PALESTINIANS-ISRAEL/BEDOUIN (FEATURE, TV, PIX)
WADI AL MALEH, West Bank, June 18 (Douglas Hamilton, Ali Sawafta, Reuters) - Exercising its authority as an occupying power, the Israeli army has begun breaking up Bedouin camps in the West Bank where the nomadic herders have grazed their livestock for years.
Two dozen families have been displaced so far in eviction operations this month against low, black tents dotting the parched hillsides of the northern Jordan Valley.
Palestinian officials say some 200 families are threatened. Israeli authorities, enforcing what the Human Rights Watch group calls a heartless policy, say the Bedouin are being moved for their own protection from areas in military fire zones.
Their dwellings may only be tents, but to Bedouin living by a spring they call sweet water they were home, until they were scooped up and dumped in a broken heap by the shovel of an army mechanical digger.
Animal pens were flattened and scant bits of bedding and ramshackle furniture were piled in the open.
We have been living on this land for seven years, said Mohammad Kaabneh, a 38-year-old father of nine. The soldiers told us to move because this is a military zone. But we've nowhere else to go. And then they came back this morning.
The eviction is a strange exercise: there are no houses for the army to demolish as it would in other cases deemed illegal construction, so the herders can just re-pitch their tents.
A spokesman for Israel's military-run Civil Administration in the West Bank said it has been trying for some time to persuade the Bedouin to move to safer locations. When this failed, we warned them that they were endangering their lives by setting up tents in the middle of a military zone and that they faced evacuation, the spokesman said.
Last month, the army erected signs on Bedouin dirt roads here with the warning: Danger. Firing Area. Entrance Forbidden.
Eviction notices were issued, with no right of appeal, and families were told to move within 24 hours. Three weeks later soldiers arrived without further warning and broke up the camps.
Some of the herders say they have lived on the land since the 1950s, and are so far refusing to quit the area.
The dangers are real. I lost my son, said Qadri Daraghmeh. The 19-year-old was killed by a blast in January 2008, he said, and army investigators said it was a mine left behind after an exercise. But there is nowhere else to go, the farmer said.
A few hours after the soldiers left, Kaabneh's family had moved just a couple of hundred metres away, rigging up an open-walled tent for shade against the hammering heat. Their goats took shelter under a big palm, using every inch of shadow.
We'll just rebuild, like our neighbours over there did immediately, he said, pointing to a family tent he said had also been uprooted just a few hours earlier.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who visited the area recently, said the Israeli military might demolish the camps, but we build, because this is the only way for our people to stay on their land.
We are determined about this and you will see, he said.
Human Rights Watch noted that under an Israeli army order of 1970, people living in a military zone can be evicted without a court order except for those designated permanent residents.
Palestinian officials say two army training areas take up about 150 sq. kms (58 sq. miles) of land in the area. Since it was declared a military zone years ago, Human Rights Watch said, evictions could have been ordered any time. There was no explanation why they were being carried out only now. Daraghmeh said many families do have documented title to the grazing, including his own from my grandfather. But the Israeli High Court has ruled that since the Bedouin are pastoralists, they cannot be considered permanent residents. Bedouin locals said the Israeli army and officials have told them they will all be moved out of the zone in due course, meaning perhaps 2,000 people in hillside camps scattered on either side of a winding road for some 20 kilometres (12 miles).
There are six Israeli army camps in the area, said local Palestinian official Aaref Daraghmeh. There are also several Israeli settlements including Rotem, Maskiyyot and Mehola, which the World Court has ruled are illegally built on occupied land.
Almost every big splash of green on fertile land among the hills off the main highway through the Jordan Valley is Israeli-made. This is agribusiness, not kibbutz homesteading. The date-palm plantations, vineyards, cattle feedlots and turkey farms operate on a highly commercial scale.
The Bedouin farms, by contrast, are not much more than subsistence operations. We have been here for 15 years, said Amal Qasem, who lives in a couple of big tents with her barefoot children, with a dozen calves avoiding the noon sun in a small, shaded corral. We take water from the spring there. But now settlers come to use it like a pool and tell us to go away, she said. I'm afraid the army will soon come and kick us out. (Additional reporting by Ivan Karakashian and Joseph Nasr)