• Indigenous peoples in Palestine

    Indigenous peoples in Palestine

    The indigenous peoples of Palestine are the Jahalin, al-Kaabneh, al-Azazmeh, al-Ramadin and al-Rshaida Bedouins. Israel abstained from voting for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the indigenous peoples living in Palestine are still living with demolitions and confiscations of their property as well as restricted rights to movement.
  • Rights

    2007: Israel abstains from voting for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Documentation

    27,000 pastoral herders are currently facing major humanitarian issues
  • Risk

    7,000 Bedouins living in 46 small communities in the Jerusalem Periphery are especially at risk

Indigenous World 2020: Palestine

Following Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, the Jahalin Bedouin, together with four other tribes from the Negev Desert (al-Kaabneh, al-Azazmeh, al-Ramadin and al-Rshaida), took refuge in the West Bank, then under Jordanian rule. These tribes are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists living in the rural areas around Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho and the Jordan Valley.

These areas are today part of so-called “Area C” of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Area C represents 60% of the West Bank; it was provisionally granted to Israel in 1995 by the Oslo Accords and was due to be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction by 1999. This never happened and, today, 25 years after the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel retains near-exclusive control of Area C, including over law enforcement, planning and construction. It is home to all West Bank Israeli settlements, industrial estates, military bases, firing ranges, nature reserves and settler-only by-pass roads, all under Israeli military control. Over the years, Israel has dispossessed Palestinians of roughly 200,000 hectares of land, including farmland and pastureland, which it then generously allocated to settlements. Over 600,000 Israeli settlers currently live throughout the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) in over 200 settlements, enjoying nearly all the rights and privileges accorded to Israeli citizens living in Israel proper, inside the Green Line.1 The recently launched Trump “Deal of the Century” recognises Israeli permanent possession of those settlements, with de jure annexation predicted and a committee set up – on which US Ambassador David Friedman but no Palestinian sits – to map those regions. The situation of the Indigenous Palestinian Bedouin refugees of 1948, some 27,000 pastoral herders living under full Israeli military control in Area C, is currently a major humanitarian issue. Most at risk are 7,000 Bedouin (60% of whom are children) living in 46 small communities in the Jerusalem periphery. Donor-funded humanitarian structures (shelters, goat pens, water tanks, schools, etc.) continue to be deliberately targeted by the Israeli military and forcible resettlement by the Israeli authorities remains a constant threat.

The desert landscape of the Indigenous Palestinian Bedouin, as elsewhere in the “developed world”, has increasingly become valued as real estate ripe for development, with Israeli settler colonialism claiming every mountain hilltop.

In this situation, refugee Bedouin living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) – alongside all the other 300,000 Palestinians existing under occupation in Area C – live with neither civil rights nor services in a coercive environment under harsh Israeli military restrictions, the aim of which seems to be to force them to leave “of their own accord”. Yet, increasingly, there is nowhere left for Bedouin to go who wish to continue life as tranquil, traditional, pastoral herders in the Judaean Desert, South Hebron Hills or Jordan Valley.

Threats against al-Khan al-Ahmar

During this past year, the situation was less stressed at al-Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin hamlet than in 2018 when it was declared a closed military zone. Prior to the demolition of the village and its iconic “car tyres” school,2 bulldozers worked inside the village for a week to establish military control roads with a massive military presence. Threats of International Criminal Court (ICC) involvement may have postponed that demolition, including a statement by Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda: “I have been following with concern the planned eviction of the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, in the West Bank. Evacuation by force now appears imminent, and with it the prospects for further escalation and violence. It bears recalling, as a general matter, that extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes under the Rome Statute.”3 Nevertheless, the village is still targeted by right-wing politicians who, during the three election campaigns from 2019 to 2020, regularly visited the hilltop next to it for press conferences, using these photo opportunities to attack Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not demolishing the village.

