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Behind the Headlines: Israeli Bedouins Struggle to Improve Living Conditions

In a poor encampment just north of Beersheba, 1,200 Bedouin men, women and children cling to a way of life that is all but disappearing.

Members of the Tarabin al-Sana tribe, they reside in one-room shacks topped with corrugated iron or, in some cases, large oval tents.

Drinking water comes from a single line, and there is no indoor plumbing. After sundown, they turn on a portable generator, which powers their lights — and television sets — for about six hours. One outdoor phone booth serves the entire community.

Like virtually all of Israel’s 130,000 to 140,000 Bedouins, the tribe finds itself caught between tradition and modernity.

The Bedouins are Israeli citizens, and thus are required to send their children to school and have them immunized against infectious diseases.

Although exempt from military duty, several hundred Bedouin men voluntarily join army units, often as trackers.

No longer able to roam freely with herds of sheep and goats, due in large part to the government’s gradual annexation of vast stretches of the Negev and Judean deserts for military and other purposes, the Bedouin of Israel have ceased their wanderings.

Half of the country’s Bedouins have already settled in government-funded towns built specifically for them. But others, like the Tarabin al-Sana tribe, have resisted all relocation efforts.

“Decades ago, the government moved us from our land” near Ofakim, northwest of Beersheba, “and promised to let us return,” Sheik Mahmoud Abdullah, head of the Tarabin al-Sana tribe, recently told a small group of American and Israeli visitors.

“Now, they are forcing us from this land because Omer wants to expand,” he said, referring to a Jewish community next to the Tarabin al-Sana.

Benny Shiloh, who served as head of minority affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office during the previous government, believes that many of the Bedouin land claims are without merit.

“They claim land, but did not pay one penny. Where ownership has been proven, the government has paid compensation. Still, there’s a lot of bluffing and lying.”

“Unfortunately,” Shiloh added, “a modern state cannot live with wanderers.”

Elie Rekhess, director of Tel Aviv University’s Program on Arab Politics in Israel, takes a more conciliatory tone.

“There is a significant measure of truth in the Bedouin claims,” Rekhess said. “None of the government ministers would argue that what the Bedouin are saying is totally invalid. The problem is, where is the truth? I believe it passes somewhere in the middle.”

Even among those Bedouin who have settled in communities that are recognized by the government, there is bitterness.

As the poorest ethnic group in Israel today, “we Bedouin lag behind even other Israeli Arabs, who themselves lag behind Jewish citizens,” Mussa Abu Seheiban, mayor of the Bedouin town of Rahat, near Beersheba, told the visitors.

Meeting with representatives from the Abraham Fund, a U.S.-based organization that funds Arab-Jewish coexistence programs, Seheiban tried to explain the challenges facing his community.

“In Rahat, only 30 percent of the residents can afford to pay arnona (municipal taxes) and the vast majority live on Bituach Leumi (government stipends). Officially, our unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, but the real figure is as high as 50 percent.”

Sixty-three percent of Rahat’s population is younger than 18, Abu Seheiban said. “Only 20 percent of the boys complete high school, and the number is even lower for the girls.”

Noting that Rahat’s sewers, roads and schools are in urgent need of upgrading, Abu Seheiban added, “We are citizens of the State of Israel, and we want to be given the same resources as Jewish” communities.

Government officials maintain that Bedouin needs are being addressed.

“The government wishes to assist in developing opportunities for the younger generation of Bedouin both in the economic and social spheres,” said Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Netanyahu government.

“Over the years, efforts have been made to deal with the housing and social needs of the Bedouin community and without doubt, these efforts will continue and even increase.”

Among the bright spots are the first-ever industrial park in the Bedouin community, now under construction on the outskirts of Rahat; a series of new vocational training centers; and a 2-year-old “incubator” that has enabled several families to successfully grow roses in the middle of the desert.

While acknowledging these advances, Rahat’s mayor called on the government to do even more to help the community.

Another challenge for Rahat — and Bedouin society in general — concerns the inherent conflict between traditional and modern societies.

“Bedouin society is undergoing Westernization, and all of a sudden the traditional norms are breaking down,” Abu Seheiban said.

As the contact between Bedouins and Jewish Israelis has increased over the years, they have adapted a more Western way of life.

“Our young people are attracted to all the negative aspects of Western life, from delinquency to drug abuse,” the mayor said.

Modernization of Bedouin society has made a particular impact on women.

Bedouin women, many of whom rarely venture beyond their encampments for reasons of modesty, nonetheless bear their children in modern Israeli hospitals, resulting in a lower rate of infant mortality.

“Our infant mortality rate has dropped, although it is higher than that of other Israelis, and our children are healthier and better educated than they were a generation ago,” said Younis Abu Rabia, a Rahat physician.

How to create livelihoods for Bedouin women that could also improve their community’s economy is an ongoing challenge.

“You can’t expect our women to suddenly go into Beersheba and find work. A few educated ones do, but most would never leave their towns or encampments,” Abu Rabia said.

“What’s needed is some sort of work program inside the community, ideally one that will utilize the women’s traditional skills.”

Reflecting on the myriad social and economic problems that Rahat faces, Abu Seheiban said, “Rahat is considered the jewel, the model of Bedouin integration. Imagine how the rest of the Bedouin are faring.”

The Tarabin al-Sana tribe, for one, is faring worse, according to its leader.

Seated in the communal tent where the tribe’s men consume their meals — the women and children eat in a separate tent — tribe leader Abdullah blasted the government.

“Look at how we live. Our children have to go far away to school. We have no hospital, no running water.

“The only time we’re not frustrated is before an election, when ministers come down and make us promises. But then we don’t see them again.”

This summer, the tribe’s members took matters into their own hands.

When bulldozers from Omer began working just outside the encampment, the tribesmen clashed not only with the construction workers, but with hundreds of policemen called in to keep order.

By the time the demonstration was over, several Bedouins and police had been injured.

Ahmed Mahmoud, the sheik’s cousin, sees little room for compromise.

“We want to live peaceably with our Jewish neighbors, but not at the expense of our land,” he says, angry tears coming to his eyes. “The government moved us before. We won’t allow that to happen again.”

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