Visiting the Bedouin Community of Um el-Khair Village in the South Hebron Hills
Eighteen Palestinians and eighteen Israelis joined Trip 21 to explore history and narrative, this time for two days in the south of the West Bank. After an ice-breaker in the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala, we drove south past Hebron to the Bedouin village of Um el-Khair. The group enjoyed a traditional mansaf lunch with chicken, rice, yogurt and salad, then toured the village with our local guide, Awdah al Hathaleen, learning first that the village’s name derives from the spirit of doing good and demonstrating generosity. Other local residents, including Hebrew-Arabic-English translator and village leader, Eid Suleiman, joined to help answer our participants' many questions.
The precarious living conditions of the 70 or so villagers in Um el-Khair were immediately obvious upon arrival o the village. Residents shared that they feel their situation reflects a grave injustice, that they live with such limited means while residents of the adjacent Israeli settlement/town of Carmel enjoy amenities such as swimming pools. Their anger is aggravated by the fact that the Israeli Civil Administration responsible for issuing building permits and providing basic infrastructure refuses to serve Um el-Khair but allows for the continued development of Carmel. Awdah also stressed that his village experiences daily stone throwing by Carmel residents. Many participants showed sympathy for the hardships faced by the Bedouin community, while some also expressed a need to hear the other side of the story, namely that of Carmel residents, in order to get a full picture.
After the tour, Awdah led the group on a hike in the desert and its surrounding hills to an old Jordanian military compound. On the way, the participants asked: How did the residents of Um el-Khair get to this specific location in the first place? When the 1948 war between Israel and the neighboring Arab states ended with Israel’s victory, the Bedouins were afraid of the new rulers and many fled or were expelled (Marx, Emmanuel, “Bedouin of the Negev"). Awdah and Eid explained that Palestinian villagers from the Arad area settled in Um el-Khair, as many others arrived to surrounding areas. An hour of walking through the barren desert brought us to a mountain top, where our group took a break for coffee, tea, snacks, and to enjoy the breathtaking view towards the Dead Sea.
In our closing discussion back at the village, an Israeli participant asks: What is "Bedouin" identity? And how does it interplay with the other forms of identity such as being Muslim and Palestinian? There are a number of responses, suggesting that all of these are relevant and form a complex identity based on past and present experience. Full of new ideas and continuing conversations from the day, we returned to our overnight accommodations at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala. The evening included celebration for the birthday of our youngest participant, singing birthday songs in Hebrew and Arabic, and chocolate cake. Many then spent the evening listening to music of different languages and learning each other’s traditional dances like Palestinian “Dapke”, but also trying Salsa and Trance.
Continue reading about Day 2 of the trip in and around Bethlehem, with a visit to the Aida Refugee Camp.
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