Demolitions, displacement and settlements

Demolitions have continued to take place in nearby Bedouin communities such as Al Muntar, Wadi abu Hindi, Abu Nuwar and Jabal al Baba. These hamlets are all due east of Jerusalem so forcible displacement would facilitate the “Judaisation” of the entire corridor, thereby denying Palestinians open access to East Jerusalem, which – despite Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, the economic section of which was launched in Bahrain in June 2019 – is still viewed under international law as the future capital of Palestine. In fact, many Bedouin communities in the territories were at the mercy of bulldozers throughout 2019. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reports that 68 Bedouin families were displaced.4 Their statistics reveal 349 Bedouin displaced but 17,959 herders affected throughout 2019 by demolitions, confiscations, the uprooting of agricultural trees or the destruction of 49 agricultural and 15 livelihood structures. Home demolitions generally peaked in 2019.5

Israeli settler colonialists, such as those in the far-right, pro-settler Israeli NGO Regavim,6 whose High Court petition demanding demolition of the school and village at al-Khan al-Ahmar was postponed, due to Israel’s elections, from December 2019 to May 2020, state their role as “upholding the law” while intrinsically flouting international law by land-grabbing even privately owned Palestinian lands so as to further the settlement enterprise.7, 8, 9

Israel continues to fail to recognise Bedouin as Indigenous, or to recognise any Indigenous Peoples for that matter, along with their prior claims or even equal connection to their lands. As settlement continues at an accelerated pace, the undermining of a rich, invaluable Bedouin culture continues. Bedouin traditionally practise a semi-nomadic, non-consumerist lifestyle that is closely in tune with nature. Their central spiritual value is freedom and, traditionally, they have lived for centuries with grace, wisdom, patience and sustainability in harsh desert extremes. However, under Israeli occupation, that lifestyle is no longer possible. Demolitions, settlement building, blocked access to their market in Jerusalem and Israeli decrees of “closed military zones” covering most of the desert and thereby depriving access to grazing, continue to strip Bedouin of their livelihoods and culture. This spells an end to their ability to remain where they are, as they are thus being forced to live in semi-urban areas, often under poor living conditions.10

With minimal education, especially among the older generations, but no shortage of intelligence gained from living freely close to nature, the only legal work generally available for most – especially those who have not had access to education in Area C – is work in the settlements as builders, gardeners, factory workers or cleaners; work antithetical to traditional Bedouin culture and practices.

Area C Palestinians lack most basic services – 51 schools bear demolition or stop work orders11, 12 while Israeli authorities no longer see it as their duty under international humanitarian law to provide basic services for those living under occupation, such as access to education, health services and water, as they had in previous years. However, increasing numbers of forcibly displaced Bedouin students now attend universities in the OPT although even they prefer to maintain a significant presence in the desert – away from cities, slums, settlements and even villages.13 Elders speak with nostalgia of their previous freedom to take their flocks out into nature but acknowledge that remaining sedentary, even in slums, allows for easier access for their children to receive a formal education.14

The displacement of the Jahalin

Some 1,000 refugees of the Jahalin tribe living in the Jerusalem periphery were re-displaced in the 1990s. Those who had lived in the Ma’ale Adumim settlement area were forced onto a site next to Jerusalem’s main garbage dump (graphically shown in Jahalin Solidarity’s short documentary HIGH HOPES).15 That site is still Israel’s preferred displacement site for Bedouin currently living on lands Israel covets for settlement expansion and their removal would mean the foreclosure of open access to Jerusalem from the east.

Thirty-four families are to be uprooted from al-Khan al-Ahmar,16 according to the current plan,17 and moved to Abu Dis,18 dangerously next to a main highway, with no pasture for animals, a key element of Bedouin life and culture. When the High Court suggested in 2018 that an alternative site be considered,19 the state came up with a piece of desert belonging to private Palestinian landowners, next to a sewage waste-water treatment plant.

