The Battle to settle the Negev

The Battle to settle the Negev
The Jerusalem Post - June 16, 2005
By Yocheved Miriam Russo

The Beduin don't exist, or so it would appear," says Prof. Ismael Abu Sa'ad, sitting in his office in Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he heads the Center for Beduin Studies and Development.

"No matter who's leading the government, nothing ever changes. They make decisions about 'what to do' with the Beduin, and the only people who aren't involved are Beduin themselves. I guess we don't really exist."

"The Beduin have been ignored," agrees Dr. Yehuda Gradus, director of the Negev Center for Regional Development.

"One problem for the Beduin is that for centuries, they were nomadic. If you don't have a fixed residence, it's hard to exercise much political clout. The Beduin are an 18t- century culture trying to move into the 21st century. This takes time. The Beduin haven't had the numbers to exert much political pressure or even learned how to maximize the strength they have. That will change in the next few years when the youngsters become old enough to vote. There's one Beduin MK now, and soon there will be two or three more. But for now, the Beduin are ignored," says Gradus.

The Beduin of the Negev desert are a society in transition, struggling to reconcile a semi-nomadic lifestyle with modern economic realities. The 37 Beduin tribes in the Negev number from several dozen to several thousand members. They have one of the highest birth rates in the civilized world: Despite an infant mortality rate four times the national average, the population is growing rapidly and may reach 200,000 by 2020.

Abu Sa'ad notes the burgeoning Beduin growth rate - some 55 births per 1,000, as compared to a Jewish birthrate of 19.8.

"Soon we'll be the majority population in the Negev - and the Negev takes up half of Israel's land area. We've been ostracized and ignored for over a half a century. As a result, a loyal, peaceful people - full citizens of Israel, I remind you - are now impoverished and angry, and it's getting worse."

The problem is relatively recent. For centuries, nomadic Beduin roamed across the Negev, raising livestock and crops in a traditional fashion. Although they claimed ownership of land they lived on and used, their title was not recognized under Ottoman or British law, nor by Israel after it became an independent state in 1948.

The 1965 Planning and Construction Law classified Beduin lands as agricultural, thereby turning all Beduin dwellings and villages into illegal structures.

Since 1968, successive governments have entreated the Beduin to move into seven planned towns - but only around one half eventually agreed to the move.

"The real problems started in 1968 when the government built Tel Sheva," says Abu Sa'ad, referring to the first recognized Beduin village, a few kilometers east of Beersheba.

"Tel Sheva was a failure from the beginning. The dwelling units were too small for large families and the neighborhoods too congested for people accustomed to open space. They tried to mix different families and tribes, and that didn't work. When the government built [the second town] Rahat in 1972, they solved some of those problems, but by no means all."

The resettlement process pushed forward in 1981, when the Removal of Intruders Law was passed, setting forth the legal process for removing residents of "illegal" homes. In 1982, two new recognized Beduin towns were declared - Kseifah and Arara - following Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. The Beduin living in the area of the Nevatim air base were moved into the new townships after the government claimed the land. In 1984 Segev Shalom was created, and in 1990 Hura and Laqiya were recognized.

According to the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, an elected body representing inhabitants of the non-enfranchised Beduin settlements, some 74,000 Negev Beduin - about half the total population - live in 45 townships ranging from 600 to 6,000 inhabitants that do not appear on official maps.

An estimated 75,000 Beduin now live in the seven recognized towns, while the other half remain in rambling collections of illegally erected tents and cinder block-and-tin shacks accessible via dirt tracks, often with no water, sewage, or electricity.

The Sharon government's $250 million Negev Development Plan is intended to "alleviate the anguish" of the Negev Beduin by evacuating the residents of unrecognized villages into seven new government-built towns within five years. For example, a new settlement called Mar'it near Arad will serve as the concentration center for inhabitants of the Tel Arad valley and villages surrounding Kseifah.

