A conclusion to the contentious issue of the Palestinian Bedouin community Khan al-Ahmar may be close at hand, if Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett decides to approve a deal negotiated during the Netanyahu era between the Israeli government and its residents.
The evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar, which is mostly comprised of temporary structures, is at the heart of an ongoing battle between Israel and the residents, with the Palestinian Authority and international community acting as loud and sometimes influential observers. Located on the outskirts of the large Jewish West Bank community of Ma’ale Adumim and close to the central Highway 1, Khan al-Ahmar was built illegally, without a permit and on public land, and its demolition was therefore approved in 2018 by Israel’s Supreme Court. Approximately 200 Palestinian Bedouins reside in Khan al-Ahmar. Israel has offered the residents different resettlement options over the years, which would take them away from the dangers of the highway and its traffic, but they have so far refused.
The residents claim to have lived in Khan al-Ahmar for decades, and have lived in the area as nomads since the 1950s, when they were deported from Israel’s Negev region to the West Bank.
The agreement currently on Bennett’s desk was reportedly negotiated between the residents and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who promised repeatedly to evacuate Khan al-Ahmar. The residents agreed to the compromise, Israeli media reported on Monday, but the political instability suffered by Israel in the past two years put any progress on hold.
According to reports on the agreement, the residents will be relocated to a permanent site in Israel’s south and given permanent residency status. In return, they will evacuate Khan al-Ahmar peaceably.
Bennett, along with other right-wing partners to his coalition, criticized Netanyahu for dragging his feet and delaying the Khan al-Ahmar’s demolition, even though it had been approved by the Supreme Court. The compromise on offer now could be seen by Bennett as an excellent opportunity to uphold his promise of evacuating Khan al-Ahmar, while avoiding the international backlash which a forced demolition would likely generate.
Yohanan Tzoreff, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, carefully suggests that Bennett is likely to accept the compromise. The residents of Khan al-Ahmar “were Israeli residents, they lived in the area of Tel Sheva and moved from there because they were living in illegal buildings. From there, they moved to the region of Khan al-Ahmar,” he told The Media Line, explaining that, because of this, giving them Israeli residency status would not be setting a precedent, which would otherwise be a cause for concern for the prime minister.
Professor Asher Cohen, an expert on Israeli politics at Bar Ilan University, also referenced the precedent it is feared the compromise may set in an interview with The Media Line, asking rhetorically whether “every time someone invades [a piece of land] and they come to evacuate him, the result will be permanent residency?” However, Cohen agrees that the “Israeli past” of Khan al-Ahmar’s population will be enough to avoid this precedent.
Cohen differentiates between long-term and short-term considerations that may inform Bennett’s decision. “It’s obvious that a victory shot of Khan al-Ahmar evacuated, and it doesn’t matter under what terms, will be viewed as the Bennett government demolished Khan al-Ahmar and Netanyahu didn’t,” he said of the short-term benefits which Bennett will accrue.
Looking further into the future, Cohen explains that the importance of evacuating Khan al-Ahmar is significant. It is located on a strategic piece of land which makes the benefits of its evacuation clearly outweigh the disadvantages, he said.
It’s obvious that a victory shot of Khan al-Ahmar evacuated, and it doesn’t matter under what terms, will be viewed as the Bennett government demolished Khan al-Ahmar and Netanyahu didn’t
Yet, Tzoreff notes that Bennett will have to explain to his electorate his need to compromise, in an issue which can be portrayed as a simple case of land invasion and illegal construction. He may have to pay a price, Tzoreff believes. But the fact that negotiations began under Netanyahu, he says, will certainly increase the compromise’s legitimacy and make it an easier decision for the new premier.
Both experts agree that the Bennett-Lapid coalition, built of right-wing and left-wing parties, as well as the Islamist Raam-United Arab List, will not be an impediment for the government. Khan al-Ahmar “certainly isn’t a central issue” for the United Arab List, said Cohen of the Arab Israeli party in the coalition.
Another important advantage which may push Bennett to accept the agreement is that it will enable him to avoid a diplomatic and international public relations fiasco. “It solves the issue of evacuation with all the trouble it will cause in the US today, and with different entities watching every move made here,” Tzoreff said.
“This is a kind of compromise” that Bennet may accept, he says, because “reality is much more complicated” now that he has stepped into the premier’s shoes.