take months.
However, residents of the Bedouin encampments say Israeli officers have visited them and they were told they would have to move to an area near a municipal dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The site is where about 200 Bedouin families were forcibly relocated in the 1990s after their shacks were bulldozed to make way for an expansion of Maaleh Adumim.
U.N. officials in the West Bank have also been informed of the Israeli plan, though with no clear timetable.
In response, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees have cautioned that forcible relocation of the Bedouins would violate international law and that resettling them near a dump would pose a serious health hazard.
Inbar said that the dump is slated to be shut down next year and that environmental surveys were being carried out to ensure that the relocation site was safe to live in.
At Khan al-Ahmar, a cluster of Bedouin dwellings near the highway from Jerusalem to Jericho, residents from the Jahalin tribe said that Israeli officers pressing them to leave had recently warned that a dirt access road to their encampment would be blocked.
The military government has issued demolition orders for structures in the encampment, including a school built out of tires and mud with the help of an Italian nongovernmental organization, but the orders have yet to be carried out. Residents of the neighboring Israeli settlement of Kfar Adumim have petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, demanding that the school be torn down.
Id Jahalin, 46, a member of a local action committee in Khan al-Ahmar, said that members of his tribe had been living at the site before Kfar Adumim was built and had no intention of leaving. “I was born here,” he said. “The settlers have roads, electricity and phone service. What’s the problem with giving us the same?”
Jahalin said he believed the motive behind the Israeli plan was to “evict the people and clear the land for the settlements.”
Raphael Engel, a settlement official who monitors land issues for Kfar Adumim, said the Bedouins at Khan al-Ahmar were illegal squatters on land that falls inside the settlement’s municipal boundary, which stretches far beyond its built-up area.
The area, Engel said, is a part of the land reserve for the settlement’s future expansion, which he said could include “green areas, commercial structures, public buildings and a school.”
“Our mission is to safeguard these areas for the benefit of the state of Israel in the future,” Engel added. “These are strategic areas.”
Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer who represents the Bedouins near Maaleh Adumim and has taken their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, says that the plan to move them out is part of “the struggle over [the future of] Area C” and an effort to “seize virtually complete control of the area without a political agreement.”
U.N. officials say that beyond the political implications of the plan to move out the Bedouins, the step would amount to what the Fourth Geneva Convention calls a “mass forcible transfer” of civilians, which is prohibited in occupied areas under international law. The officials argue that pushing the Bedouins into a built-up neighborhood would deprive them of their traditional pastoral way of life, already undermined by restrictions on grazing areas squeezed by Israeli settlements, closed military areas, nature reserves, and Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank.
“International humanitarian law clearly prohibits the forced transfer of a civilian population and the destruction of civilian property,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA. “Given how forced displacement has been used to facilitate settlement expansion, it is pretty clear what is happening now.”