While the plan does not specifically mention forced evacuation of existing unrecognized villages, the vacated land is slated for 14 Jewish neighborhoods and 30 single-family farms.

The government appears intent on peaceably moving the remaining Beduin into legal towns, but if necessary will use force. Various means have been used in the past, and bulldozing homes and killing crops has become official policy in recent years. Since 2002, more than 150 Beduin homes have been demolished and tens of thousands of dunams of crops destroyed. Last month, another 5,000 dunams were sprayed with a powerful herbicide called RoundUp and plowed under, killing off the lush grasses that had grown during the wet winter.

After a prolonged and often heated struggle, some 1,500 Beduin families are scheduled to move into an eighth designated town this summer, Tarabin, located southeast of Omer. But resistance to moving into the towns remains intense.

The urbanization process appears to have failed miserably. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the towns currently comprise seven of the eight poorest settlements in Israel.

"The towns are a failure. You're asking people to give up their traditional productive agricultural lifestyle to live in a congested town populated by the poorest, least educated people in Israel. Apart from Rahat, there are no banks, post offices, or even public transportation. There isn't a single library or hospital, and no economic infrastructure of any kind - no businesses, no jobs, no factories. The residents have little chance of becoming either educated or employed. Worst of all is the lack of hope," says Abu Sa'ad.

The problem, he explains, is that relocation plans were imposed without Beduin input. "The towns couldn't have succeeded, since they never consulted a single Beduin. They knew nothing of our needs or desires. Now they're threatening to move us by force, but that won't work either. Force never works - and blaming the victim won't make it any better."

What has gone wrong with the towns?

"It starts with this: no sidewalks, sewers, or good roads. Basic utilities like electricity take forever. I built a new house in Laqiya - perfectly legal, with all the permits - yet my wife, two children, and I lived without electricity for a year and a half. Another issue is the lack of space - there's no room for expansion of businesses, community facilities, or industry of any kind. Land prices in these towns are astronomical. Why? Because the government loaded the towns with rules and regulations that restrict economic activity, so the free market can't operate."

The result, notes Abu Sa'ad, is no local tax base.

Education levels among Negev Beduin children are notoriously low. "The schools are understaffed. We have both an extremely high teacher turnover and student dropout rate. When there are no jobs, kids see no reason to go to school. The crime rate is high and rising, drugs are a problem, and family structure is disintegrating," continues Abu Sa'ad.

One particularly galling problem is the lack of transportation. No local bus service exists, and the national bus company, Egged, refuses to run buses into the towns, stopping instead on main roads, often several kilometers from the towns themselves.

"Since there are no service institutions in Laqiya, if I want to mail a letter or deposit a check, I have to go to Meitar, about five kilometers away. For me this isn't so serious - I have a car and work in Beersheba - but most people in Laqiya are poor and unemployed. They don't have cars," notes Abu Sa'ad.

Transportation difficulties further exacerbate the lack of health care. "Suppose your child is sick. How do you get him out to the main road? What if you're elderly and don't have the strength to walk?" Abu Sa'ad asks.

Similar problems exist with services that other Israelis take for granted. "The number of social workers is about one-fifth the rate in comparable Jewish towns - despite the fact that we need them much more. We've never been granted 'development town' status. We have plenty of policemen but very few day care centers, job counselors, or social workers," says Abu Sa'ad.

Shmuel Rifman, long-time Negev activist and head of the Ramat Hanegev local council, sees the issue in a different light. "The problem isn't with the towns, as such. It's not the lack of jobs, or banks, or post offices. I think the real issue is simple: The Beduin do not want change. They want to continue to live their traditional lifestyle. After all, what's so important about a bank? Does every little town have a bank and post office? Lots of Israelis live in small communities without those institutions. Why can't the Beduin go to one of the larger towns to do their business, just like other people?" he asks.

Rifman agrees that employment is a problem but says that this is not unique to the Beduin. "The Negev is still in an economic slump. Everyone has employment problems - not just the Beduin."

So what is the problem?

