Impoverished Bedouin families get help from Jewish neighbors

They share their tiny home with 18 of his relatives. Suaid returned to the area in the mid-1980s to work to improve conditions. They have no indoor plumbing, electricity or gas. The settlement has no sewage system. The roads are neither paved nor maintained. The area is overgrown and littered with debris. Although houses are set far apart, the dwellings are dilapidated, small and in need of repair. Some are little more than shacks.

It could be rural Appalachia but it's not. The Suaids live in an "unrecognized" settlement in the Misgav region of Israel's central Galilee.

Just down the road, almost within sight, are Jewish settlements where residents enjoy the good life. Their yards are well manicured, the houses large and schools are good. The Jewish settlers have all the public utilities that the "unrecognized" settlement lacks.

Suaid, the region's Mayor Erez Kreitler and social worker Michal Leon are sitting on the porch of Suaid's house talking with visitors from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. A table is filled with fruit, pastries and soft drinks — the ever-present symbols of Middle Eastern hospitality. Two of Suaid's nieces who look to be about 5 and 7 years old, hover around the group and periodically pick up a plate of food and pass it around.

Throughout Israel, Bedouins are recognized as the region's most underprivileged class. But while Jewish residents in other regions often turn a blind eye to the impoverished conditions of their Arab neighbors, those in the Misgav are doing something about the problem.

Wires were strung from Jewish houses over the fence separating the two communities and into the homes of Bedouins to provide electricity. A weekly gynecological and pediatric clinic for Bedouins is staffed by Jewish nurses and doctors. When mothers and children visit, educators use the opportunity to teach the mothers parenting skills. Even the most basic skill — how to play with one's child — must be taught.

Leon, who is Jewish, visits families to help with the myriad social problems that come from living in impoverished conditions: unemployment, domestic violence, high school dropout rates, crime. She says that soon a portable trailer, paid for with Jewish philanthropic dollars, will be brought into the area and will house a preschool.

"This is what Zionism is all about," says Leon, who has worked in the area for 5-1/2 years. The preschool, she says, is particularly important because without early childhood education, Bedouin children are already behind their Jewish counterparts when they start school. They continue to fall further behind, which ultimately results in a high dropout rate. Although Bedouin children are bused to local schools, there are only a few of them in each class and the other students ostracize them.

Misgav has seven "unrecognized" Bedouin settlements with a total population of approximately 4,000. The one in which Suaid lives has 1,300 residents.

When the state of Israel was founded, it did not recognize Bedouin settlements, according to Kreitler. Contrary to popular belief, the Bedouins have not been a nomadic people for more than 200 years. The effect of this "unrecognized" status is that no infrastructure can be developed.

Israel, he said, will not grant building permits or allot any funds for public services until a master plan is approved. Consequently, new houses cannot be built and old ones can not be enlarged, remodeled or improved. Although the regional government has filed a plan, it sits waiting for action to be taken.

Kreitler talks about Jewish values, humanitarianism and a desire for peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jew as part of the motivating force. But he is also a pragmatist. By creating a "model" community he hopes to increase the Jewish population — presently, Arabs outnumber Jews in the region by almost 2 to 1.

Geographically, the Misgav region is a treasure. Its rolling hills, open spaces, lush greenery, slow pace and clean air already have drawn many Jews searching for a better quality of life. In addition, a bilingual school with a low teacher-student ratio and high academic rating is an attraction for parents of young children.

Misgav also has a reputation for tolerance, diversity and pluralism, and attracts many open-minded people. Ecology and preserving the area's beauty and natural resources are high on the agenda. The area's major employer is an underwear factory that makes garments for such companies as Calvin Klein, Victoria's Secret, Banana Republic and Britain's Marks and Spencer.

But it's the demographics that make Misgav a unique area. It is composed of several "community settlements," each with a very distinct identity, from Arab to Orthodox Jew and everything in between. Most have their own schools. Those wanting to move to the area must first apply to the community in which they want to live and be willing to contribute to the village.

Each community is self-governing and all are represented on the Regional Council, which oversees those functions that affect the entire region. This cooperative governmental arrangement involving such varied groups is one of the things that distinguishes Misgav from most Israeli communities.

Another is its commitment to improving the quality of life for the Bedouin population. According to Suaid, the remedial action taken by neighboring Jews is already having a beneficial effect. He looks forward to the approval of the master plan.

"We do not have an infrastructure but we will soon," says Suaid. "All services will then come."

Kreitler looks around him. The poverty is painfully evident, and the air smells of sewage and waste.

"Here in these miserable conditions I can see the light," he says. "And I am proud."