A New Israeli Government Could Mean Help for Neglected Bedouin Villages

An Arab party in the emerging government is pushing for recognition of communities that have long been in crisis.

Khasham Zana, Israel – When Raqan al-Athamen puts his son and daughter to bed in their tiny three-room small house in a small Bedouin village on a dusty hill in the Negev desert, the daily power supply often runs out. is.

During the blackout, he tries to comfort his children, who are very afraid of the dark. But it usually takes them hours to fall asleep.

“They are scared,” said Mr al-Athmen, 22, who said his family-owned tourism business closed because of the pandemic. “I light candles, but they still take a long time to cool down.”

For decades, dozens of Bedouin villages in the Negev, including Khasham Zana, where the al-Athamen family lives, have been in limbo. Without state recognition of their communities, they have long suffered from a lack of planning and basic services such as running water, sewer, electricity, garbage collection and paved roads.

But the emerging Israeli coalition government, which is expected to be sworn in on Sunday, intends to take significant steps to address the plight of these villages, according to Ram, an Arab party that said it would join the coalition on several terms. Agreed to be, including that more benefits are provided to the Bedouins.

The government will recognize Khasham Zana and two other villages in the Negev in the first 45 days of its term, Ram said in a statement, and it plans to deal with other unrecognized villages in the region within his first nine months in power. Will do

But even if such an agreement is reached, said Eli Etzmon, an Israeli expert on Bedouin, it is unlikely to bring about quick change in the Ramshakal communities, which are part of Israel’s Arab minority. He said some villages recognized by Israel have seen a huge improvement in their livelihoods in recent decades.

There is also no guarantee that a new initiative to address the inequalities between southern Bedouins and other parts of Israeli society will be more successful than previous efforts. In December, the government appeared ready to recognize Khasham Zana and two others, Rukhma and Abda villages, but political infighting stalled the effort.

Some right-wing members of the potential government, made up of various political parties, have suggested that they would not accept attempts to recognize several villages in the Negev. This raises the question whether the government will be able to garner enough support to take such a step. “We will not leave the Negev. period,” Nir Orbach, member of the hard-right Yamina party, tweeted Last week.

The Bedouins, who say they have lived in the Negev for centuries, were once a seminomadic group. But in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, most were driven out of the desert or fled to other parts of the region. The Israeli authorities concentrated the people who lived in a small area of ​​the desert, and later built low townships for them.

Today there are about 280,000 Bedouins in the Negev, almost 18 of them under the age of 18. They once relied on grazing sheep, goats and camels and harvesting wheat, barley and lentils, but more recently they have become part of the labor market in cities such as Beersheba. . They suffer from widespread poverty and high unemployment rates, and they are a rapidly growing population, as some practice polygamy.

While many have moved to seven townships set up by the Israeli government, which have their own problems with infrastructure, about a third live in unrecognized villages.

Israeli officials have argued that Bedouins do not have valid claims to land in unrecognized villages, and the courts have supported that view. But Bedouin leaders have said Israel has wrongly demanded that they make physical land work – something they have not historically used.

“We are citizens of Israel, one of the most advanced countries on earth, but when we look at the unrecognized villages, we are in the same place as the third world,” said Waleed al-Hawashala, a Ram official who lives in the Negev. can see.” . “They’re like refugee camps.”

Khasham Zana, off the main highway between the cities of Beersheba and Dimona, is a distinct unrecognized village in the Negev. Its roads are mainly rocky dirt roads. Some of its houses are made of cinder blocks, while others are piles of tin.

Mr. Al-Athamen said the lack of electricity not only takes a toll on his children, but also on him and his wife. On hot summer days, he often sweats and has no easy way to cool down, he said, and sometimes his phone dies, leaving him unable to communicate with friends and relatives.

Looking around his house made of tin walls and a tin roof, he said, “It is very depressing to live like this.” “It causes a lot of stress for me, but I can’t leave because my family is here.”

Many residents rely on solar panels and batteries to turn on lights, run their refrigerators and watch television at night, and they use temporary pipes to bring water to their homes from a nearby distribution point.

Bedouin activists said they felt “cautiously optimistic” about the emerging coalition, which includes an independent Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history. But he emphasized that they would be satisfied only when they see substantial improvement in their communities.

“We recognize that Rama’s participation in government is an opportunity, but we have heard discouraging voices on the right side as well,” said Atiya al-Assam, director of the regional council of unrecognized villages in the Negev, a civil society group . “The most important thing is concrete change on the ground.”

The conflict over the land is a reflection of the conflict between a traditional society that values ​​its independence and a modern nation-state that seeks to expand its control – a battle that has been played out in other parts of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia. , said Clinton Bailey, an eminent scholar of Bedouin culture in the Negev.

However, Israeli officials have shown a greater willingness to compromise in recent years.

Yair Mayan, director general of the Israeli government institute working to develop Bedouin communities in the Negev, said he believed they would eventually be able to legally live in their villages. But he said about 30 percent, especially those living in military training areas and national parks, along large factories and planned roads, would need to be relocated – a possibility that many Bedouins vehemently oppose.

Oren Yiftachel, professor of geography and urban planning at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, said that a solution that works for all parties can be achieved, but it will depend on whether the Israeli government aligns with the Bedouin community. goodwill” and try to achieve an “equitable” and “respectable” outcome.

For kindergarten teacher Fatima Abu Quader, the most frustrating aspect of living off the grid is the ubiquitous mounds of garbage around her community.

“The smell is overwhelming,” said Ms. Abu Quider, 43, a resident of the densely populated unrecognized village of Al Jarnouk. “There are days when I don’t want to spend time outside.”

While some Bedouins in unrecognized villages take their waste to dumpsters at nearby schools and supermarkets, many in Al Zarnouk leave it on the edge of town.

Ms Abu Quider’s husband, Saad, said he was concerned about finding a way to build a home for their 23-year-old son – a necessity for any bachelor wishing to marry in the Bedouin community.

“We are not sure what to do,” said Mr. Abu Kweider, who works as a laborer building a high-tech security barrier for Israel along the blocked Gaza Strip. “If we build a house for him, it can be demolished. If we don’t, their life stops. “

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