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Umm al-Kheir "paying the price of the Oslo Accords"

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By Bao Yen - April 12, 2016
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [South Hebron Hills]

Photos by Bao Yen.

In an early Wednesday morning, at 5.30 a.m., residents of Khirbet Umm al-Kheir were woken by the noise of bulldozers. The children were terrified, their parents alerted. Sheik Sulaiman Hathaleen, an elder of Umm al-Kheir, ran out of his makeshift tin house and stood in front of a bulldozer to stop it from destroying his home.

This was not the first time that he confronted bulldozers, however. The village of Umm al-Kheir has been demolished at least eight times over. Each time the Sheik has stood in front of the bulldozer, military forces pull him aside. There were times when they beat him as a warning, but the old Sheik keeps getting on their way.

"Where is the humanity? Where is the justice?" asks Sheik Sulaiman rhetorically.

"They say Israel is a democracy. But what kind of democracy sends soldiers to people's homes at five in the morning, when the kids are still sleeping?", he added.

On that day, April 9, 2016, seven houses in Khirbet Umm al-Kheir were demolished, leaving 35 residents homeless.

Umm al-Kheir is a Bedouin village of approximately 150 people, belonging to the al-Hathaleen tribe who originates from Arad in the Negev. In 1948, the tribe was uprooted after the establishment of the State of Israel. They were then forced to move north to the edge of the desert, in the South Hebron hills where they currently settle.

In 1964, Sheik Sulaiman's father bought the land from the villagers of Yatta, a Palestinian town located eight-kilometers away, for the price of 100 camels. Elders of Umm al-Kheir say evidence of this transaction can still be found in Yatta.

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) were fractured into Area A, Area B, and Area C. Area C encompasses approximately 60 percent of the West Bank, where Israel exercises full civil and military authority. There are about 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C, according to a recent UN OCHA estimate in 2014.

"Residents of Area C are among the most vulnerable in the West Bank in terms of humanitarian needs, including access to basic services," Ramesh Rajasingham, Head of the OCHA office in the oPt said.

The village of Umm al-Kheir falls in Area C, surrounded by an Israeli settlement of  Karmel and Israel's declared closed military zones in the southeastern side.

According to Hisham Sharabati, a field researcher in Hebron for Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, back in 1981, Israeli authorities decided to build a road that connects South Hebron hills to the Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. Many residents of Umm al-Kheir also joined in the construction, having been promised that the road was built for their own good.

But just two years later, Israeli settlers arrived in Karmel, where residential infrastructure had already been put in place. Since then, the settlement has appropriated more and more land of Umm al-Kheir. At the moment, there are about 70 settler families living in Karmel.

As for the residents of Umm al-Kheir, there still exists no regular transportation to even the nearest town of Yatta.

Though built alongside each other, there is world of difference between the two communities. Israeli settlers live in lavish, fully-equipped houses, all beautifully painted in orangish shades, with organic farms and poultry barns spreading on both sides of the main path up the hill.

Residents of Umm al-Kheir, however, shelter in tents and tin houses in abysmal conditions. "As Umm al-Kheir is located in Area C, it is disconnected from all services available, including water and electricity," Hisham explains. The villagers use solar panels to provide for themselves. Water is collected in tanks.

To reach their village, residents of Umm al-Kheir have to commute through Karmel’s organic farms everyday. Yet the farms are a no-go zone for the villagers, which are thoroughly enveloped by barbed-wired fence.

"We are paying the price of the Oslo Accords," Sheik Ibrahim Hathaleen, Head of the Legal Council of Khirbet Umm al-Kheir, tells the Palestine Monitor.

"We bought this land. But Israel does not allow us to live here," he adds. "We realize that this is the nature of the occupation."

According to a report released by Al-Haq in 2014 on the impact of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian Bedouins living in the West Bank,  Israel's destruction of private properties and settlement expansion have violated the Hague Convention and Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Every year, thousands of Bedouins are still facing the prospects of "forcible transfer", the report reads, while no Israeli courts have questioned the legality of Israeli settlements.

Almost all structures in Umm al-Kheir were not granted any building permits, as a result, they are considered illegal by Israeli authorities. Hisham says most families in the village have received demolition orders. Despite this, its residents remain.

As he guides through the village, Sheik Sulaiman points to the ruins that were once his son's house.

"This was a wedding gift for my son," says Sheik Sulaiman. "There were five people living in this house: my son, his wife, and their three daughters."

The house was among the structures pulled down that morning. Unlike the other ramshackle tents and huts in Umm al-Kheir, the walls of the house were made of wood, covered by tin, adorned by white aluminum windows that are now lying wrecked among the rubbles. "Many of the houses here were funded by EU organizations", explains Hisham.

Israeli forces, however, have many times confiscated building materials to prevent construction, he adds.

Overlooking the demolished house is a vast area of land, now left barren, where residents of Umm al-Kheir once used for grazing for nearly thirty years. Since residents of Umm al-Kheir are registered refugees to UNRWA, they were granted funding to cultivate the land.

The land has been completely fenced off by Israeli forces. The UNRWA sign is still there, hanging desolately on the fence. Since the settlement blocks the western part of the hill, the villagers are forced to "move east, move south, and then west again" in order graze the sheep, Hisham tells the Palestine Monitor.

In the meantime, residents of Umm al-Kheir whose houses were destroyed that morning have to temporarily stay with neighbors.

Sheik Ibrahim tells the story of the previous demolition at Umm al-Kheir in October 2014. "Then it was during the winter, it was really cold," he says. "At least now it's sunny."

A few meters away, Umm al-Kheir's children play on the rubble of the houses that once stood. Sheik Sulaiman looks up to the sky, both his hands raised up, and cries out, "How many more catastrophes will we have to suffer?"

"We suffered from 1948. We suffered from 1967. Now we suffer from the settlement. How can these kids have any peace? Can you have peace with someone who destroys your home?", asks the old Sheik.



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