By Nick Pretzlik
in Rahat Israel
20 May 2004
The wide open space
of the northern Negev possesses the power to elevate the spirit. It
draws the eye to a point in the distance where the curvature of the
earth meets the arc of the sky - a point where certainty ends and the
imagination takes hold.
More than half of
Israel is Negev. Mostly desert, it was once the domain of the Bedouin.
Land expropriations during the military administration of 1949-1966
reduced their territory to barely 5% of that erstwhile area and, coupled
with a programme of ethnic cleansing which began in 1948, all but 10,000
100,000 Bedouin, who lived there prior to the establishment of Israel,
were expelled across the borders of neighbouring countries. No compensation
Israelis are proud
to announce that their country is the only democracy in the Middle East.
What they fail to mention is that you have to be Jewish to enjoy it.
For the Bedouin, who are also full citizens of Israel and who vote and
pay taxes, democracy is an illusion. Nowhere is this more apparent than
in the Unrecognised Villages of the Negev.
There are 45 Unrecognised
Villages - home to half the current Bedouin population, which today
has risen to 150,000. Although many of these villages can be traced
back to Ottoman times, they were never recognized by Israel. They are
therefore 'illegal' and, as a consequence, receive no piped water, are
not connected to the electricity grid, and are denied sewage treatment
facilities, as well as health clinics, adequate schooling, access roads
and transportation. Since Israeli bureaucrats banned stone for building,
they live in shacks constructed mainly of corrugated tin. During summer
months, temperatures inside these rudimentary structures reach 55 centigrade.
Given the extreme poverty, meagre resources and polluted water, it is
hardly surprising that infant mortality rates are high - 19 per 1000
live births compared to 4 per 1000 in the Jewish population; levels
of health and nutrition in the Negev are on a par with the Republic
status of a substantial element of the Bedouin community is the excuse
that Israel uses to avoid attending to the widespread environmental
pollution in the region. The toxic solid waste and gaseous emissions
from Ramat Hova Industrial Park are a major health hazard. So also is
the raw sewage, which I saw bubbling and foaming in open cesspits, and
which seeps into aquifers, as well as the Hebron and Dimona streams.
Cocktails of pollution and breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease,
these steams snake sluggishly through a dozen or more population centres.
How come this excuse is condoned?
The answer is that
the authorities are engaged in a process of 'encouraging' the Bedouin
in Unrecognized Villages to become urbanized like their colleagues in
seven designated townships close to Beer-Sheva. The aim is to free up
the land for Jewish settlers.
in these seven ghettos fails to accommodate any of the traditional needs
of the Bedouin and, to make matters worse; no effort is made to attract
investment for the provision of employment opportunities. Other than
teaching, driving or running a shop or stall, there is little for people
to do and the towns are deteriorating into sinks of crime, vandalism
and drug abuse with the older generation increasingly alienated from
the younger age groups. No jobs, no money and municipal taxes to pay;
the situation can only get worse.
Now seven new townships
are planned and the government aims to coerce the unrecognized villagers
- the 70,000 recalcitrants - into these communities.
Coercion in the
Negev is a familiar process. It is carried out by the Green Patrol.
Since January 2003, this brutal para-military organization has been
involved in the destruction of 120 Bedouin homes and 2 mosques - without
warning. Crop destruction is also a feature of coercive policies. Between
February 2002 and March 2003 the process was accelerated by spraying
herbicides from the air - thousands of dunums of Bedouin crops were
'dusted' with toxic chemicals, together with villagers in the fields,
children and animals. Now new legislation is on the stocks - The Public
Land Law: Removal of Intruders. Difficult times lie ahead.
In spite of the
harshness of life, Bedouin society remains robust. And there are beacons
of light - examples of exceptional behaviour. Mohammed Younis -
37 years old, husband and father of two daughters - is such a beacon
and the Azial Youth Centre in Rahat, the largest recognized Bedouin
town, is his creation. Funded by numerous small donations, cash raised
by kids from the collection and sale of aluminium cans and plastic containers,
plus contributions from Mohammed and his wife's teacher salaries, the
centre is located in an airy modern building close to the middle of
town. It has a computer room with fifteen terminals, a well-stocked
children's library and a demountable stage for theatricals and puppet
shows. The centre provides opportunities for fun, learning and personal
development - a beacon of light in a bleak environment; a beacon whose
beam is about to be intensified. Mohammed has a dream and he intends
to fulfil it.
The Bedouin in the
Unrecognized Villages are unable to come to the Azial Centre, so the
theatre will go to the villages. A van must be bought, a driver employed,
glove puppets stitched and operators trained. It will take time and
needs funding and - given the resources available - it will not be easy.
But I have little doubt that Mohammed's dream will be realized. He is
that sort of chap and, in a year or two, Bedouin children across the
Negev will sit on the ground waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to appear
- yes, Little Red Riding Hood exists, even in the Negev. And when the
curtain rises and the show begins, kids will surely leap to their feet
in a fever of excitement. Waving their arms and pointing at the puppets,
they will shriek at the top of their shrill voices "watch out,
Little Red Riding Hood, watch out for the wolf. He wants to eat you
up" - just like we all did once, when we were young too.