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 of the 100,000 Bedouin, who lived there prior to the establishment of
Israel, were expelled across the borders of neighbouring countries. No
compensation was offered.
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 Unrecognized Villages of the Negev.
There are 45 Unrecognized 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 of Chad.
The unrecognized 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.
The environment 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.
theatre, Negev, 2004
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 aluminum 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 fulfill 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.
Nick Pretzlik is a semi-retired businessman
living in London, England. He travels frequently to the Middle East. He can
be reached via his website: