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Among the Bedouin of the Negev

Lawrence Bush
August 1, 2008

by Sue Swartz
Raed al-Mickawi, a Bedouin journalist and environmental activist, has lived his entire life in the village of Tel Sheva, where one can see camels grazing next to the poorly paved streets and small painted houses. If it were up to him — though it is not — he would live in the middle of the desert in a tent. He would go barefoot as much as possible and still have access to electricity with which to make documentary films. The air he smelled every morning would be clean, untainted by Ramat Hovav, the Middle East’s largest industrial park, which is a short drive away from Tel Sheva and closer still to hundreds of Bedouin who live right outside its boundaries.
During our six-hour tour of his home landscape, the chemical by-products of Ramat Hovav’s toxic waste incinerator and two dozen factories followed us. Indeed, you can smell something distinctly unnatural throughout much of area connecting the Jewish cities of Be’er Sheva, Dimona, and Arad, an area in which most of Israel’s Bedouin population lives. We began our tour in the large industrial park, driving past huge petrochemical and pharmaceutical plants painted bright colors, their pipes and wire scaffolding hung like modern sculpture. I stopped to take pictures more than once because — as I told the security guards who pulled us over — I love factories, find them beautiful.
Not wanting to start our day off with a major confrontation, Raed and I let the guards silently accompany us to the exit. Then we down the road into Wadi Na’am, a village of five thousand that is bordered by a toxic waste disposal site, an electrical power plant, an oil refinery, and the photogenic factories of Ramat Hovav.
To drive through Wadi Na’am is to drive through the Third World. Although electrical towers crisscross through its interior, the residents cannot legally access the electricity. There is no reliable access to water and no regular garbage collection. The closest health clinic is one village over, and there is no way for the village’s children to get to their elementary school except by foot. Wadi Na’am (the name means “pleasant valley”) is spread out over several square kilometers, with cement structures and burlap-covered, corrugated metal homes haphazardly dotting the rolling landscape. Occasionally we saw people outdoors or goats and sheep grazing. It was eerily quiet. During our hour there, we passed only three or four other cars driving on grooves worn into hard, rock-strewn earth.
Wadi Na’am is one of dozens of “unrecognized” villages that house over half of the Bedouin living in the Negev. They are citizens, yes, and volunteers in the Israeli Defense Forces — but are nevertheless seen as threatening to the State, whose official policy is to transform the Bedouin from semi-nomadic pastoralists into sedentary township dwellers.
After the War of Independence, when only twelve thousand Bedouin remained in southern Israel, most were relocated to the northeastern Negev, and their traditional lands confiscated or labeled “uncultivated” — designations that put the land under government jurisdiction and forever made them off-limits. In the 1960s, a regional development plan was created with the goal of further concentrating the Bedouin into seven townships. What you see when you drive through Wadi Na’am or Tel Sheva (which is a “recognized” village) is the result of forty years of relocation policy. The Bedouin population has grown by to more than one hundred and thirty thousand, or 25 percent of the Negev’s population, since the 1960s, yet no already-existing rural Bedouin enclave was recognized by the state until two years ago, and no new settlement can be established in accordance with the traditional herding lifestyle. No unrecognized village can be connected to water or electricity or receive money to build permanent health care or other social welfare facilities without State permission. This is a strategy of encouraging urbanized living through hardship and attrition.
According to the the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the “Bedouin are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society.” From the perspective of Raed al-Mickawi and Mariam Abu-Regeyek, their people are in a race against time. I talked to Mariam twice during my six months in Israel, on her family’s land in Tel Sheva. Educated in England, she came home to the Negev, resisted her father’s attempts to plan her life, and is hoping to launch her own business creating organic soap and hand creams made from native desert plants. “Think about how much moisture these plants can hold,” she says, handing me a square black bar of soap that smells a bit like olive oil, a bit like dirt, and a bit like pungent herbs.
Mariam has also planted a good-sized garden of medicinal plants on a plot with a postcard view of the sunset. Her dream is to use the soaps and the garden, as well as traditional building and cooking techniques, to educate both the Bedouin and outsiders about real Bedouin life and to provide a source of income for her family and neighbors. Bustan, a Jewish-Arab organization with a focus on environmental stewardship, sustainable energy, and advocacy for all the inhabitants of the Negev, is her partner in this project.
