Eminent writers fight literary battle for Palestinian cave-dwellers
Bedouin women protest against a plan that would formally recognise Bedouin communities in the Negev desert, but could uproot 30,000 Bedouins from their homes. Photo: Reuters/Ammar Awad
In a world of catastrophes, coups and civil wars it’s hard to focus on the off-track issues that seldom hit the limelight.
But the plight of 1,000 obscure, traditional cave-dwellers in the arid southern West Bank has moved 25 of Israel’s most famous authors to aim the sharp end of their pens at the Israeli authorities.
Their petition, written by acclaimed novelist David Grossman – named among the 100 greatest Israelis of all time -- calls for a halt to the planned evacuation of eight Palestinian communities in the South Hebron Hills. Israel says the move is needed to clear the way for a military training zone.
Now, as a 13-year legal battle against the evictions heads for a final appeal in Israel’s supreme court, 70 eminent Canadian writers have joined the protest, including Life of Pi author Yann Martel, Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje, parliamentary poet laureate Fred Wah and Holocaust survivor and author Gabor Mate.
“These Palestinian villagers have inhabited their homes for several centuries,” says their open letter to Israeli and Canadian leaders. “Evicting them would violate international law and cause extreme hardship.”
The Israeli government maintains that the military free-fire zone in South Hebron is not a “suitable environment” for permanent residence, according to the Guardian.
The Canadians also urge Israel to reject the Prawer-Begin resettlement bill, under which some Bedouin villages in the Negev desert would be formally recognized, but 30,000 Israeli Bedouins could be forcibly relocated and about 35 “unrecognized” communities destroyed. It passed first reading in the Israeli Knesset last week, and evictions are due to begin in August.
“It is inspiring to see Canadian writers demonstrating ethical leadership,” says Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, “when Canada’s leaders seem to have lost their moral compass.”
“The clarity of the situation is obvious,” said Martel, speaking from Saskatoon. “Many of the Palestinians in the (South Hebron) firing zone have been there for generations. They have papers to prove they live there. The Israelis are occupying land that not a single country in the world agrees they should occupy.”
And he adds, “it’s not just foreigners who are against this. (The petition) is backed by people on the ground.”
The Israeli writers’ petition says that Israel has been “actively expelling and displacing the inhabitants of the South Hebron Hills villages” for 20 years, damaging their archaic lifestyle as cave-dwellers who eke out a living from raising sheep and goats and small crop farming.
“Over the years they have suffered unceasing harassment by the Israeli army and settlers,” it said. Some villagers were evicted starting in 1999, and their caves blocked up. But those who were able to return pending the appeal decision lead a hardscrabble life without a water or electricity supply.
Even if the Israeli court rejects the appeal of the Palestinian cave-dwellers, and thousands of Bedouin are evicted, says Martel, “it’s about injustice, and Israel itself has suffered injustice.
“But injustice doesn’t go away. It’s being felt more palpably around the world. If these plans continue, in the short term Israel may win. But in the long term it will lose.”
Olivia Ward has covered conflict, politics and human rights in the former Soviet Union, Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.