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The Bedouin clan resisting violent displacement by Israeli settlers

The people of al-Muarrajat remain undeterred, even after a recent and disturbing settler threat on their lives.


Mughayer al-Deir, occupied West Bank – On January 23, the villagers of al-Muarrajat woke up to find three child-size burial mounds near their children’s school. The message was clear: Leave, or die.


According to Alia Mleihat, 27, from the village, the fake graves sent “intense fear, anxiety and terror” through the village – a group of 30 shepherding families, all related.


“The [graves] the settlers put in al-Muarrajat are a direct threat from these monsters [that] could be implemented today or tomorrow because whoever made them goes past the village every day,” she said.


But even after this latest settler threat on their lives, the people of al-Muarrajat are undeterred.

“Those who did this must be held accountable … we will remain steadfast on our land until death, this doesn’t frighten us,” added Alia.


“On the contrary, it calls on us to be even more steadfast.”


Word quickly reached the villagers’ cousins in Mughayer al-Deir – also from the Mleihat clan – of what had happened. Though chilling, it was no surprise, considering what they were experiencing as well.


The last of the Bedouins

In a series of violent pogroms by settlers in the occupied West Bank’s Area C since the Israel-Hamas conflict started on October 7, nearly all the Bedouin villages east of Ramallah along the Allon Road – rough terrain seen as integral to annexation dreams of the Israeli right – were targets of forcible displacement by armed settlers, often wearing military uniforms.


Humanitarians on the ground at the time told Al Jazeera that five al-Muarrajat families left, with expectations of more to follow and that Mughayer al-Deir – situated even closer to Allon Road than al-Muarrajat – would go as well, completing the displacement of Palestinians in the area.


But, four months later, the people of al-Muarrajat and Mughayer al-Deir remain on their land.

According to leaders and members of these shepherding communities, they stayed despite dangers and restrictions to preserve their Bedouin way of life – and because they have nowhere else to go.


Ibrahim Mleihat, 58, known as “Abu Muhammad”, is the mukhtar, or chosen leader, of Mughayer al-Deir, about a 90-minute walk away from al-Muaarrajat on a hill with the Allon Road on one side and surrounded elsewhere by encroaching settlers, including the settlement of Ma’ale Mikhmas and the outpost of Mitzpe Dani.


With rain and hail pounding the top of their family tent, Abu Muhammad had his grandson serve coffee as the older man spoke to Al Jazeera, a photo of his father perched on the wall. Much of the village outside was being reduced to mud.



Abu Muhammad described how things began to deteriorate in Mughayer al-Deir three years ago as settler outposts first appeared during the prior Israeli government headed by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.


As happened in Bedouin villages elsewhere in Area C – land under Israeli military control earmarked to be negotiated in future peace talks – the harassment the Mleihat villagers had experienced for years escalated after October 7.


Settlers began surveilling them with drones, using loudspeakers to shout profanities about Islam or to amplify sounds to scare away their flocks, said Abu Muhammad and his son, Ibrahim Mleihat, 37. Armed settlers attacked them and stopped them from grazing their sheep on land they had used for years, penning them in.


Settlers also attacked Mughayer al-Deir families when they tried to access their only water source down the road – a trip made necessary because Israeli authorities prohibited them from piping the water directly to their community.


Security forces harassed the villagers, too. Despite an official agreement with Israeli water company Mekorot, they stopped the villagers from accessing the water source directly, making them go through a flying checkpoint first.


‘We are the government’

In Mughayer al-Deir, organised settler attacks reached a peak on December 28, said Abu Muhammad and Ibrahim. That morning, dozens of armed settlers in military uniforms and covered faces came to the village, invading homes and telling Abu Muhammad the villagers had to leave.


“This is our area,” they declared.


“We will never leave,” Abu Muhammad replied.


When some villagers defended themselves in their homes, settlers shot at the ground towards Abu Muhammad and his sons. As the situation escalated, he called the police.


“Don’t bother calling police,” a security guard from a nearby illegal settlement – an alleged ringleader of the attacks – told Abu Muhammad. “We are the government.”


When the police arrived, the settlers claimed it was the Bedouins who had attacked them. Abu Muhammad and five of his sons were arrested.


“Why are you arresting us while they’re attacking us in our homes?” asked a cuffed Abu Muhammad.

They were taken to Ofer Prison, where they were beaten and kept in cold cells with no water or food for long stretches, they said.


