Bedouin leaders say Israel bungling nomad settlement

TEL SHEVA, Israel — In this state-sponsored Bedouin city — a barely organized mass of shacks, overcrowded homes and swamped in trash — one building stands out: a beautiful, spotless mosque.

Ismael Abu-Saad, a Bedouin Muslim, considers it an ominous sign of things to come.

"Instead of investing in developing their city, people here put their money into religion. A lot are moving to Islamic fundamentalism as a result of being disappointed about their treatment," he said.

The nearly 170,000 Bedouins in Israel have historically maintained a loyalty to the Jewish state. But mishandled attempts by the government to settle the nomadic culture, combined with poor social-service funding, have left many Bedouins questioning their allegiance.

The economic gap has provided entry to Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hamas, offering social aid to win over the Bedouins.

Abu-Saad, a Beersheva resident, has a worried look as he watches his friends in neighboring Tel Sheva. As director of the new Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion University, he hopes to bring more education to his people.

Abu-Saad fires off plenty of evidence of a culture in peril. "With 60 percent of the kids not finishing high school," he said, "what is the future for them in a high-tech country? And in the seven main Bedouin towns in the country, there are no libraries or cultural centers."

Tel Sheva, founded in 1968 by Israel, has been a case study in how not to help Bedouins, Abu-Saad claims. The government, he said, didn't do the careful planning necessary to accomplish the counter-intuitive — settle a famously nomadic people.

The city, with a population of 10,000 and serving an additional 6,000, has only one medical clinic in a temporary building. Many homes do not have electricity. The sewage system consists only of septic tanks. Officials estimate basic infrastructure costs at about $25 million, a world away from the government-allotted yearly budget of $750,000.

Kassem Abu Serhan, mayor of Tel Sheva, sits in a nearly bare office. He is surrounded by photos of Israel's prime minister, president and minister of the interior. Little in his government office indicates he runs a Bedouin city.

"Israel wanted to take Bedouins' land and have them live a modern life," Serhan said. "They started with 45 buildings here, made without consultation to the community. The buildings were too close. Bedouins like to keep their distance when they set up tents."

After no one moved into the buildings, the government changed its plan and gave funding for Bedouins to construct their own homes. Each of the new homes, on more spacious plots of land, has a traditional tent pressed against the wall where the family still dwells for a large part of the day. More than 300 people are on a waiting list to move into subsidized housing in the city.

However, the town already is struggling to employ its residents. Industrial developers shy away from the eager workforce since the government has not designated Tel Sheva a "development town," entitling it to considerable more government funding.

Abu-Saad was baffled that Israel would not jump at good opportunities to put Bedouins to work. For example, the government won't let Bedouins raise cattle even though the society traditionally has excelled at it and Israel imports most of its meat. Continued divisions between Jews and Bedouins "will only hurt both cultures," Abu-Saad said.

However, Abu-Saad seems to be on the trail of at least one solution. Bedouin enrollment at Ben-Gurion University is on the rise. "We now have 150 Bedouin students, including 65 women. That breaks the stereotype that Bedouins don't send girls to school," he said.

But it's been a small gain in an otherwise bleak picture for the Bedouins in the area, Abu-Saad said. "If we don't do more fast, the price will be really too high when more turn to extremism."