Scorching heat as a result of climate change is making the usual problems of the Bedouin of the Judean Desert and Jordan Valley — poverty, settler violence and harassment by authorities — truly unbearable

Nir Hasson. Aug 16, 2023

Aug 16, 2023

The Bedouin of the Judean Desert and Jordan Valley may, in many ways, be the most disadvantaged community living between the Jordan River and the sea. They suffer from poverty, settler violence, and harassment by the authorities. They lack basic infrastructure, including water, electricity, roads, and education. They also live under the constant threat that their residences will be destroyed. 

Furthermore, they have no political power, even compared to the other West Bank residents living under occupation. As heat waves ravage Israel, like everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, the Bedouin are right in the line of fire. 

They don’t have the means most Israeli residents rely on to protect themselves from the heat: air conditioning, running water, insulated houses, and ice in the freezer. Like everywhere else, the changing climate is not an isolated problem, but rather amplifies the intensity of other problems. Climate change is raising existing burdens – settler terror, occupation, and poverty, to name a few – to an intolerable level.

Khan al-Ahmar seen in January. A recent visit showed how serious the effects of the heat are.
Khan al-Ahmar seen in January. A recent visit showed how serious the effects of the heat are.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Khan al-Ahmar is a cluster of tents near the main route between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. The Bedouin community that lives there has been at the center of a public and political debate in Israel for years. Far-right organizations have made it their goal to expel these residents from the area and have for years angrily accused the government of dragging its feet.

They recently found that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government is in no rush to take action. The issue of Khan al-Ahmar is still controversial, even among many of the settlers in the nearby settlement of Kfar Adumim; in the rest of the world, its prospective demolition is considered a war crime.

A recent visit to Khan Al-Ahmar brought home how much the baking heat is the true enemy of life there. Temperatures reached 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit) at noon. 

Ibrahim Abu Dahuk in Khan al-Ahmar, this week. The only way to cool  yourself is to use a wet blanket, he says.
Ibrahim Abu Dahuk in Khan al-Ahmar, this week. The only way to cool yourself is to use a wet blanket, he says.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The heat is thick and suffocating. Sweat has stuck people’s clothes to their bodies, and breathing comes heavy during just a short walk from the car to the camp. A family is hiding in a tunnel beneath the road leading to the cluster of tents – a father, mother, and three children playing in the shade.

At the entrance, one resident, Abu Ismail, sits beneath a tree with two water jugs. The kaffiyeh on his head and his shirt are wet. Occasionally, he fills a tin cup with water and pours it over his head and shirt. 

Other than him, the place looks deserted. No one dares to go out before evening. Another resident, Ibrahim Abu Dahuk, sits in a tent, its flaps rolled up to allow a small breeze to enter. “I’m 56 years old, so I remember every year since, let’s say, 1977,” he says. “There were always a few hot days, maybe three or four; four days tops. 

Abandoned tents in Ein Samia, this week. Residents fled after years of being terrorized by settlers.
Abandoned tents in Ein Samia, this week. Residents fled after years of being terrorized by settlers.Credit: Naama Greenbaum

The situation of the residents of Khan al-Ahmar is relatively decent compared to the situation of the Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley. Khan al-Ahmar has running water, solar power – and most importantly, their Jewish neighbors do not harass them daily. 

In recent years, the Bedouin in the Jordan Valley have been at the center of a violent campaign by young right-wing radicals and residents of settler outposts aimed at removing them from their land. The campaign has already had several successes, and some Bedouin communities have broken up and left the sites they had lived in for decades in order to escape the settlers’ terrorization.

The settlers’ most recent victory was last May, when they caused the flight of the residents of Ein Samia, a community near Ramallah. A half-destroyed school remains at the site, textbooks scattered on the floor. Remnants of tents and belongings surround it. The community resettled closer to a Palestinian village. In this war, water and heat are weapons in the hands of the settlers.

Two weeks ago, left-wing activist Dafna Banai visited the Homsa area, north of Ein Samia, where several Bedouin families live. “A car with five settlers arrived at the encampment, where there was only a woman and a girl,” she says. “It’s an encampment they set up after the military removed them, claiming that they were in a military ‘firing zone.’ The settlers shouted at the woman, and she got scared. They opened the hatch of the water tank and poured it all out. As soon as I arrived, they fled.

A Bedouin encampment in the Jordan Valley, last week. In this place, survival means water.
A Bedouin encampment in the Jordan Valley, last week. In this place, survival means water.Credit: Naama Greenbaum

“The woman hid and only agreed to come out when she saw me,” says Banai. “These are terror visits. They always come in large groups to isolated families to instill terror. The water is the most difficult problem. We thought of filing a complaint, but the lawyer told us that because there’s no permanent damage, nothing will come of it.” In another recent incident, settlers who arrived at an isolated encampment stole three containers of water. 

