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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
1 December 2008

Refugee Stories


Rhetoric and Reality – Human Rights and Palestine Refugees

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we introduce the first story in our series profiling the sad gap between the rhetoric of dignity and justice for all and the everyday lives of Palestine refugees. Abu Ahmed, a Bedouin living in the West Bank, is the focus of our first story.

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

"It is only my family here" Abu Ahmed explains sadly as we sit together in his living room, the walls of which are decorated with exuberantly coloured fabrics. "If other members of my clan want to visit us they can’t, because they don’t have the right permit to come into this area."

Abu Ahmed is head of one of the approximately 6,000 Bedouin and herding households in the West Bank. His personal story exemplifies the way in which the West Bank Barrier and the associated restrictions and closures has suffocated the traditional Bedouin and herding way of life in the territory, depriving a rich and ancient society of their social and cultural rights.

Abu Ahmed and his family previously lived with the five other families of the Al Doud clan in Al Jib. In 2006 construction of the Barrier began in the Al Jib area.

Abu Ahmed recalls the disruption caused by the Barrier’s construction. "They started building the wall right through our tents, they would start at 4.30 in the morning with their drills." Despite the clan’s appeal to the Israeli courts their homes were demolished and they were forcibly removed from the land.

This was not the first time the clan had been displaced. Like the majority of Bedouin and herding communities in the West Bank the Al Doud clan were displaced from the Negev in 1948. Prior to Al Jib they had lived near Jericho, until that area was declared a closed military zone by Israeli authorities.

Following the demolitions at Al Jib, the clan were unable to find a piece of land big enough to support them all and were forced to disperse.

Abu Ahmed managed to find land for the price of two goats a year. This is where his home now stands overlooking the Jerusalem hills. His home, a smart looking tent with a corrugated iron roof and heavy canvas walls, is situated in the "seam zone" an area created when sections of the West Bank Barrier were built not along the green line but inside the West Bank itself. This has left whole areas of the West Bank on the Israeli side of the Barrier and Palestinian residents of the seam zone, like Abu Ahmed, effectively penned in due to restrictions on the movements of those without the right ID or permit.

"Now, after the restrictions we have lost our quality of life."

Restriction and closures did not begin with the building of the Barrier. Abu Ahmed has witnessed escalating restrictions since the Israeli occupation in 1967.

"When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 many places became closed military areas. This meant restrictions that stopped the Bedouin from grazing their sheep," Abu Ahmed explains.

"Then the settlements started, and we were told that we couldn’t live near the settlements. So we couldn’t live near the settlements, we couldn’t live near the nature reserves and we couldn’t live near the military zones. Anyone caught there would have their lands confiscated and their sheep. They (IDF) would take them to a pound near Beersheva and you would have to pay to get them released. They confiscate everything: sheep, tents, tractors water tanks. When you went to collect them they would take a picture of you holding your fine."

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority the pound has been moved into the West Bank but the confiscations continue.

"Before the restrictions the land was still open", explains Abu Ahmed. This allowed the Bedouin who had been displaced in 1948 to continue with their herding lifestyle and remain self-sufficient. So much so, that many Bedouin refugees did not register as refugees, as they had no need of the aid provided by UNRWA. 

"There was no need for them to register as refugees. They didn’t need to go to camps" Abu Ahmed explains. "Now, after the restrictions we have lost our quality of life."

Increased restrictions and closures have meant that the Bedouin and herding communities, who have always lived on the margins, are finding these margins becoming ever narrower.

The restriction on grazing has meant that Bedouin and herding communities now increasingly have to buy animal fodder as well as water for their flocks. A sharp rise in prices in recent years has meant that herds are becoming more expensive to keep while access to market has also declined due to restrictions on movement. This means that lifestock has become a financial liability rather than an asset, it actually costs the Bedouin money to keep their flocks.

In better days Abu Ahmed had 360 goats, now he has just 35. These are either sold when the family needs an injection of cash or are used as collateral for credit, meaning that goats are already promised before they are even born as payment in return for goods and services rendered.

"In five more years I will not have any", Abu Ahmed says gravely. "Goats are honour and life. If I had no goats I would consider myself, as a Bedouin and a man, as zero."

The beginning of the end for the Bedouin life

The approaching doom that Abu Ahmed foresees for himself echoes the demise he foresees for the Bedouin and herding culture in the West Bank.

"It is the beginning of the end for the Bedouin life" he says, voicing a view shared by humanitarian agencies working with this population.

It is the fate of his ten children that worries Abu Ahmed most. He and other members of his tribe continue to make great efforts to strengthen the bond of the younger generation with their cultural heritage.

"We take our children into the desert and tell them of how life used to be when there used to be dignity and freedom," Abu Ahmed says. "But" he adds, "we have to get used to the situation now."

As a father Abu Ahmed has many anxieties. "I worry, moving closer to a built up area that my children will be exposed to drugs and alcohol. They have not been exposed to these things before and they are not used to it."

It is the younger generation who are most vulnerable to the acceleration and intensification of pressures faced by the Bedouin and herding population in the West Bank.

"Our children are stuck in the middle, they are neither Bedouin or townspeople. Neither one nor the other, and they do not know what to think. But they are still proud to be Arabs and Bedouin."

Like many Bedouin and herders in the West Bank, Abu Ahmed feels wronged by Israeli regime, abandoned by Palestinian society and forgotten by the rest of the world.

"When the Bedouin left their lands they were forgotten as a people", he muses. "If I had to say one thing to people about what is happening I would say, talk about the Palestinian Bedouin, the forgotten Bedouin. Neither Israelis or Lebanese or the PA talk about the Bedouin. We’ve been forgotten. The Israeli side don’t give us rights, and neither do the Palestinians."

Sixty years ago when world leaders signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights they envisioned that the document would bring "dignity and justice for all". Sadly for Abu Ahmed, and other Bedouin and herders in the West Bank, this remains a distant hope.

"This is the holy country, it is in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. What is happening here is not just. This is holy land and what is happening here is against that, it is against everything."

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