"There's no trust," says Rifman. "Jews and Beduin don't trust each other anymore. Before Jews and Beduin can move ahead together, we have to rebuild that trust - and that's a long-term project. It can't be done overnight."

What Rifman sees as a lack of trust, Abu Sa'ad sees as a lack of communication. Five years ago, the Center for Beduin Studies and Development completed a comprehensive research project funded by Robert H. Arnow, a New York philanthropist. "We couldn't get local funding, so the survey was financed by Mr. Arnow privately," says Abu Sa'ad.

Together with Prof. Harvey Lithwick, Abu Sa'ad published in 2000 the first development plan for Negev Beduin towns of its kind (

"Our goal was to find ways to improve life for Jews and the Beduin alike," says Abu Sa'ad.

What happened to the plan?

"Nothing. We presented it to the Barak government, who called it 'garbage' and threw it away as has every government since. No proposed plan is ever accepted as is, but why couldn't it be a starting point for discussion?"

Since the second intifada erupted nearly five years ago, security concerns have added to the problem.

"All we hear now is 'security, security, security.' Obviously, I'm not against security - I want security for my family as much as you do. But a lot of concerns are exaggerated. Egged says, for example, that they cannot run buses into Beduin towns for security reasons. Before the intifada, Egged refused to operate such lines because they said they were 'uneconomic' - which was ridiculous. Egged runs buses to the tiniest, most remote Jewish towns in the Negev where most of the residents own cars. How is it 'uneconomic' to run a bus into a Beduin town with tens of thousands of residents with very few cars?" asks Abu Sa'ad, who sees the transportation issue as fundamental.

"If a town has no industry, no local jobs, then everyone who works has to commute. With no easy transportation, most women are left out of the workforce - a huge waste of human resources. But even for men, the commute is long and difficult. Having the head of a family out of town from early morning until night - or worse, as a figurehead who comes home only once or twice a week - is not healthy. That's the reason why the family structure is falling apart," he says.

"If Egged has security concerns, why not permit a Beduin alternative? Why not create a Beduin transit company? Allow a Beduin-owned and operated company to run buses between the towns and into larger Jewish cities. It would facilitate employment, education, health care, and ease daily life - and it wouldn't necessitate a huge investment. This is a simple, relatively cheap solution - but no one is listening."

Communications projects are another possibility. "Wireless communications offers a real chance for Beduin women because it would permit them to work from home. But the government is dragging its feet in supplying basic utilities such as reliable electricity, a good phone service, and fast Internet connections. We are forced to wait. Why are Beduin towns treated differently?" asks Abu Sa'ad.

Rifman suggests one reason for the disparity in treatment. "The Beduin suffer from a lack of political leadership. They don't have a single consistent leader who can speak for them. Disputes between tribes and families are endless, and that too damages their political clout. They need to find one person - someone they agree on - and stick with him. That would help."

The ultimate solution for the Negev's problems might be something that both Rifman and Abu Sa'ad would agree upon. Where Abu Sa'ad sees Beduin prosperity coming through employment and education with business start-ups, industry, and mentoring, Rifman sees relief coming as a result of a vast increase in Jewish immigration.

"We need a million more Jews in the Negev. Jews are ultimately going to solve the problem by moving here. If the Negev had more people, we'd have more political power. Can you imagine how a million more Jews in the Negev could improve the local economy? Think of it - cities of new immigrants and young people with good education, ideas, and the energy to build businesses, attract industry, and create jobs. Such an influx would solve the problems of both Beduin and Jews. It would be good for all of us," says Rifman.

Abu Sa'ad adds a caveat. "My goal is to empower Beduin. I want Beduin to work for themselves and contribute to the State of Israel. I want them to be paying taxes, not just taking. Success cannot be imposed from the top down. We're here. The Beduin exist. We want to contribute, but we're struggling.

"I'm trying to be optimistic. Sometimes a little thing can change everything, and I'm hoping that some little thing will happen soon, for both Beduin and Jews."