Israel: Thursday in the Negev

Morning meeting with representatives from the NGO – Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev.

After a much needed day of independent study in the economic development of Israel (i.e. shopping and rest), we woke up bright and early for another exciting day. Our wake up call was at 5:30 a.m., and we boarded the bus and headed south into the hot Negev desert to visit a Non-Governmental Organization called The Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev (RCUV). RCUV is a democratically elected body, chosen to represent the Bedouin community of the 45 unrecognized villages in the Negev. All 35 of us piled into a crowded office and sat on the crowded floor. The presenter apologized profusely for the conditions, but expressed that it was a good representation of how the Bedouin people live in unrecognized cities. We would soon find out that the conditions for us during the hour-long meeting were a luxury compared to the citizens of the unrecognized villages of the Negev.

The presenter tried not to be political in his presentation, but that was impossible. He explained that the primary goal of the RCUV is to receive governmental recognition of the Arab Bedouin (unrecognized) villages in the Negev, which have been excluded from governmental support or recognition. They define recognition as social, economic, and cultural equality with all citizens of Israel.

In 1948, as a result of the war for independence, 90 percent of the Arab population was forced out of the Negev, and became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. The remaining 10 percent were put into fenced areas where the Bedouins faced a new kind of society. They left their traditional lives of agriculture and farming and were forced into an unknown urban society. These societies posed many challenges for the Bedouin people. In the 1960s, the Israeli Government created 7 recognized towns for Bedouins.

While a majority of the Bedouin people moved into one of the seven towns recognized by the Israeli government, there are still 76,000 Bedouins in 45 unrecognized villages. The unrecognized villages are made up of citizens living in metal or plastic shacks with cloth roofs – many without water or electricity. Many Bedouins do not have the means to move into the recognized communities, and are therefore forced to live in the unrecognized towns. There are three main criticisms of the Bedouin people against the Israeli government: First, the concentration of Bedouins is maximized in a minimum amount of land, whereas the Jews experience a minimum amount of citizens in a maximum amount of land. Second, the Bedouins were not included in any city planning for their own communities. Third, the Israeli government did not provide any sources of income for the Bedouin communities, the result being that the Bedouin communities live in the poorest communities of Israel.

The heart of the Bedouin argument is land. When the Bedouins were forced from their land and into Bedouin villages, their ownership was not recognized. The Bedouins live a very traditional lifestyle, therefore their land agreements are oral, rather then traditional deeds. The Israeli government refused to recognize the long-established oral land agreements.

After discussing the many challenges of the Bedouin people and the legal issues surrounding the conflict between Arab Bedouins and Israelis, we headed out of the crowded office to explore the village of Wadina’am, one of the unrecognized cities.

Our bus struggled to drive through the rubble of Wadina’am as we passed homes made out of metal and plastic. There was a great irony to the town – there was a massive power plant in the town with power lines that run across the land. However, most of the Bedouin homes do not have the benefit of power. We passed dead camels lying in ditches on the side of the road and a donkey tied to a power line. In addition to living without power, most of these huts don’t have water, sewage, or protection from nature.

We passed by a modest but sturdy building made from mud. Our guide explained that it was a medical clinic that is no longer in operation, because the government shut it down. It got too much media attention. The medical conditions in the unrecognized cities was grim. There were no nearby medical clinics, and ambulance services could take up to an hour during an emergency.

The bus stopped at a Bedouin tent in the middle of the town. We went in and sat on the floor, and we were served a sweet tea. We were greeted by a Sheik who gave us a warm welcome. He talked with us about the situation in the unrecognized Bedouin villages. He discussed the legal battle for the Bedouin people of Wadina’am to be moved to a recognized city. They have been negotiating for new land since 1988. During the last 20 years, the citizens have experienced grave health problems due to the power lines that run through their community. The Ministry of Health and Environment has declared Wadina’am as highly hazardous. A high percentage of the citizens of Wadina’am suffer from various forms of cancer and respiratory problems. For this reason, the Wadina’am citizens are willing to move anywhere.

Another problem that the citizens face is home demolition. Because the Israeli government does not recognize their villages, from time to time the government will demolish their homes and force them out. They will then have to rebuild their homes and start all over. Some families have been forced out of their homes because of demolition monthly, only to have to start all over again. The Arab Bedouins of the unrecognized cities also face severe problems with education and unemployment. The unemployment rate for women is 98 percent, and it is not much better for the men.

After the presentation, we boarded the bus and we slowly made our way out of the town. It was difficult to drive away on our comfortable bus back to the luxuries that we are so accustomed to as we wave goodbye to the children running with the bus to bid us farewell.

We left the Bedouin village to visit the women’s organization, Lakiya Negev Bedouin Weaving (LNBW). LNBW was established in 1991 as an income-generating project for Palestinian Bedouin women living in villages and homesteads in the Negev desert. Lakiya provides women with the opportunity to develop the traditional skills of spinning and weaving, and to acquire new roles and skills in dyeing, production, and business management.

We started with a traditional Bedouin lunch served in the traditional Bedouin tent. We sat on handmade rugs and cushions on the floor around tables filled with food. The main course was rice, vegetables, and chicken. We also had hummus (we just can’t get enough hummus), salad, and goat cheese. The meal was topped off with sage tea and coffee.

After lunch a woman from the organization told us about the organization and explained that LNBW was created to employee women after the Bedouins were forced from their traditional way of life. In their traditional roles, women were in charge of building the tents made from hand woven rugs. With their new urban lifestyle, that job was eliminated. LNBW gives women the opportunity to continue their work and make money to help provide for their family. After the presentation, one woman took us through the process of weaving a rug – from gathering the wool, threading the wool, dying the wool, and eventually weaving the rug. The rugs were beautiful and many of us made purchases to support the organization and contribute to their work. Meeting with the Bedouins presented us another perspective of the situation in Israel. We saw another struggle in the fight for human rights. I am left wondering how the Bedouins survive in those conditions. How do the children stay hopeful for a bright future? What will be the fate of the Bedouin people?

The Bedouins have great pride in their traditional way of life, and will do everything they can to preserve their culture. I hope for the Bedouins that one day they are able to live their own lives, own their land, and coexist with Israelis forever.

~SS

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