Editor’s note: In mid-May, JTNews Editor Joel Magalnick spent five days in the Negev Desert in central Israel as a guest of Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. This article is the first in a series of stories about the Negev’s Bedouin population and the issues they face as they struggle to become equal citizens in the country in which they live.
Interrupting the desolate beauty as you travel the roads of Israel’s Negev Desert are the occasional grouping of makeshift huts, sheep herds, and, every so often, a camel or two.
These homes belong to the Bedouin, a population indigenous to the deserts of Israel, Jordan and the Sinai for at least the last two or three centuries. Most, if not all, of the shacks on the side of the desert highways are villages unrecognized by the Israeli government and as such receive no basic services such as electricity, water or emergency response.
The common mythology of this tribal culture is that they are a nomadic people known for their gracious hospitality who have lived for centuries in large tents. Organized missions to Israel regularly feed into this myth by taking groups to the ornately decorated Bedouin tents to experience a communal meal. But this stratified, often primitive society does not fit that mythology, and has not for many years.
Instead, the Bedouins, which make up a high percentage of the population of the Negev, are struggling — struggling to emerge from poverty, struggling to become educated, struggling to hold onto their traditional ways while, like it or not, they must enter the 21st century like the world around them. And though for some life is improving, growth in population, an ever-widening income gap, and unresolved land disputes continue to make life difficult for the majority.
“I thought I could be as good as anyone, but that wasn’t the case,” says Hashem Al Kirnawi, 35. “Why did I have to join the army to prove I’m Israeli?”
Al Kirnawi lives in the Bedouin city of Rahat, though his family has been a part of the desert since long before Israel became a state. Rahat, a modern city with large stone houses, markets, gas stations and an almost entirely Bedouin population of about 40,000, is by far the largest of the seven Bedouin cities in the Negev recognized by Israel. It lies about a 15-minute drive from Beer Sheva.
For two reasons, Hashem is among minorities in his town — he has a job; and he served in the Israeli Defense Forces. He says he joined the army for economic reasons, but once he joined he excelled in the military atmosphere. He made officer by age 20, he says, and as a reservist he participated in the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. But once he left active duty, he faced discrimination in the Israeli job market, even with his military credentials.
“A Bedouin is a Bedouin,” he says.
In many ways, however, Hashem is very much like his fellow Bedouins. He gets upset by what he calls the Israeli government’s unequal treatment of Bedouins, but he also plays the game that makes it difficult for the recognized towns’ local councils to take care of its citizens:
“What’s really important isn’t equality, but connections,” he says. “If you’re a good friend of the mayor, then you’ll get somewhere.”
His connections — he’s related, though somewhat distantly, to Rahat’s mayor — and money, for instance, allow him to convince the city turn a blind eye to the sheep his father keeps on untended land behind the modern two-story house his parents built a decade or so ago.
Sheik Kamal Abu Heniya, an imam in the Bedouin city of Tel Sheva agrees the politics are problematic.
“The local council itself is not well-qualified to run the town,” he says. “It’s very well known the council will appoint people who are not right for the jobs.”
On some local councils, Abu Heniya added, people chosen to represent their citizens never even went to school.
Some recognized municipalities, such as the cities of Segev Shalom and Hura, now have mayors who have been highly educated, but those towns’ rapid change, particularly with television and the Internet entering homes that once never even had electricity, takes its toll between generations.
“This community is going through a rapid changing process. What takes other societies sometimes 200-300 years has changed in 20-30 years,” says Kher Albaz, director of social services for Segev Shalom. “It’s the East and West living in the same home without any preparation for it.”
Long-standing traditions such as polygamy, farming, subjugation of women — actually a newer phenomenon, since women who once worked the fields with the men are now commonly isolated in their homes — and prohibitions on intermarriage between tribes are being challenged both inside and outside the fold while the majority struggle to hang on.