Bustan — “fruit-bearing orchard” in both Hebrew andArabic— was founded in 1999 by Devorah Brous, an American-Israeli who speaks of her personal journey from kibbutznik to leader in the “greening” of the Negev. She is passionate in her love for the desert, and equally so about the need to consider the traditional along with the modern, to merge green technologies with rural culture. If electricity cannot be accessed by those in unrecognized villages, for example, perhaps solar panels are the answer. Or perhaps a health clinic must be built and staffed by hundreds of Bedouin and Jewish volunteers if the government won’t take that step.
During dinner in Jerusalem with Devorah and Raed, who became Bustan’s director in late 2007, I heard them describe the human cost of what is happening in the Negev. Raed’s voice shifted when he said that the Bedouin are seeking recognition for their connection to the land. Even as he peppers his fluent English with Hebrew words, he is worried that his daughter will come to be comfortable with Hebrew as much as she is with Arabic. He worries about assimilation and loss.
I recall Mariam’s months-long and only partially successful search to buy a traditional Bedouin tent in Israel, a tent like the one her grandmother made, her mother grew up in, and which now lies in tatters in Mariam’s planting shed. She finally found one in early June, just before I saw her: old and in need of repair. Her family is helping her put it up and bring it back to life.
There is much in Bedouin culture that made me highly uncomfortable. While civility, hospitality, and respect for the stranger are all celebrated in Bedouin life, women’s lives are circumscribed, violence is often accepted, and the family is an insular unit to be protected at all costs. That change will come to the Bedouin community of the Negev, imposed from the outside and internally negotiated, is clear: There are now women’s weaving cooperatives, a source of pride and income to the women (and belatedly, to their husbands), begun and sustained with the technical assistance of Israeli community organizations; there are health and child-rearing education groups that utilize traditional forums to bring scientific knowledge. Then there’s modernity in full force: gas-guzzling cars, hip-hop music, and cell phones.
In June, a helicopter, two bulldozers, and dozens of police officers arrived at the Bedouin village of Tarabin al-Sanaa and demolished two homes. A week later, Raed and I drove through the open gate that separated Omer, one of the richest Jewish communities in the country (with pastel homes that reminded me of Southern California), and crossed into the village to visit the Bedouin man whose metal and cement homes these once were. Standing near huge piles of cement blocks, crushed metal, a television antenna, and trash was a man in safari hat and jeans, talking animatedly on a cell phone. There were several children hanging around the junked home. They talked and Raed translated. There were long periods of silence.
The problem is that Omer is growing. The municipality was officially expanded some time back to include the unrecognized village, although no services were ever provided to the new ‘residents.’ In recent months, half of the population of Tarabin al-Sanaa were persuaded by financial incentives to move elsewhere, usually to villages close by, while half remained, working with human rights lawyers to hold on to the land. The two demolished houses had been built without a permit — for you cannot legally get a permit to build in this location if you are Bedouin.
One can read about these demolitions weekly in the Israeli press. Fortunately, this man, his two wives, and sixteen children had somewhere to go, and were living in a small cement structure owned by another family until they figured out what to do. I photographed the children swinging from the piled up metal remains. I did not see any women or girls over the age of ten, and I am embarrassed to say that I never asked the man’s name.
The face of the Negev Guardian, three thousand tons of cement foundation, iron frame, and desert earth and red loam, greets travelers passing by Ramat Hovav. This five-story reddish sculpture, built with cranes and tractors by hundreds of volunteers, stands beside the site of a toxic waste dump. It looks out over the petrochemical plants and oil refineries, burlap tents and improvised grazing areas, the fancy homes and green lawns, without pity. The Guardian asks: How much longer? It asks: At what price?
The week before the bulldozers drove into Tarabin al-Sanaa, and the week before I sat drinking tea with Mariam in her half-pitched tent, the proposed Lehavim-Rahat train station had a name change. Located near Be’er Sheva, the station serves five thousand people in the Jewish suburb of Lehavim and forty thousand in the Bedouin town of Rahat — and is part of a plan by Israel Railways to increase service and improve relations with the Arab community. At the last minute, according to Israel Railways, Rahat was dropped from the station’s name at the request of Lehavim’s mayor, as approved by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Rahat’s mayor said his community would boycott the railroad.
If all the energy that went into naming and unnaming railroad stations would go into addressing the grave threats to the ecology of the Negev and the health of its citizens... and if all the ingenuity that goes into division could be channeled instead into making the desert a place of multiple visions... and if those who live there imagined the vast desert as a place with space for more than one people — it still wouldn’t be enough, but it would be a good start.

Sue Swartz wrote “A Love Letter to Haifa” in our May-June issue. She is a poet who teaches social change, diversity and labor studies at Indiana University.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.