When we visited Jahalin Bedouin spokesperson Eid Abu Khamis two weeks ago at his Khan al Ahmar home just outside Jerusalem, he was looking forward to attending the New York Peace Film Festival for the first North American screening of the film “Nowhere Left to Go,” scheduled for March 10. This film is a documentary about the plight of the Bedouin people as they struggle to remain on Palestinian land that Israel wants to take for the purpose of building more illegal settlement units. (see Feb 25 blog posting “Nowhere Left to Go” to view the film and to learn more of the story of the Bedouin people, and March 4 blog posting “Settlements and Settlers” for an explanation of Israeli settlements and their illegality according to International Humanitarian Law)
Abu Khamis was excited about the upcoming trip to New York, and excited about a visit with his brother who lives in the United States. Most importantly, though, he was eager to explain to the people at the film festival and to people at the UN (where briefings were scheduled after the film festival) about the dire situation facing his people. It is anticipated that the Bedouin will be involuntarily displaced (in contravention of International Humanitarian Law) as they are pushed off of their land and moved to an area outside of Jericho, perhaps as soon as this coming June. The Bedouin view this move as unacceptable because moving them there will push other Palestinians off of their land, something they feel is unjust to those currently living there, and because they will be unable to take their animals with them. The Bedouin lifestyle is one in which livestock are an essential part of life. For generations, their people have garnered their income through the fruits of their livestock – selling the milk, cheese, yogurt, meat and wool from their sheep, goats, and camels. Their social structure and indeed, their lives, have centered around the care and movement of their animals as they travel the hills of the Judean desert in search of grass and water.
There are pressures the world over on semi nomadic people. What makes the Jahalin Bedouin situation unique is the weight of the Israeli military occupation. With the occupation comes the reality that change is being deliberately forced upon them by a hostile government, a government that denies them the basics of life while working to push them off of their land, bringing about unwanted change without respect for their cultural and social needs.
2 days after visiting Abu Khamis, we were surprised to bump into him in the Old City of Jerusalem. He had come that day for an interview at the American Consulate office in Jerusalem. The interview was a requirement to obtain a visa to visit the United States. It might not seem unusual to see Abu Khamis in Jerusalem, until you understand that in order to get to Jerusalem, he was required to obtain a special permit to enter the city, a permit that itself is difficult to obtain. Prior to 1993, Palestinians living in the West Bank had free access to their capital city of Jerusalem, but in that year the Israeli’s restricted access to Jerusalem with the establishment of 12 military checkpoints at entry points around the city. From that point on, all Palestinians living in the West Bank have been prohibited from visiting Jerusalem without a special permit that must be applied for in advance and must prove a definable reason (medical appointment, visiting or accompanying an ill relative, consular office appointment, etc) for the visit. Usually, these permits are valid for only 24 hours. Magnetic ID cards make it possible for the Israeli’s to follow the movement of any individual Palestinian. Penalties for staying longer than the permit is issued can involve arrest and jail time. For these reasons, this was Abu Khamis’ first visit to Jerusalem in 10 years, even though he only lives a few kilometres outside the city.
Later that week, Abu Khamis received word from the Americans that his application for a visa to visit the United States had been denied. Apparently, he did not meet the criteria for a visa. Part of the official reason for his denial was that his application was a few days short of the required minimum, although he knew of others for whom this requirement had been waived in the past. His understanding was that he was viewed as a high risk to remain in the United States as an illegal immigrant and was therefore ineligible for a visa because he does not hold assets of $10,000 cash, or own a registered house, or own land. The fact that he would be leaving his wife and children at home was not viewed as sufficient proof of his desire to return to Palestine. He was, understandably, disappointed. It was decided that the Jahalin Bedouin Advocacy Officer, Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, would go alone to the Film Festival.
As we spoke with Abu Khamis the following day, his disappointment was evident. While grateful that Angela would be going on their behalf, he spoke of his own desire to speak, to bring his voice for his people to those in New York. It seemed unjust that politics and bureaucratic decisions would prevent his voice from being heard. We discussed the possibility of skype from his Bedouin home in Khan al Ahmar, but that would not be possible as skype requires reasonably fast internet speed, something that is not accessible there. We considered offering him the use of our home in Jerusalem, but we knew he could not get a permit to travel there. It became clear that the only answer was to find skype facilities within access of Abu Khamis.
Through the efforts of many who worked together in a spirit of cooperation, EAPPI Jerusalem Team 47 was able to coordinate an opportunity for Abu Khamis to participate via skype in the Question and Answer period following the screening of “Nowhere Left to Go.” Heartfelt thanks to the people of the New York Peace Film Festival, Jahalin Bedouin Advocacy Officer Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, our taxi driver and translator Firhas Salah, and to Gavan Kelly from the legal rights organization Addameer, who so generously provided skype facilities in Ramallah at 7:30pm local time on a Sunday evening. Through their efforts, Abu Khamis was able to speak his story and the story of his people. He was able to ask civil society around the world to stand up for justice, and to ask them to support the Bedouin people through pressuring their governments to pressure Israel for justice for the Bedouin. He was able to ask to be allowed to live a normal life – for his children to have the right to education, and for him to have the right to the opportunity for employment. He invited people from around the world to come to Khan al Ahmar to visit his family and to experience the reality of the Bedouin people. He was given a voice.
Will he speak alone, or will others stand with him and let their voices be heard?
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,