Justice and Citizen Diplomacy in the Desert

by Paul Parker

For generations, the semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes of west Asia have followed their herds of goats, sheep and camels across the undulating hills of the desert wilderness. With winter’s rain, the wilderness blossoms with forage and water aplenty. In the long rainless summer heat, the herds and the Bedouin survive on what nature has stored in low growing shrubs and small springs. It is a rough, rural life that suits few families, but it is a life which Bedouins have lived and loved for millennia—free, endless horizons, star-lit nights, in harmony with nature, sufficiency without excess.

Currently, the State of Israel is trying to move 36,000 more Israeli Bedouins from their desert homes in the Negev into prefabricated house-trailers to make room for new Israeli settlements, an industrial park, and a military installation. The Bedouin tribes are resisting this involuntary population transfer with the aid of the United Nations and Israeli human rights organizations like Adalah. Israel has bulldozed the tents and corrals of one Bedouin community, Al Araqib, 160 times in the last decade, and the community has rebuilt their animal pens and erected their tents 161 times

From its founding until today, the State of Israel has worked relentlessly, often successfully, to move its Bedouin citizens from the vast wilderness into seven under-resourced, Israeli-approved municipalities. Even so, approximately 100,000 Bedouins still live in 30 unrecognized villages in Israel not connected to any water system or electric grid, denied public education and healthcare, and under constant threat of home demolition. Israel is committed to moving the Bedouins off their lands into government approved towns, and the Bedouins are committed to staying in the desert free and following their ancestral traditions. 


“What now,” a Bedouin boy in the South Hebron Hills must surely wonder in the wake Israel’s military destruction of homes, water supply, and animal pens (2018).
Photo courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Teams Palestine—Al Khalil (Hebron)

Bedouins in the State of Palestine live in the West Bank’s Area C under the threat of similar demolitions and involuntary relocations (Area C is approximately 60% of Palestine’s West Bank over which Israel has full security and administrative responsibility. It is also the area where most of Israel’s 200 or so settlements are located). Most of the 40,000 West Bank Bedouins are originally from Israel’s Negev but fled, or were driven out, during the 1948 violence and creation of the State of Israel.

Today, about 2000 Bedouins, live in the wilderness just 25 kilometers east of Bethlehem—the birthplace of Jesus—which is also the home of MCC’s long-time partner, Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center. How do Palestinian Christians who live under Israeli military rule in Palestine’s West Bank respond when their Bedouin neighbors are driven from their desert homes? 

What can Wi’am do in such a situation? It is a small, grassroots organization that tries to embody the teachings of Jesus.

Israel built its hafrada immediately beside Wi’am’s playground where Bethlehem’s children play refusing both fear and hatred.
(MCC photo/Anne Fortin)

Wi’am’s physical location is just five meters from Israel’s Wall (hafrada in Hebrew meaning “separation”). Its children’s playground is literally in the valley of the shadow of Israel’s Wall and military watchtower, yet they fear no evil. Wi’am’s mere presence is a continuous non-violent proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to set free the prisoners and breakdown every barrier. But how can their presence liberate the desert Bedouins from Israeli oppression?

As Jesus invited Andrew, Wi’am now invites internationals to “Come and see” (John 1:39). Among other programs, Wi’am offers Bedouin tours to take international visitors into the desert wilderness to establish relationships of respect, understanding, and mutual celebration.

On a recent Bedouin tour to see the sun rise over the Dead Sea, as our mini bus passed through one of the ten Bedouin villages in Palestine that are approved by Israel’s military, Wi’am’s guide, Usama, pointed to two mounds of concrete rubble and explained:

The remains of a recently built Bedouin family home after Israel’s military bulldozers had finished their work. (MCC photo/Paul Parker)

“Last week those were newly constructed houses, but because they are outside the approved city limits—although contiguous with the village’s border—Israel’s military demolished them.” In the last 30 years, the village has simply outgrown its legal boundaries, but the military will not allow it to expand. Several other homes, a health clinic, and the municipality’s offices are also outside the city limits and have received demolition notices.

When we arrived at the Bedouin camp, evening was approaching, and the “zarb” (a Bedouin style of cooking meat and vegetables above a layer of red-hot coals at the bottom of an underground pit) was not yet ready although we were starving! While waiting for the feast to begin we hiked a short distance into the desert, away from the camp’s lights, to watch the sun depart behind the desert’s hills escorted by different hues of red and orange before the night’s dark blue sky overtook the horizon. Then, we turned to the east to see the full moon rising. And we understood a tiny bit more of the Bedouin’s love for the desert: bliss, solemnity, fulfillment.

Bedouin herder, poet and musician, Abi Suliman, lives in the desert wilderness between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. (MCC photo/Paul Parker)

After dinner, Bedouin poet Abi Suliman played the traditional single-stringed rababa and sang extemporaneous songs of welcome to his international guests. We laughed, clapped and danced until the night overcame us, and we retired to the tents.

Several hours later, we awoke at 2:30a.m. to hike for three hours to a bluff overlooking the Dead Sea. Moments before the sun broke over the Jordanian mountains in the east, we looked back to the west to see the full moon melt into the desert wilderness. And then the sun rose to warm the whole world.

Wi’am has developed an extensive conflict transformation program including: mediation; Bible studies; trauma counseling; nonviolent resistance; programs for children, youth, and women; and learning and cultural tours. Wi’am’s tours are an important tool to break the bonds of oppression. Some tours focus on religious sites, others on cultural and political settings, but all aim toward international citizen diplomacy so that when visitors return to their countries, they can become agents of peaceful structural change for justice for everyone—Bedouin and neighboring villagers, Israeli and Palestinian, and Jew, Christian, and Muslim.

Visit the MCC Cry for Home website for more information about how you can join in this work of citizenship diplomacy. In the land where Jesus proclaimed the good news of justice, peace and salvation, people live with growing despair. Fifty-three years of occupation is enough. Please support the call for an end to the occupation, by urging Canada to live by its stated policy. Send a letter to your MP today.

The sun rises over the Jordanian mountains and Dead Sea as seen from the West Bank, Palestine. (MCC photo/Paul Parker)

Jesus taught that the rain and the sun are God’s good gifts to all humanity regardless of who we are or what we have done. (Matt 6:43-48)

Paul Parker is the Peace Program Coordinator for MCC Palestine and Israel

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