MAALE ADUMIM, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK
SOMEWHERE underneath the new road that snakes out toward the Judean desert from this West Bank settlement lies the home of Bedouin herdsman Yussef Mohammed al-Shurji's.
It was buried, without warning, two months ago, as the earthworks that herald a new expansion of this Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem encroached on a Bedouin encampment belonging to the Jahaleen tribe.
Twenty more homes were nearly buried last Monday, and only by sitting in front of the bulldozers did residents save their camp. Maale Adumim's director general, Israel Goldstein, called off the diggers for the time being. ``Until now, we have been excellent neighbors,'' he said. ``I am in favor of a relationship based on mutual respect.''
That kind of talk earns only a bitter laugh from Jahaleen leader Mohammed al-Hirsh. ``It's precisely because we have been good neighbors that I want to know why [Mr. Goldstein] is doing what he is doing now,'' Mr. Hirsh says. ``Does he take me for a fool?''
With roads and new retaining walls already hemming their camp in, the Jahaleen know that they cannot stay where they are. But when they are forced to leave, they want to move somewhere they will be allowed to stay. For this is the third time this tribe has been evicted since Israel was created in 1948.
``We want assurances that if we leave here, we go somewhere where we can't be chased away again,'' Hirsh explains.
What the Jahaleen have been offered by the Israeli authorities is a boulder-strewn slope 300 yards from Jerusalem's garbage dump whose ownership is disputed.
Israeli Civil Administration spokeswoman Maj. Elise Shazar said, however, that ``a road has been built for them, and we are working on a plan for water and electricity. It should be ready sometime during the next year.''
``It's like in South Africa,'' says Lynda Brayer, a lawyer working on behalf of the Jahaleen. ``These people now have the status of `surplus people,' which means they are in the way.''
The Jahaleen have lived here for 40 years, since being evicted from their ancestral lands in the Negev Desert after the State of Israel was born, and then forced across the border into Jordan.
When they came the land was empty, a forgotten corner of the West Bank, then occupied by Jordan. ``There was a lot of pasture, so we could have camels and hundreds of goats,'' Hirsh says. But after the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967, ``little by little we got closed in'' by military areas, closed nature reserves, and the settlement of Maale Adumim.
Tents gave way to lean-to shacks made of tin sheeting, and nomadic grazing to a sedentary life of wage labor. But the Bedouins were not allowed to build: Applications to the Israeli authorities for construction permits were always turned down, Hirsh complains.
Construction permits were never a problem for Israeli builders, who have made Maale Adumim the largest settlement on the West Bank, with over 15,000 inhabitants, expanding it to the outskirts of Jerusalem. That boom brought some benefits to the Jahaleen; most of their men work in the settlement, and Hirsh himself even drove a bulldozer, until his own home came under threat.
In 1989 the tribal leader, appointed by the Israeli authorities, was persuaded to sign a document giving up all the Jahaleen's rights to the land where they were camped. Later he led 40 families to the new site by the dump, lured by promises of running water and electricity.
Those promises remain unkept, one reason why Hirsh and 150 of his fellow tribesmen are refusing to move. But more important, they say, the government-proposed site is still within Maale Adumim's municipal boundaries, which means Hirsh's group risks another expulsion if the settlement expands again.
On top of that, the land in question was confiscated from Palestinian villagers from nearby Abu Dis and Azzariya, who still claim it as theirs. To say nothing of the fact that the few nooks and crannies between the boulders where a tent might be pitched or a hut built are already occupied by Bedouin families, which have already moved, and that grazing is prohibited on all the surrounding land.
HIRSH and his followers have suggested another site not far away, on land that has always been government-owned, where the terrain is level and the rocks less of a nuisance. The Israeli authorities, however, say that since trees grow there, it cannot be zoned for residential use.
The Jahaleen's fight now is to try to change the authorities' minds, and to keep Maale Adumim's bulldozers at bay in the meantime. Goldstein promises patience: ``We will proceed slowly, until we reach solutions that are mutually acceptable,'' he says. ``We will postpone for a while, until everyone is ready.''
In the meantime, bulldozed earth is piled above the Bedouins' shacks in a constant reminder of how precarious their future is, and how distant their past. From the mats laid out in the camp's hospitality tent, a low shelter made of sacking, the bright, new, angular apartment blocks of Maale Adumim are clearly visible. And the braying of a donkey is drowned out by the judder of a nearby jackhammer, tearing up the hillside.
At the site where he would like to move, Hirsh would hope for a building permit. ``I would prefer to live our old life, but I know that it is over,'' he explains. ``And if we have lost the things that gave joy to our life before, then why should we live in such a primitive way?''