Eid Suleiman is one of the quiet heroes of whom I became aware while I lived in South Hebron Hills these past months. I have been thinking about him a great deal over recent weeks. Eid is a poet, an artist, an educator, a shepherd, a Bedouin. He is Palestinian, although technically he has no state. He lives in the region that the State of Israel is wanting to fully claim as part of Judea and Samaria. and has occupied since 1967, but he is not an Israeli.
He lives on the land that his parents re-located to in 1948 when they and their entire Bedouin community were made refugees because of the war out of which the State of Israel rose, and their land home in the Negev desert became part of that new state.
The Bedouin are one of the indigenous peoples of this territory, but their claim to land has always been disputed. As in most indigenous communities the concept of land ownership is very different: the land belongs to Allah, and is a trust that is held by the people to tend with care and to find their livelihood. The families of Um Al Kher ‘bought land’ in 1948 from the Palestinian city of Yatta, and they have lived in their current location, rocky, hilly, arid land on the southern slopes of the South Hebron Hills, since that time.
Although they could no longer continue their nomadic ways, they still retain their traditional practices of herding sheep and goats as their primary source of livelihood. They have chickens running about everywhere; they have dove cotes and small plots of garden. When there is enough foliage, they take their sheep onto the land to forage among the rocks for grasses, and herbs. It is a very simple life on the land.
In the aftermath of the war in 1967, Israel began its occupation of the territories of The West Bank, which had been under Jordanian control. The control of these areas took many different forms; one of which was the transfer of Israeli citizens onto land in the region through settlements, an illegal action under The 4th Geneva Conventions. Land right next to Um Al Kher was built up into the settlement of Karmel. Over the years, this settlement has grown and grown, and now it comes right up against the land of the village of Um Ak Kher.
Eid Suleiman and his village neighbours have no dependable infrastructure for water access, as the water is controlled by the settlement next door, and its chicken barns, lawns and gardens seem to take precedence over the basic humanitarian needs for water in Um Al Kher. The village has solar panels that supply meager electricity. The children are often found to be studying or doing homework at night in the pools of light spewed over the fence from the settlement. Eid Suleiman jokes that it is very gracious of the settlers to support the Bedouin students to do so well in their studies.
Many in the community have very big dreams. Education is prized, and the children do study hard. Many of Eid’s generation have gone on to universities. Eid has a degree in Fine Art. One of his cousins is a lawyer; others have studied education and returned to teach others to prize education.
Eid uses his art to express hope and paradox. He makes model vehicles from discarded objects; a bulldozer from old tin cans, CDs and wood; a helicopter out of an old bucket. Each of these vehicles could be used for destruction or for peaceful purposes. A bulldozer can be seen destroying homes in a Palestinian village or it can be used to clear a site to build a hospital; a helicopter can be a gun ship, or can carry a rescue team to a ship wreck site. Eid reflects that humans can turn tools to peaceful uses or to dehumanize one another.
Currently, the Israeli government is using the tools of law to relocate Bedouin communities to even less desirable locations. The Israeli government is ignoring International Law and its many obligations under Humanitarian Law as an occupying power to move many Bedouin communities off what meager lands they have to a location very near to a major municipal garbage dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Um Al Kher is not yet slated for this move, but their community has already faced the destruction of their gardens, several animal shelters, a toilet facility and several other dwellings. Their bread oven has a demolition order on it.
Eid has said that land belongs to Allah; that there is plenty of land to be shared among neighbours. In one encounter in early July of this year, he said that he feels pity for the Israelis who have so much fear that they must exert control over the land and the people there, and this fear eats away at their spirits. Eid Suleiman feels that the location of his community does not need to be seen as a threat of any kind to neighbouring Carmel settlement. The Bedouin long to live peaceably with their Israeli neighbours. But when Carmel located itself by Um Al Kher, it dislocated its own soul.
Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist and essayist (“How to cure a fanatic”) describes the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians as a fight between ‘right and right’. Both communities have narratives, claims and location that speak to their rights and their belonging.
So how to resolve the issues which are so much more than the real estate question of ‘Location, location, location’?
To see the issues with a heart of openness to sharing the resource of the land, to make room for the other, to recognize that compromises will be required. And to not, through use of force and disregard for the story of the other, dislocate the human heart in the process of working for peace.
I hope that the people of Um Al Kher and the other Bedouin communities will not be forced into the move that Israel seems bent on forcing. As a Canadian, I long to point to the history of the reserve system historically forced upon first Nations peoples, and ask Israel to try to learn from the errors committed by other nations and choose a better way. Israel chafes at comparisons to the situation of South African under Apartheid, but again the lessons of the Bantustans should be in their minds as they consider what they are planning to do to the Bedouins.
I really believe that history will judge Israel for the way it uses its power to treat the people under its control at this time.
Eid’s use of paradox leads one to reflect on the value of things rejected. I wonder about the gift of poetry, art and vision. Perhaps in letting go of the fear that drives control Israel might find there is less to fear. Land seen as limited and restricted might feel more expansive when not fenced, barricaded and subdivided.