The wide open space of the northern Negev possesses the power to elevate the spirit. It draws the eye to a point in the distance where the curvature of the earth meets the arc of the sky –” a point where certainty ends and the imagination takes hold.
More than half of Israel is Negev. Mostly desert, it was once the domain of the Bedouin. Land expropriations during the military administration of 1949-1966 reduced their territory to barely 5% of that erstwhile area and, coupled with a programme of ethnic cleansing which began in 1948, all but 10,000 of the 100,000 Bedouin, who lived there prior to the establishment of Israel, were expelled across the borders of neighbouring countries. No compensation was offered.
Israelis are proud to announce that their country is the only democracy in the Middle East. What they fail to mention is that you have to be Jewish to enjoy it. For the Bedouin, who are also full citizens of Israel and who vote and pay taxes, democracy is an illusion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Unrecognised Villages of the Negev.
There are 45 Unrecognised Villages –” home to half the current Bedouin population, which today has risen to 150,000. Although many of these villages can be traced back to Ottoman times, they were never recognized by Israel. They are therefore ‘illegal’ and, as a consequence, receive no piped water, are not connected to the electricity grid, and are denied sewage treatment facilities, as well as health clinics, adequate schooling, access roads and transportation. Since Israeli bureaucrats banned stone for building, they live in shacks constructed mainly of corrugated tin. During summer months, temperatures inside these rudimentary structures reach 55 centigrade. Given the extreme poverty, meagre resources and polluted water, it is hardly surprising that infant mortality rates are high –” 19 per 1000 live births compared to 4 per 1000 in the Jewish population; levels of health and nutrition in the Negev are on a par with the Republic of Chad.
The unrecognized status of a substantial element of the Bedouin community is the excuse that Israel uses to avoid attending to the widespread environmental pollution in the region. The toxic solid waste and gaseous emissions from Ramat Hova Industrial Park are a major health hazard. So also is the raw sewage, which I saw bubbling and foaming in open cesspits, and which seeps into aquifers, as well as the Hebron and Dimona streams. Cocktails of pollution and breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease, these steams snake sluggishly through a dozen or more population centres.
How come this excuse is condoned?
The answer is that the authorities are engaged in a process of ‘encouraging’ the Bedouin in Unrecognized Villages to become urbanized like their colleagues in seven designated townships close to Beer-Sheva. The aim is to free up the land for Jewish settlers.
The environment in these seven ghettos fails to accommodate any of the traditional needs of the Bedouin and, to make matters worse; no effort is made to attract investment for the provision of employment opportunities. Other than teaching, driving or running a shop or stall, there is little for people to do and the towns are deteriorating into sinks of crime, vandalism and drug abuse with the older generation increasingly alienated from the younger age groups. No jobs, no money and municipal taxes to pay; the situation can only get worse.
Now seven new townships are planned and the government aims to coerce the unrecognized villagers –” the 70,000 recalcitrants –” into these communities.
Coercion in the Negev is a familiar process. It is carried out by the Green Patrol. Since January 2003, this brutal para-military organization has been involved in the destruction of 120 Bedouin homes and 2 mosques –” without warning. Crop destruction is also a feature of coercive policies. Between February 2002 and March 2003 the process was accelerated by spraying herbicides from the air –” thousands of dunums of Bedouin crops were ‘dusted’ with toxic chemicals, together with villagers in the fields, children and animals. Now new legislation is on the stocks –” The Public Land Law: Removal of Intruders. Difficult times lie ahead.
In spite of the harshness of life, Bedouin society remains robust. And there are beacons of light –” examples of exceptional behaviour. Mohammed Younis –” 37 years old, husband and father of two daughters –” is such a beacon and the Azial Youth Centre in Rahat, the largest recognized Bedouin town, is his creation. Funded by numerous small donations, cash raised by kids from the collection and sale of aluminium cans and plastic containers, plus contributions from Mohammed and his wife’s teacher salaries, the centre is located in an airy modern building close to the middle of town. It has a computer room with fifteen terminals, a well-stocked children’s library and a demountable stage for theatricals and puppet shows. The centre provides opportunities for fun, learning and personal development –” a beacon of light in a bleak environment; a beacon whose beam is about to be intensified. Mohammed has a dream and he intends to fulfil it.
The Bedouin in the Unrecognized Villages are unable to come to the Azial Centre, so the theatre will go to the villages. A van must be bought, a driver employed, glove puppets stitched and operators trained. It will take time and needs funding and –” given the resources available –” it will not be easy. But I have little doubt that Mohammed’s dream will be realized. He is that sort of chap and, in a year or two, Bedouin children across the Negev will sit on the ground waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to appear –” yes, Little Red Riding Hood exists, even in the Negev. And when the curtain rises and the show begins, kids will surely leap to their feet in a fever of excitement. Waving their arms and pointing at the puppets, they will shriek at the top of their shrill voices "watch out, Little Red Riding Hood, watch out for the wolf. He wants to eat you up" –” just like we all did once, when we were young too.