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Unrecognized by Israel, Bedouin Villages in Negev Lack Resources

October 4, 2004
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There is no sign for the turn off to Wadi Al Na’am, a sprawling Bedouin village of tin shacks and black burlap tents, and you won’t find it on any map. But there is an orange sign announcing the power station that shares the same barren hills of rock and sand.

Thick black power lines, shuttling electricity to the Beersheba area, crisscross the sky above the village, though they provide no electricity to the 6,000 residents of Wadi Al Na’am.

Like dozens of other Bedouin villages across the Negev Desert, this village is “unrecognized” by the Israeli government, and so does not receive basic services and infrastructure such as electricity, running water, a sewage system, phone lines, health care and paved roads.

A dry desert wind whips the long skirt of Najah Abu Gedea, 32, as she takes in the view outside her home — a closed military area to one side, a toxic waste dump to the other.

“There are no streets, no main roads, people are shut off from everything,” she says, noting that she and other residents worry about the health effects of living so near Ramat Chovev, a toxic waste incinerator across the way from the village.

A recent Health Ministry report found a markedly higher incidence of cancer and other illnesses among residents of Wadi Al Na’am and others who live near the plant; as a result, the government has put on hold plans to recognize the village and begin putting in basic infrastructure. Israel does not want to give the village permanent status if it is unhealthy to live there.

Wadi Al Na’am and eight other unrecognized villages were identified by the government over a year ago to become full-fledged municipalities with rights to the same services as other Israeli towns.

But changes on the ground have been slow in coming, and many Bedouin activists say the government’s actions are not enough to make up for decades of neglect — nor do they solve the problems of some 40 other major unrecognized villages.

About half of the Negev’s 130,000 Bedouin live in such villages because they were built on land that is in dispute. The Bedouin claim the villages sit on land that rightfully belongs to them, passed down, in some cases, for generations.

But the Israeli government considers it state property, based on laws that date to Ottoman rule claiming open Negev land as state land.

The other half of Negev Bedouin live in the seven towns built for them by the government starting in 1966, part of what critics say is an attempt to urbanize and concentrate the traditionally rural and nomadic Bedouin in a contained area.

Some Bedouin leaders say many Bedouin villagers will not heed the call by the government to move either to the seven established towns or eight now-recognized villages because they do not want to abandon what they consider their land and their livelihoods.

“The Israeli government has no real intention to give a solution to unrecognized villages and the Bedouin community in general,” said Amer Abu Hani, who heads the Council of Bedouin Unrecognized Villages.

“The government wants all Bedouin to be in urban areas, to concentrate them in a minimal area. It does not deal with education, and does not care” about the social problems “that arise as the population makes the change into an urban setting.”

Although the Bedouin make up 25 percent of the Negev’s population, they have control of less than 2 percent of its land. With one of the highest birthrates in the world, their population is expected to double in 15 years — making a solution to their living problems especially urgent.

According to Abu Hani, the government’s intention is to make more and more Negev land available for Jewish settlement, even though it has historically been difficult to attract Israeli Jews to live there.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who owns a ranch in the Negev, has long been a proponent of expanded Jewish settlement of the region. His plans for a withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza include suggestions that at least part of the population relocate to the Negev.

“All the new” Jewish “development is coming at the expense of building needed infrastructure in already existing and heavily marginalized populations in the Negev,” said Devorah Brous, founder and director of Bustan Shalom, a peace activism organization that has worked with the Bedouin on the issue of unrecognized villages.

“When people abroad are thinking as Zionists” who want to “make the desert bloom, they do not realize the funding is going to development projects that are not sustainable.”

Avishy Cohen, who oversees Bedouin issues as director for monitoring and coordination of national issues for the Prime Minister’s Office, said the issue is not about Jewish development, but the complexities of the Bedouin situation.

“It is not a simple story. We need to remember this is about the illegal occupation of the land,” he said. “They never owned this land and then they took it over.”

Traditionally, the Bedouin were nomads. Before Israeli statehood in 1948, various clans and tribes began settling permanently for the first time. However, they do not usually have deeds or titles to the land; transactions were made through verbal agreements in accordance with Bedouin tradition.

Nevertheless, Cohen said, the government is dealing with the situation fairly, working to provide services for newly recognized villages.

“There is no precedent for this, but we are doing it anyway because of their special situation,” he said.

Dudu Cohen, the director of Israel’s southern region for the Interior Ministry, said the government is trying to accommodate the Bedouins’ demand for rural living by ensuring room for agriculture in the newly recognized villages.

“One of the problems was that” before, “we only had urban-style towns and now will have villages with a rural atmosphere,” he said.

Again, some Bedouin leaders say the government is on the right track with the new plans, while others say the changes are insufficient.

“The Bedouin are not a monolithic body speaking in one voice,” said Avinoam Meir, a professor of geography at Ben-Gurion University who has done extensive research on the Bedouin community in the Negev and other nomadic peoples. “There are internal politics among Bedouin, with different groups and coalitions with different interests.”

Meir also cautioned that the cultural clash between the government and the Bedouin is typical of similar confrontations between indigenous nomadic populations and governments around the world.

“Nomadic peoples and governments don’t live in peace with each other,” he said, “whether it is in Africa, the Middle East, Asia or even in Scandinavia.” These governments and the indigenous peoples, he said, represent “two entirely opposing interests.”

Thabet Abu Rass, the director of the Beersheba office of Shatil — a New Israel Fund project active in the Negev Bedouin community — and a lecturer in geography at Ben-Gurion University, said there is room for optimism.

“In the last year something has started happening. Still, it is not enough, but things are moving in right direction,” he said, speaking of the Sharon’s plan to recognize eight more villages.

But he said he sees it as a mistake by the government to continue trying to concentrate the Bedouin in urban settings such as the seven existing towns, which are rife with unemployment and crime.

According to Meir, who has acted as a consultant on how to improve the situation of the unrecognized villages, the government has to use stop using the dispute over land ownership as an excuse and make a full on effort to resolve the situation.

“The state should see it as a strategic policy to get the land issue with Bedouin solved, and I’m saying it as a Zionist and a patriot because it is in the best interest of those living in Israel,” he said.

“Otherwise the tension will go on and the hate will go on and violence will go on until the Bedouin are assured they have some stronghold possession of what they see is their historical land.”

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