Rory McCarthy

Security fence and spread of Jewish settlement risks way of life for thousands.

THE BULLDOZERS came for Hamid Salim Hassan's house just after dawn. Before the demolition began, the Bedouin family scrambled to gather what they could: a fridge, a pile of carpets, some plastic chairs, a canister of cooking gas, and a metal bed frame. Now, with their house a wreck of smashed concrete and broken plastic pipes, Mr. Hassan and his family are living in a canvas tent on a neighbour's land. Their possessions are piled outside, along with boxes of supplies, including washing-up liquid, toothpaste, corned beef, wheat flour, and tomato paste, provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

His tent is small but it affords Mr. Hassan a compelling view of the future. Stretched out before him are the hilltops of the West Bank where he and his family, all Bedouin shepherds who fled Israel in 1948, used to live and graze their sheep. Standing there now is Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements that is illegal under international law. Snaking up the hillside towards his tent is the West Bank barrier, also ruled unlawful in advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice. When complete, the steel and barbed wire barrier, which will be 50 metres wide and include a ditch and patrol roads, will surround Ma'ale Adumim, attaching it to a greater Jerusalem.

For the 3,000 Bedouin living here, most from the Jahalin tribe, this presents an imminent crisis. "They came and destroyed my house to protect their wall," said Mr. Hassan, 62. "They really don't have enough land already that they had to come and destroy my house? We've lost everything."

Earlier this month, the Israeli military destroyed seven huts and tents belonging to Bedouin living near a settlement in Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Another group of Bedouin living further east in the Jordan Valley have been given two months to leave their homes near an Israeli military base and a Jewish settlement. In each case the Israeli authorities argue that the homes have been built without permits, but Palestinians say they are notoriously hard to obtain.

Culture eroded

Bedouin culture has been eroded as a result. Refugees from the Negev desert in Israel who crossed after 1948, their grazing land has been squeezed by the growth of Palestinian towns, the rapid emergence of large Jewish settlements, and lately the vast concrete and steel barrier. Most Bedouin live on land that under the Oslo accords was supposed to be unpopulated farmland where Israel has civilian and military control. Today, most live in primitive shacks, many no longer keep animal herds and they have little in the way of formal land ownership documents. They have become one of the most vulnerable Palestinian communities.

Mr. Hassan was born in Be'er Sheva in what is now Israel. His family crossed during the 1948-49 war and moved to land near Azariya, the biblical town of Bethany, near Jerusalem. For years they continued their semi-nomadic existence, grazing their large flock of sheep on the hillside. In 1975, a group of 23 Jewish families founded the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which has grown into a town of 35,000 people. Mr. Hassan and other Bedouin were forced off the land. Most set up shacks on another hilltop. Ten years ago, Mr. Hassan found the money to buy a plot of land and built a house, giving up his Bedouin existence. "Life changes," he said. "We had no other choice." His seven children, including his daughters, went to school and college, integrating into a new urban life.

Other Bedouin have also changed and work as construction labourers, many even employed in Ma'ale Adumim, building the settlement that has taken the land they once lived on. "In the past people envied our lifestyle. The land was open and free. There were sheep and we were rich," said his brother Saeed Hassan Salim, 50. "The occupation put us out of business. The Bedouin life is slipping away." He now lives in a small shack that stands directly in the path of the barrier and is almost certain to be demolished soon.

"It seems the whole presence in this area is about to disappear," said Jeremy Milgrom, 53, a rabbi and human rights activist who has worked with the Bedouin here for 15 years and is mapping their remaining communities. "We are asking why it is this has to happen. Why did the government assume the prerogative that they can absolutely redesign the entire landscape and eliminate the Bedouin?"

The Israeli military's civil administration, which runs the West Bank, says the Bedouin were being offered alternatives. "They came and illegally put up their houses and tents. So we are working against this illegal construction," said its spokesman Captain Tsidki Maman. "We are helping them to find a place where it will be OK for them to settle." The areas under consideration are all on the other side of the barrier from the Jewish settlements.

Captain Maman rejected the Bedouin argument that they have lived on the land for years. "The Bedouin are travelling all the time. They can't say they've been here for decades. It's not like this," he said.

In the late 1990s there was a similar move against the Bedouin around Ma'ale Adumim and several of their homes were demolished. But supported by Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer, the Bedouin were given a deal under which they would move to a new area, with plots of land, building permits and up to 40,000 shekels (then £7,000) per family. Around 50 families took up the offer, and now live in an area known as the Jebel. However, the deal was not without its problems: the houses are within a few hundred metres of Jerusalem's main rubbish dump and on land that other Palestinians claim as their own.

The prospect of another move is being hotly debated within the Bedouin community. For some it is an opportunity to upgrade to houses with electricity and running water. Others say they would rather move into Palestinian towns like Azariya but lack the money, while others still want to stay on their land and cling to what is left of their traditional lifestyle.

Israel's defence

Israel defends the barrier on the grounds of security, saying it has drastically reduced the number of suicide bombings. But Mr. Lecker said: "There is absolutely no reason to build the wall there. This is to do with taking a huge chunk of land and making it part of a wider Jerusalem. It is the idea of taking the land without the people. Why not give them rights in Israel identity cards, electricity and water? The land comes with the people and if you take the land and push out the people then what do you call it?"

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007