An even more radical plan is being developed by the Israel Defence Forces to displace up to 12,500 Bedouin to Nuweimeh,20, 21 a site north of Jericho in the Judaean Desert – again with no cultural awareness, meaning no access to desert grazing as most of the desert has been decreed as closed military zones or firing ranges off limits for pastoral herding. There are also no available work opportunities nearby. Netanyahu is on record as stating: “All the Bedouin will go to either Abu Dis (a sprawling urban area) or Jericho.”22

Climate change

Israel is now experiencing the ramifications of climate change, including coastal flooding,23 longer summers and forest fires, which are becoming an annual event. There were devastating forest fires in May, August and November 2019, during an extended summer when temperatures were higher than previous averages.24, 25, 26 Authorities are now learning, finally, that if Bedouin are allowed to graze their goats in forests – previously forbidden – there is less combustible undergrowth to ignite.27

Israel is listed as the second most water-stressed nation on the planet in the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas,28 which “showed the lion’s share of the most thirsty countries is located in the largely arid Middle East and North Africa region. Qatar is the most water-stressed country, followed by Israel and Lebanon”. Indeed, Israel “weaponises” water to move Palestinians29 out of the Jordan Valley,30 where they are not allowed to dig new wells, while settlers have deep wells that command all the freshwater, leaving brackish water for Palestinian farmers and herders, and increasing desertification in the breadbasket of Palestine.31 It is no coincidence that the major settlement blocs – Gush Etzion, Ariel and Jordan Valley – are strategically situated over all the mountain aquifers or Jordan River water sources. As Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi notes: “As of 2016, Israel appropriates over 85% of Palestinian water and Palestinians in the West Bank have access to only 73 litres of water a day, while illegal settlers swim in pools and have access to over 300 litres.”32 Yet those desert dwellers, Bedouin refugees who know how to live with minimal amounts of water and how to conserve it, are denied access to almost all the deserts of the OPT.

Outlook for 2020

Settler colonialism, encouraged by the Trump Administration’s transfer of its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and its “Peace Vision”, is now focussed on the development of Greater Jerusalem. This expansion would stretch to the Jordanian border, so Israeli de jure annexation33 of the water-rich, riparian breadbasket of the Jordan Valley is a very real danger, while the de facto creeping annexation of Area C is relentless as the settlements expand.34

The issue at the time of writing is under review by the ICC. The prosecutor finished her preliminary examination in December 2019, after a five-year process, requesting the court to rule on jurisdiction for complaints about potential Israeli or Palestinian war crimes in Gaza, East Jerusalem or the remaining occupied West Bank.

The prosecutor’s 2018 statement, together with mounting international pressure from various governments and the European Union, was seen as a “brake” delaying the forcible displacement of al-Khan al-Ahmar in 2018, and up to 3,000 more Bedouin in that region once the dominoes start to fall. Yet the US, Australia, Brazil, Uganda, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary35 (stymying EU consensus) deny ICC jurisdiction over Palestinian issues, despite Palestinian accession in 2015 to the Rome Statute, as Palestine is not a full UN member state. US political interference in the ICC’s neutrality has already taken place via threats in March 201936 to withhold visas to ICC judges37 if they hold deliberations about potential US war crimes in Afghanistan or Israeli actions in Palestine (and Hamas actions in Gaza) – despite settlement expansion being explicitly banned by international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions to which Israel is a signatory.

“Parties to the Geneva Conventions” reminds Human Rights Watch in its reporting on demolition of Bedouin schools, “are obliged to ‘ensure respect’ for the law of occupation, and to prosecute ‘grave breaches’ – including the war crimes of wanton destruction and forcible transfer – regardless of the country in which the crimes took place”.38