Amram Kolagy, a Jewish Israeli appointed to help create a working government for the newly recognized village of Abu Qrinat, says local non-governmental organizations and the Bedouin Center at Ben Gurion University are helping to alleviate some of those pressures, “but all those efforts combined have not been enough to create big change, and change is what’s needed.”
Low income and employment, increases in drugs and crime, and a growing population are practically drowning out the work that is being done to help them, Kolagy says.
Nobody can state exactly how many Bedouins live in the Negev. Academics and activists cite the current population at anywhere between 160,000 and 200,000 in the Negev and Northern Israel combined (of a total population of about seven million), with a birth rate of about five children per woman, according to government sources. There is no dispute at the rate in which the Bedouin population grows, however: it doubles every 12-13 years.
Currently, more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 18, and about 42 percent under the age of 14. In Hura, population 10,000, Mayor Hamid Nadbari says 461 children started school in September 2006, which meant the opening of 13 new kindergarten classes, a serious stress on a city with low tax revenues.
Israel’s taxation structure becomes oppressive because most income comes from industry, he says, and it has been difficult to obtain permits from the Israeli government to build industrial areas in the town. Property taxes, which are much lower, don’t bring in the revenue the town needs, and not just because of the tax rate.
“If the government is to match budgets, it could match by percent or shekel for shekel, but with the poor here, the government gives tax breaks, meaning the council gets less and the government budget is then lower,” says Nadbari. “It’s a Catch-22.”
A vast majority of the children born into Bedouin families live at or below the poverty line. All Israeli families receive a per-child stipend of about $40 per month, and unemployed Bedouins receive a welfare allotment of about $750 each month, or about the minimum wage.
Once the family is fed, that leaves precious little, if anything, to save for higher education, which can stifle motivation for boys to want to attend university and keeps the welfare cycle going. Girls who graduate and enter university, another recent phenomenon, are one bright spot in this scenario.
“The future is not promising unless the government starts investing,” says Dr. Alean Al-Krenawi, chair of Ben Gurion University’s Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer School of Social Work and former chair of the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. “If you don’t take care of bridging the gap between the Bedouin and Jewish sector…you will never break that gap.”
A 2004 “Statistical Yearbook of the Negev Bedouin” compiled by Al-Krenawi and Ben Gurion University shows employment rates in recognized towns between 25 and 30 percent, which is not, he says, merely a Bedouin problem.
“There’s a clash between Bedouin society and modern Israeli culture,” he says. “We’ve seen the level of crime increase in the last five, six years. That affects everybody, not just the Bedouins themselves.”
For the most part the crime increases are not violent — they range from stolen cars and animals to drugs — but some residents of Omer, an affluent suburb of Beer Sheva and just a stone’s throw from Tel Sheva, have reportedly taken to hiring private security to alleviate regular burglaries.
“I say it everywhere, including in front of [Prime Minister] Olmert himself,” Al-Krenawi says. “For the sake of Israel, you have to start to change your policy about Bedouins, because it’s very dangerous.”
One of the dangers is the possibility of the rise of Islamic radicalization, which may be happening in some places already.
“Any society with poor lower education and a high increase in poverty, with bad policy from the government, we will find extremism,” says Mayor Nadbari of Hura. “This will happen in any society.”
From the perspective of an Israeli Jewish academic who has spent her career studying Bedouins, that is an alarming phenomenon.
“I truly believe that if we don’t do what we need to do, and really fast, somebody else will pick it up. It will happen the same way it happened in Gaza and in other places,” says Rivka Carmi, president of Ben Gurion University. “The extremists and extreme organizations that take over the welfare and provide for them, then take over politically. This is what the Hamas did…and now they’ve conquered the community.”
Al-Krenawi agrees with Carmi’s assessment.
“We work very hard to keep the Islamic movement from Rahat, but again, if we leave the situation as it is, it will be increased,” says Al-Krenawi. “That’s not good for the coexistence between the Jews and the Bedouins in the Negev.”
Coming next: Education in the Bedouin communities.