June 28, 2007
Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens
As population grows, the once-nomadic culture faces modernization
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The key issues of Bedouin in the south, Kolagy said, pertain to a lack of cohesive leadership, low employment rates and income, and land. Ownership claims must be settled with the government for the Bedouin to move forward. Currently, he believes, the process is accelerating in the wrong direction.
In soft-spoken Hebrew, yet with a underlying tone that demanded attention, Kolagy said the issue of the Bedouin is one of the most urgent for the State of Israel. It's "a ticking time bomb," he stressed.
The facts are that anywhere from 40 to 55 Bedouin villages are categorized as unrecognized. This is considered a black eye on the face of Israeli development, which is expanding by leaps and bounds in nearly every other part of the country.
Can all the blame be placed on the Jews?
Alon Tal, associate professor at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes of Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University, founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and a volunteer on the international board of the Jewish National Fund, doesn't think so.
While he readily admitted that he's not a Bedouin expert, he said that Israel did everything it could to assist its citizens in the original settlement process, and "every step of the way, it was met with a hostile, violent reception" from Arabs.
"But as far as the Bedouin go, it didn't have to be that way," he continued. Because they don't have such a strong Muslim identity, he said they could have been embraced early on. Since that didn't happen, "we find ourselves in a situation that is untenable."
He believes that establishing towns for the Bedouin was "a good idea," and that today, land is just not available for extensive nomadic farming and grazing. He didn't even begin to deconstruct the ramifications of organic and industrial waste in Bedouin villages; the fact that raw sewage runs from the Negev city of Dimona (population 50,000) through Bedouin territory and the ensuing hazards it creates for people, wildlife and desert groundwater.
"Who's paying for it? The ecology of the land," he said.
The government, he continued, "has lost control of the Negev." It needs to stop ignoring the desert, he said, cut its losses and make deals with the Bedouin to settle claims and move forward; for their part, the Bedouin need to accept these claims and start to modernize their lives, because hard-core problems exist if they don't.
Tal raised the issue of lawlessness, a point that's reiterated by Arab experts, particularly when it comes to young men, who are uneducated or undereducated, unemployed and increasingly restless.
The clash between Bedouin society and Israeli Jewish culture is real, attested Al-Krenawi, and it leads to levels of crime, which he said has increased in the last five years. Thievery, drugs, gangs, depression -- he rattled off the negative effects of what he called a "dead-end society."
In 2007, he explained, Arabs can "see the world through TV, the Internet, cellphones. They are aware of what's going on; they're not their parents' generation."
Yet, he continued, when it comes to the Bedouin, they have no representation, no party, no advocates, no donors -- not even real forums for discussion.
To be fair, admitted the social work department chairman, to be better accepted, the Bedouin must relinquish aspects of their culture. If they are to improve their circumstances, they have to let go of such things as polygamy, genital mutilation and blood vengeance. While he does not elaborate on these controversial practices, he recognizes that the path forward means the shedding of such behaviors.
Education and Health Care
That's where education comes in. Leaders in the Bedouin community speak over and over again of a major goal: to get boys and girls in school and keep them there.
Girls are often pressured to leave when they turn 14, the age considered by Bedouin society as the entrance to womanhood. High school dropout rates run as high as 77 percent in certain villages. In Rahat, the only full-fledged Bedouin city in the south and the second largest Arab city in Israel, after Nazareth in the north, it's estimated that 75 percent of women ages 35 to 50 have never been to school.
Females have added problems. Unlike men, many don't speak Hebrew. When they or their numerous children get sick, even if they have access to a clinic, once there, they often have difficulty communicating what's wrong.
According to professor Riad Agbaria, director of the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion University and chairman of the department of clinical pharmacology, a lack of adequate resources accounts for Bedouin having the highest infant mortality rate in Israel -- 16 percent, compared with 11 percent for other Arabs and 6.5 percent for Jews. It accounts for the fact that up to 85 percent of patients in intensive-care units in hospitals and health clinics in the Negev are Bedouin.
Agbaria, a Palestinian Arab from Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel, explained that overall, health has deteriorated for the Bedouin, especially in the recognized villages. Because their lifestyles have become sedentary (no more natural exercise through farming or herding) and their diets have changed (processed Israeli food over organic meals), they are prone to Western ailments like diabetes and hypertension. Genetic diseases remain high, due to marriage within tribes. Breast cancer goes untreated, mainly due to the fact that only 3 percent of Bedouin women get mammograms, according to Agbaria, as opposed to about 98 percent of Jewish Israeli women.
However, Agbaria sees progress on the horizon in the form of education and one person, in particular, spearheading advancement: Rania Abed al-Oqbi, Israel's first female Bedouin physician, who earned her medical degree last year from Ben-Gurion University.