Notes and references

  1. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B’Tselem). “Expel and Exploit: The Israeli Practice of Taking over Rural Palestinian Land”. December 2016: https://www.btselem.org/publications/ summaries/201612_expel_and_exploit
  2. The “car tyres” school is made of old, discarded car tyres and mud, sealed with falafel It was designed in Milan as an eco-climatic structure: cool in summer and warm in winter. Its wooden floors and clay walls make it an extremely comfortable environment, with a specific charm much beloved by the children.
  3. International Criminal Court. “Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, regarding the Situation in Palestine”. 17 October 2018: https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=181017-otp-stat- palestine
  4. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Data on demolition and displacement in the West Bank. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.ochaopt.org/data/demolition
  5. Magid, Jacob “2019 saw spike in Palestinian home demolitions by Israel, rights group finds”. Times of Israel, 7 January 2020:https://www.timesofisrael.com/2019-saw-spike-in-palestinian-home-demolitions-by-israel-rights-group- finds/ and https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20200106_2019_house_ demolitions
  6. “Meet Regacim, the far-right, pro-settler demolition ‘charity’”. Morning Star, 2 December 2020: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/meet-regavim-far- right-pro-settler-demolition-charity
  7. Lubell, Maayan ” Israel legalizes settler homes on private Palestinian land”. Reuters, 6 February 2017: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel- palestinians-settlements-vote/israel-legalizes-settler-homes-on-private- palestinian-land-idUSKBN15L2F3
  8. The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Position paper, “The State of Israel’s Use of the ‘Good Faith’ to Confiscate Private Palestinian Land in the Occupied West Bank – in Bad Faith”. December 2019: https://www.adalah.org/ uploads/uploads/Position_Paper_Good_Faith_English_December_2019.pdf
  9. Heller, Jeffrey ” Israeli court lines up behind unauthorized settlement”. Reuters, 29 August 2018: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians- settlements/israeli-court-lines-up-behind-unauthorized-settlement- idUSKCN1LE0SX
  10. Report from United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and Bimkom. “Al Jabal: A Study on the Transfer of Bedouin Palestine Refugees”. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.unrwa. org/userfiles/2013052935643.pdf
  11. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Report on Palestinian Schools with pending demolition orders, February Statistics provided by OPT Education Cluster. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.ochaopt.org/sites/default/files/wb_thematic_4_0.pdf
  12. “Israeli authorities have been getting away for years with demolishing primary schools and preschools in Palestinian communities,” said [..] Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli military’s refusal to issue building permits and then knocking down schools without permits is discriminatory and violates children’s right to education.” Israeli military authorities have demolished or confiscated Palestinian school buildings or property in the West Bank at least 16 times since 2010, with 12 incidents since 2016, repeatedly targeting some schools, Human Rights Watch found. Over a third of Palestinian communities in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank where the Israeli military has exclusive control over building under the 1993 Oslo accords, currently do not have primary schools, and 10,000 children attend school in tents, shacks, or other structures without heating or air-conditioning, according to the UN. About 1,700 children had to walk five or more kilometres to school due to road closures, lack of passable roads or transportation, or other problems, according to 2015 UN estimates. The long distances and fear of harassment by settlers or the military lead some parents to take their children out of school, with a disproportionate impact on girls. Human Rights Watch Report, 25 April 2018: https://www.hrw.org/ news/2018/04/25/israel-army-demolishing-west-bank-schools
  13. Hass, Amira “Israel’s Solution for Expelled Bedouin: Between the Garbage Dump and Junkyard”. Haaretz Newspaper, 11 June 2018: https://www.haaretz. com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israel-s-solution-for-expelled-bedouin- between-garbage-and-junkyard-1.6158225
  14. Ibid
  15. Jahalin Solidarity’s documentary “High Hopes” by Guy Davidi. Accessed 27 February 2020: http://www.jahalin.org/high-hopes
  16. IWGIA, Indigenous World 2019 (page 384). https://www.iwgia.org/en/ documents-and-publications/documents/4-the-indigenous-world-2019/file
  17. The Bedouin Communities East of Jerusalem – A Planning Survey. Accessed 27 February 2020: http://bimkom.org/eng/wp-content/uploads/ jahalin/Abu Al-Helw and Um Ad-Deif.htm
  18. Op. Cit. (13)