It took 10 days to be released, despite there being no evidence against them, and each of them had to pay 10,000 shekels (about $2,750) for their release plus 10,000 shekels for a lawyer. They also had to sign pledges to pay 50,000-shekel (about $13,730) fines if they “attempted violence” towards the settlers again.



‘Grazing everywhere we now can’t’

The material and psychological state of the Mughayer al-Deir and al-Muarrajat families is deteriorating as their isolation continues, more than four months into the war.


Threatened with confiscations by settlers and authorities if they graze their sheep on traditional lands, the villagers only leave their land to get water from down the road or to buy fodder, Abu Muhammad says.


Typically, the rainy winter season provides grass for flocks to graze, saving lots of money. But, he says, they still buy one tonne of animal fodder every other day because settlers prevent them from moving about to graze.


“And then the settlers come onto our lands with their flocks, grazing everywhere we can’t go,” he said.

These burdens during what should be the most lucrative time of year are compounded by the strain on the occupied West Bank’s economy, which is forcing Palestinian families to spend money on basics like rice and flour instead of the cheese, yoghurt and meat the shepherds sell.


To remain financially afloat, families in Mughayer al-Deir are turning to loans out of desperation.


“Every household here now has debts that exceed 30,000 shekels (about $8,240),” said Abu Muhammad, whose community lives without running water and very limited electricity.

Struggling with the day-to-day of leading the community through this crisis, “I can’t even think of the future,” he said.


“I can only adapt to the situation and think how we will cover the cost of surviving.”


The cost of surviving

The people in both Mughayer al-Deir and al-Muarrajat grapple with a lack of services on top of the economic situation.


A mobile health clinic that used to service Mughayer al-Deir stopped coming because of the settlers. An elderly villager with chronic disease told aid workers she skipped necessary medical visits to Ramallah for fear of settlers.


Until recently, the school in al-Muarrajat, which Mughayer al-Deir children also attend, was closed in the period following the October 7 start of the war. Alia Mleihat – who was self-taught in high school before attending the Open University in Jerusalem – would hold lessons with village children using books donated by activists.


“As Palestinians, our weapon is knowledge … with knowledge, we can convey our voice to the world,” she said.


In the middle of January, the school started again, but the children still face frequent closures and risks getting to school. Three out of 30 children from Mughayer al-Deir have already dropped out.


With the other Bedouin villages near the Allon Road now deserted or, in cases like Wadi Siq, even occupied by Israeli settlers, the isolation has cast a pall over the two remaining communities.


The attacks and restrictions have been especially hard on children. Ibrahim Mleihat has six children between one and 12 years old.


“We try to lie to the children: ‘Don’t be afraid, they’ll go away,’” he said. “But our children know we’re lying. They can see it in our eyes.”


In Mughayer al-Deir, villagers describe how children often discuss “Ameer, Jad’oun and Omer”, the Israeli security officers of the nearby Ma’ale Mikhmas settlement and the Mitzpe Dani outpost.


“The children dream that the [security officers] will kill them or take them away,” said Abu Muhammad.


A mother in Mughayer al-Deir described her six-year-old daughter to aid workers as intelligent and eloquent until the last settler attack, which struck her largely silent and unable to spell words.


Even under the traumatic, economically crippling situation they find themselves in, the Mleihat of Mughayer al-Deir and al-Muarrajat say they will not leave.


Abu Muhammad has heard from displaced communities how bleak their prospects are, struggling like the former community in Ein Samiya did, torn apart and scattered across Area B.


Such communities have found it impossible to keep up with their livelihoods as shepherds, the only option being to sell their animals and find jobs as labourers – at a time in the occupied West Bank when roads are dangerous, Palestinians have their movement further restricted, and the economy is in shambles.


And while some other communities had land elsewhere to flee to, Abu Muhammad emphasises that they simply do not have anywhere else to go.


“Either we’ll be killed here, or we’ll get an alternative,” said Abu Muhammad. “But we’ll never leave.”


Though separated by a 90-minute walk or 10-minute drive, the people of al-Muarrajat and Mughayer al-Deir have gone months without seeing each other because of the settlers; one of Alia’s relatives had their car torched by settlers when they attempted to visit Mughayer al-Deir.


However, the physically isolated villages remain in constant contact, supporting one another as the only communities that remain in the area – and as family.


“I talk to them nearly every day about what’s happening there,” said Alia of her Mughayer al-Deir relatives.


“They’re brave people who defended themselves and stuck to their land.”


 

Al Jazeera, 2024

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