Negev: Bedouin Health, Bustan Eco-Builders

Devorah Brous and Ra’ed Al-Mickawi spoke about their work for social and environmental justice for Bedouins in the Negev/Naqab Desert.

Brous is the founder of Bustan, a partnership of Jewish and Arab people who apply their skills towards a sustainable allocation of resources inside the Negev/Naqab, and the region as a whole. Also, they challenge discriminatory and unequal allocation of public resources by implementing off-the-grid, renewable technologies.

The Negev/Naqab Desert, which is a part of Israel Proper (inside the Green Line), is home to an estimated 160,000 –” 170,000 Bedouins, who are Israeli-Arab citizens also. Negev Bedouins have been a dynamic, agrarian population well-known for animal husbandry, such as shepherding sheep and goats so they can sell the livestock by-products. Bedouins have a rich culture that includes traditional weaving and embroidery; the Baika tradition, an ancient technique of building homes out of stone, mud and straw; and for growing organic food and medicinal herbs. “Bedouins have an intricate system of land distribution among the clans,” Brous added.

Despite the estimated 3,300 land ownership claim attempts within Israeli Courts, some Israeli media sources project Bedouins as “the demographic threat.” The Negev Bedouin population replicates every 13 –” 15 years. Within the Negev an estimated 72,000 –” 86,000 Bedouins were moved into the following seven, government-planned townships: Arrara, Hura, Kaseifa, Laqiya, Rahat, Segev Shalom, and Tel Sheva. They live within an inverted triangular region called the “Siyag,” which means closure. The remaining Negev Bedouin population, an estimated 72,000 –” 86,000 people live in 45 villages unrecognized by Israel. They are represented through the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Arab (also Palestinian Bedouin) Villages in the Negev.

In January 2005, an amendment to the 1981 Public Land Law was approved by Israel Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee. The amendment is called the Expulsion of Invaders, which means the Israel Lands Authority can issue evacuation orders to people (for example Negev Bedouin in unrecognized villages) they believe are illegal invaders. The Negev Development Plan is raising money to build approximately 25 new Jewish communities in the Negev.

Negev Bedouins’ Health, Israel Municipal Planning and Industrial Negev

The marginalized Negev Bedouin community –” whether they live in Israel’s government-planned townships or in the 45 unrecognized villages –” face serious health problems. The lack of municipal planning that causes unequal allocation of public resources for the Bedouins by Israel (1965 Planning and Construction Law), along with the air, land and water pollution from industrial, Israeli companies established in the Negev have caused diverse, health problems among the Bedouin population. For example, an estimated 72,000 Bedouins live alongside high-voltage, electric towers constructed in 1982; and they live near the Israel National Water Carrier. However, they have no access to electricity, water pump systems, sewage service, municipal garbage removal, or health care. Basically, they have no infrastructure for rudimentary services.

Within the concept of planning, areas are divided into the following zones: farming, residential, business, industrial, and mixed zones (usually with urban areas). Within the macro of the Negev that includes the seven government-planning townships, 45 unrecognized villages and the Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone there are 17 –” 22 factories, a toxic waste incinerator, gas pipelines, oil storage, mines, and quarries. Within the Negev there has been a history of contaminated industrial waste, oil spills, pollution, and explosions. Recently, Israeli legislation passed for the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Negev near Shifta, which would be operational within eight years.

The Bedouin narrative has Third and Fourth-World living conditions. There are high-rates of acute illnesses and chronic diseases including asthma, cancer, lung diseases, skin diseases, sleep apnea, and miscarriages. Although Bedouin communities have access to cistern wells they must buy drinking water and they utilize water tanks for their agricultural needs. In a region that sees two inches of rainfall annually, and where it can be illegal to harvest rainfall, the Bedouins shoulder overwhelming health and environmental burdens.

Statistics reveal that the Bedouins living in the seven, state-planned townships are at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic indicators. There have been some success stories, such as the 160 Bedouin women living in the townships who graduated from the university. They have become professors, doctors and lawyers. In Laqiya, some Bedouin women have returned to the traditional craft of embroidery (tatriz) to generate income for their families and maintain their culture. Yet, the majority of the Arab ethnic minority have low-status, low-paying occupations.

When the Bedouin townships of Tel Sheva and Laqiya were compared to the Jewish community of Omer, there is six times more water consumption (in cubic meters) within Omer compared to the two, Bedouin townships. Dr. Larissa Dohan researched the infant mortality rate of Bedouins and Jews living in Southern Israel from 1990 –” 2004. For the last, five years of Dohan’s research, her statistics reveal the Bedouins IMR averaged 15.9 per 1000 births and the Jews IMR averaged 4.7 per 1000 births. Negev Bedouin babies have an IMR three times higher when compared to Jewish babies living in the Negev.

“72,000 of my community are connected to electricity underneath towers, they smell air pollution…if they want electricity they have to buy diesel and generator,” Al-Mickawi said. He is Bustan’s new director. “In my village there is a project established teaching the (growth of organic food) experience they already have healing the connection with the nature –” relink us with our own traditions and with the earth.”

Al-Mickawi grew up in a tent as a Bedouin. He enjoyed living in “Bedouiya,” or open spaces because he lived with nature. He ate food grown in his family’s garden. Then, his family moved to a government-planned township where he felt imprisoned because he felt there was no freedom. Thousands of Bedouins have experienced the demolition of their corrugated tin and jute-plastic homes, along with the devastation of their crops by the Israel Lands Authority. Faced with the reality of homelessness, no access to food and land confiscation, thousands of Bedouins relinquished their land claims when they moved to government-planned townships.

Bustan Sustainable Projects

Bustan built the Wadi el Na’am Medical Clinic for the 6,000 Bedouins of Wadi el Na’am.

“We work in partnership to resist trends in uprooting cultures in this area transforming the blueprint of this area,” Brous said. “We challenge the aspects of relocation in this area…through innovative approaches…today 6,000 residents are receiving medical care through the government-provided services.”

Bustan utilizes solar energy systems for the Children’s Power Project thereby providing power for medical equipment, oxygen machines and refrigeration of medications for disabled children. They established a green center where people learn self-sustaining skills, such as growing organic foods and medicinal herbs. They have solar oven workshops as well.

Within the seven, recognized townships for Bedouins, people began eating packaged and processed food. The result has caused a high rate of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Bustan teaches people sustainable ways of growing food. “There is a need to weave a model of tradition and modernity together,” Brous added.

When asked about the differences between Bedouins and Palestinians, Al-Mickawi said: “As a Bedouin nothing can divide us as one nation, no border no wall will disconnect the heart from the heart. The government’s policy is to divide and when communities divide you can easily control and have them do whatever you want them to do it’s dividing us extremely.”

Brous explained that the Bustan U.S. Speaking Tour is looking for financial, legal, social, political, medical, environmental, scientific, and ecosystem support for their organization, which they hope expands into Bustan –” US.

“We feel the need to embark on a process to recalibrate as both Israelis and Arabs…for real purpose and create real inspiration so that the Negev can be a home for Jews in the future and the Negev for the Arabs living there now,” she said.

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