  19. Legal analysis has named this a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and therefore a war crime under review by the ICC. See https://www.nrc.no/ globalassets/pdf/reports/bedouin-rights-under-occupation.pdf and https://nrc.no/globalassets/pdf/legal-opinions/sassoli.pdf
  20. “Palestinian Bedouin community battles eviction by Israel”. Memo Middle East Monitor, 24 November 2014: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20141124- palestinian-bedouin-community-battles-eviction-by-israel/
  21. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “Bedouin Communities at Risk of Forcible Transfer”. September 2014: https://ochaopt.org/content/bedouin-communities-risk-forcible-transfer- september-2014
  22. Porat, Yishai “Netanyahu orders removal of Bedouins from road to Dead Sea to permanent structures in Jericho, Abu Dis”. 16 November 2017: https://www.com/articles/0,7340,L-5043992,00.html
  23. “Israel – Flash Floods Leave 4 Dead, Dozens Rescued”. FloodList, 6 January 2020: http://floodlist.com/asia/israel-floods-january-2020
  24. On Forest Fires, The Times of Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www. timesofisrael.com/topic/forest-fire/
  25. “Israel battles new wave of wildfires on hottest day of the year”. The Times of Israel, 24 May 2019: https://www.timesofisrael.com/wildfires-resume-as-fire- service-blames-electrical-fault-for-some-blazes
  26. “Forest fires across Israel, Firefighting planes deployed”. The Jerusalem Post, 26 August 2019: https://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Forest-fire-near-Beit- Shemesh-residents-evacuated-599752
  27. “High on a Hill was a Lonely Goatherd”. Eretz Magazine, 26 November 2017: https://www.eretz.com/wordpress/blog/2017/11/26/thel-lonely-goatherd
  28. Malo, Sebastien “Water bankruptcy looms for one in four people worldwide, researchers warn”. Reuters, 6 August 2019: https://www.reuters.com/article/us- climate-change-global-water/water-bankruptcy-looms-for-one-in-four-people- worldwide-researchers-warn-idUSKCN1UW12V
  29. “Israel army cuts water supply to Jordan Valley village”. Memo Middle East Monitor, 19 September 2019: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190919- israel-army-cuts-water-supply-to-jordan-valley-village
  30. MA’AN Development Center. 2014 report, “Farming the Forbidden Lands”. Accessed 27 February 2020: http://www.maan-ctr.org/files/server/ Publications/FactSheets/FFL.pdf
  31. MA’AN Development Center and Jordan Valley Popular Committees. 2010 report, ”Eye on the Jordan Valley”. (page 23). Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www. maan-ctr.org/old/pdfs/Eyeon pdf
  32. Barghouti, Mustafa “What Trump’s Middle East plan means for Palestinians”. CNN, 31 January 2020: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/30/opinions/trump- middle-east-peace-deal-proposal-apartheid-barghouti/index.html
  33. Heller, Jeffrey ” Israel’s Netanyahu announces post-election plan to annex West Bank’s Jordan Valley”. Reuters, 10 September 2019: https://www.reuters.com/ article/us-israel-netanyahu/israels-netanyahu-announces-post-election-plan- to-annex-west-banks-jordan-valley-idUSKCN1VV21L
  34. Americans for Peace “From Creeping to Leaping: Annexation in the Trump-Netanyahu Era”. 25 October 2019: https://peacenow.org/entry. php?id=27412#.XjXCxGgzY2w
  35. Landau, Noa “Hungary Backs Israel in Fight Against ICC Call to Probe War Crimes Against Palestinians”. Haaretz Newspaper, 11 January 2020: https://haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-hungary-backs-israel-in-fight- against-icc-call-to-probe-war-crimes-1.8381956
  36. ”US to deny visas for ICC members investigating alleged war crimes”. The Guardian, 15 March 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/15/ mike-pompeo-us-war-crimes-investigation-international-criminal-court
  37. ”US Threatens International Criminal Court”. Human Rights Watch, 15 March 2019: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/15/us-threatens-international- criminal-court
  38. ”Israel: Army Demolishing West Bank Schools”. Human Rights Watch, 25 April 2018: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/25/israel-army-demolishing-west- bank-schools

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein is Director of Jahalin Solidarity, a Palestinian organisation she set up to support Jahalin Bedouin with capacity raising and advocacy, especially with regard to their forcible displacement, and to advocate against the Israeli Occupation. She was for many years Action Advocacy Officer with ICAHD – the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and Advocacy Officer for Grassroots Jerusalem, having previously been an environmental activist in Sinai, Egypt, where she lived for four years with Bedouin. Together with Eid abu Khamis Jahalin, she was a Rebuilding Alliance “Peacemaker” awardee in 2018. A chapter she wrote about her work for the past 20 years with Bedouin was published in 2018 by Veritas in the best-selling book “Defending Hope Dispatches From The Front Lines In Palestine And Israel”.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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