In this area, survival depends on the water supply. Israel refuses to provide water to the communities in the Jordan Valley on the grounds that they live in illegal settlements. On the other hand, nearby outposts illegally built by Jewish settlers all receive water from nearby Jewish settlements. Some of the settlements even have swimming pools.

Rafa Daraa’me is a teacher who volunteers in the afternoons, delivering water to communities in the area. He is a key figure in this battle for survival, and he owns a battered 12-cubic-meter water tanker truck. “From 8:00 A.M. until 1 P.M I am a teacher, and then I deal with the water, filling it up and delivering it to people,” says Daraa’me. 

“I have about 120 families, and the water is mainly for sheep,” he says. “Each cubic meter costs around 20 shekels [$5], depending on the distance of the journey. It’s especially hard right now, but what can they do? They have no choice. So during the day, they sit, don’t come out of the shade, and take more water. Those who took one container before are now taking one and a half.”

Last year, the military confiscated the truck, claiming that Daraa’me was driving through a firing zone. The truck was released shortly later following a protest by diplomats who contacted the authorities.

פותחת חדשה
Rafa Daraa’me’s water tanker truck. It was seized by the IDF last year and returned after pressure from diplomats.Credit: Naama Greenbaum

The water brought by Daraa’me is used primarily for the sheep. Water for people is transported by the local Bedouin in trailer tanks pulled by tractors. We meet Walid Ka’abi as he drives a tractor harnessed to a 4-cubic-meter water truck, traveling to a tap about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from his house to fill water for his family. It’s not an easy trip; the police often stop him on the way and give him tickets, citing various problems with the tractor or unsafe driving. 

“So far, I have received 25 tickets from the police,” he says. “But they built an illegal outpost right above my house, and after a week, they put a water pipe in it.”

The area of Homsa, where Ka’abi lives – and where the settlers emptied the water tank in the story mentioned earlier – is not a water-scarce region. A flowing spring with a large pool is not far from the camp. Until a year ago, a herd of cows belonging to one of the Bedouin families used to drink from this spring. 

But then, some unknown entity fenced off the area, paved over the pool, built a wide wooden platform with a picnic table, and turned the spring once serving the Bedouin into a recreation site for Jews. Someone also put up a sign renaming the Ein Hilwa (“Beautiful Spring” in Arabic) spring into “Ma’ayan Hadegel” – “Flag Spring” in Hebrew. Many other springs in the area went through the same process, being transformed from water sources (mainly for animals) into fenced-off recreational sites for settlers’ use.

Near Homsa, Bedouin have planted an olive grove on land belonging to them. The olive trees are not irrigated and appear to be on the brink of death. A few dozen meters away, a Jewish-owned vineyard benefits from an irrigation system. The vineyard is green and thriving. 

Opposite from there is a pipeline that carries water to an illegal outpost. In the middle of the road, a pipe has burst, the pressure causing water to flow out, creating a mist and a green splash in the arid landscape. “Just the water leaking from this pipe would be enough for all the Palestinians living in the area,” says Aref Daraa’me, former head of the al-Maleh village council and now working at the B’Tselem organization.

Intense heat is nothing new to the area’s Bedouin; they’re used to it. But they acknowledge that the heat has been much worse in recent years. They could cope with it, too, they say, if they were only allowed to.

A Bedouin community in the Jordan Valley, last week. 'If they’d just leave us in peace, we’ll manage,' says Abu Dahuk.
A Bedouin community in the Jordan Valley, last week. ‘If they’d just leave us in peace, we’ll manage,’ says Abu Dahuk.Credit: Naama Greenbaum

“It’s much hotter,” says Nimr Daraa’me, a resident of al-Farsia. “Last week, four sheep died because of the heat. The problem is that I’m not allowed to build them a larger shelter. If I build one, they’ll demolish it straight away. There’s nothing you can do against the heat – put on a hat, pour water, drink a lot, and don’t move until the evening,” he says.

Last July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet, and it’s very likely that it was actually Earth’s hottest month in the past 120,000. In Israel, according to official meteorological data, July was the second-hottest month ever measured. It was marked by a powerful and unrelenting heat wave that lasted for two weeks. According to all climate models, summers are expected to be even worse in the upcoming summers because of the ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Asked whether he thinks climate change might lead to a day when living in Khan al-Ahmar will be impossible, Abu Dahuk replies that he isn’t worried. Others will have to be removed before him, he says. 

“The Bedouin who live near Jericho have it hotter, and [that’s also the case] in Saudi Arabia,” he adds. “Look at what’s happening in Saudi Arabia these days. I don’t want anything. Just quiet. I don’t want to build a house, and I don’t want air conditioning. If they’d just leave us in peace, we’ll manage.”

Later, he adds that he misses winter. “I’m a person who loves winter,” he says. “When I’m lying down at night and hear the rain falling, I’m happy.”