Israel largely ignoring growth, needs of Bedouin community

Today, after years of neglect, the Bedouin community in the southern Negev desert suffers from a higher rate of poverty than the overall population, higher rates of crime, drugs and unemployment, worse health and education services and appalling infrastructure.

"You neglect what is basically a loyal, quiet, nonpoliticized population, and it ends up exploding in your face. There is no way around it," says Thabet abu-Ras of Ben-Gurion University, an expert on the Bedouins.

The Bedouin alienation has been a quiet one. Bedouins now share, for the most part, the antagonistic, estranged approach that most Israeli Arabs have toward the Jewish state.

Once, most Bedouin voters supported Zionist parties, particularly Labor. In 1992, 17 percent of Bedouin voters chose the Labor Party, but only 9 percent did so in the 1996 elections.

In recent elections, most Bedouins voted for Arab parties, mainly the one that includes Israel's radical Islamic movement.

Once, most young Bedouin men volunteered for military service. Today, only a handful of Negev Bedouins volunteer; unofficial accounts talk about a mere dozen in 2001.

Negev Bedouins were once apolitical, almost unexposed to Arab nationalism. Today, they express opinions that often are more militant than their Arab brethren in the Galilee.

A poll taken among Israeli Arabs last year showed that the Bedouins feel more estranged from the state than do Arab citizens in the north. Forty-two percent said they reject Israel's right to exist, compared with 16 percent in the non-Bedouin Arab sector.

The Bedouin population in the Negev numbers about 130,000 today. Half of them live in seven townships the state built between 1966 and 1990, and half live in a multitude of small villages, farms and tiny tent-and-shack communities, which are unplanned and unrecognized by the state.

Land ownership in the unrecognized communities is disputed. The Bedouins who live there and work some of the land claim ownership. A minority of them say they can prove their legal ownership with documents from the Ottoman and British governments that ruled Palestine before Israel's founding, while most claim a historical right of possession.

In 1976, the first Rabin government approved a set of terms and criteria to settle land disputes with the Bedouins for an area that totals approximately 380,000 square miles. Of these, disputes over just 54,000 square miles have been settled.

Since then, Bedouins have illegally invaded vast areas of state land. The state demolishes some of their new, unlicensed buildings, and does not effectively enforce the law. When it does, it sometimes uses force, which further alienates the population.

The state comptroller's report criticizes the government — indeed, all governments since the mid-1970s — for not having tried to settle disputes, and for not supplying reasonable infrastructure and services to the recognized townships.

Ya'akov Katz, director of the Bedouin Administration, the agency that executes government policy for the Bedouin community, said the comptroller's description of previous governments' handling of Bedouin issues was precise.

"Unfortunately, not enough attention was given to their issues through the years," he said. Katz added that he expects to see a major breakthrough soon in regards to land settlements with the Bedouins, which will "start the ball rolling" to resolving some related issues.

The townships were intended to serve as magnets for the Bedouins, who for many generations have been gradually abandoning their nomadic way of life. Bedouins were expected to seize the opportunity to live in permanent homes, with running water and electricity, roads, a sewage system and comfortable community services such as schools and health clinics.

But the townships were built with minimal investment. Most homes are not connected to a sewage system and suffer from an unreliable water supply and damaged road system.

Infrastructure in all seven townships has been little improved since they were built, according to the report.

Without a reasonable infrastructure, no industry and hardly any land reserves for farming, these townships have become havens of unemployment, crime and drugs.

"How can you expect such sorry communities to attract anyone?" says Yosef Ben-David of Hebrew University, a veteran scholar of Bedouin society. "What is happening is an opposite process: People who moved into the townships are now returning to the farms, to the unrecognized villages."

"This is a society that is used to slow changes," explains Alayan al-Kreinawi, director of the Center for the Study of Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University. "It does not have the tools to adjust to a globalized modern society, while trying to hold on to its religious and cultural tradition."

The Bedouin sector is the youngest in Israeli society, with a natural annual growth rate of 5.5 percent. About 54 percent of the Bedouin population is younger than 14.

Most Bedouin households number eight to 10 people, and they are much poorer than the overall population. They have a higher unemployment rate and a higher number, even among those employed, who earn less than the minimum wage.

In addition to the Negev Bedouin community, there are about 65,000 Bedouins in the Galilee. The "northern" Bedouin, as they are known, generally are better off economically than their southern brethren.

In the Negev, however, the young, poor population requires intense state services, particularly in education. Only 43 percent of Bedouin youngsters in the appropriate age group studied in 12th grade in 1998.

The comptroller's report serves as a red light for the government. Though, the report continues, the way to solve the Bedouins' problems is to devise a well-budgeted plan that will combine ample compensation for land-dispute settlements, an improvement of infrastructure in existing townships and the creation of new townships to house those who now dwell in unrecognized villages.