At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It's as if you've glimpsed something like it before, in a TV docudrama, on the glossy pages of National Geographic, as part of a news clip on CNN. It's part Middle Eastern, part African. It's part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there's a gentle mood to the place, as if no one's really complaining about their lot — almost as if they've picked it themselves.
And they have, in a way. Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel's Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin ("One Hill") was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village's status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.
Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens — comprising about 80,000 people in the north, and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population — entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews. That is, if they could just stay put.
A nomadic people, "Bedouin" is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab.
Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel, but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.
Some 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they produce one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century; with the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle, and often, an actual household.
And that makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer Department of Social Work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the above statistics.
"My father used to say, 'You have to walk with the wind.' Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind — they were working with the Bedouin, and they didn't understand them," he says. "Slowly, they've started to change their thinking, and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people."
In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva (now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000) — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn't want or ask for the homes; they simply weren't interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; "it was a big mistake," says Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.
Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early '70s, did start to move in — to Tel Sheva, and to six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful of the list.
Look, explains the professor, you've got crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents, and caring for land and animals, to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on "Social Security," Israel's name for welfare, which is hardly enough to support 12 kids.
The Bedouin were "pushed to the margins of society; they were left out," states Al-Krenawi. "Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It's a big welfare population — it's a disaster."
The question, he persists, is one of the future: "Where are you taking this portion of society?"
'A Ticking Time Bomb'
Critics say that the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of the state in 1948, and is only now starting to realize its potential. Of course, it was Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where their gravestones now rest. Ben-Gurion's words sound surprisingly relevant these days: "The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning."
Still, signs of movement exist. After all, this is a population that votes. It's one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It's one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices — because, truth be told, the Bedouin were never really considered at all.
Nine more recognized villages are in the works, at various levels and stages. A regional council for this area — the Abu Bazma council, led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy — has been set up, and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term, or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems, and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) Brand-new schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up a whopping 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.
Kolagy, of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, notes that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledges that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the get-go — "when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way" — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.
The key issues of Bedouin in the south, he says, 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; right now, he feels, the process is accelerating in the wrong direction.
In soft-spoken Hebrew, yet with a underlying tone that demands attention, Kolagy says the issue of the Bedouin is one of the most urgent for the State of Israel. It's "a ticking time bomb," he stresses.
Take the facts on the ground: Anywhere from 40 to 55 Bedouin villages are categorized as unrecognized. That's a black eye on the face of Israeli development, which is expanding by leaps and bounds in nearly every other part of the country.
But 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 admits that he's not a Bedouin expert, he says 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 continues. Because they don't have such a strong Muslim identity, he says they could have been embraced early on. Since that didn't happen, "we find ourselves in a situation that is untenable."
He feels 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 to people, wildlife and desert groundwater.
"Who's paying for it? The ecology of the land," he states.
The government, he puts forth, "has lost control of the Negev." It needs to stop ignoring the desert, he says, 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 raises the issue of lawlessness, a point that's reiterated by Arab experts, particularly when it comes to young men, who are un- or undereducated, unemployed and increasingly restless.
The clash between Bedouin society and Israeli Jewish culture is real, attests Al-Krenawi, and it leads to levels of crime, which he says has increased in the last five years. Thievery, drugs, gangs, depression — he rattles off the negative effects of what he calls a "dead-end society."
In 2007, he explains, Arabs can "see the world through TV, the Internet, cell phones. They are aware of what's going on; they're not their parents' generation."
And yet, he continues, 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, admits the social-work department chair, 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
And 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 drop-out 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 up north — it's estimated that 75 percent of women ages 35 to 50 have never been to school.
And females have added problems; unlike the 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, explains 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 a mere 3 percent of Bedouin women get mammograms, according to Agbaria, as opposed to some 98 percent of Jewish Israelis who do.
But for this professor, progress lies on the horizon in the form of education, and one person in particular spearheading advancement: Rania Abed El Hady — Israel's first female Bedouin physician — who earned her medical degree last year from Ben-Gurion University.
"This will change minds," he insists. "It will change things in the Negev."
He adds that five Bedouin women (and four men) are currently studying with the faculty of medicine. Seeing a Bedouin girl hard at work in the library, he says, "this is my dream; we've broken a mentality. We're changing the status of women in the Bedouin community."
Indeed, no discussion on the Bedouin would be complete without mentioning Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, which just marked the 10th anniversary of the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. The center's goals are to encourage university enrollment of Bedouin students; establish a cadre of Bedouin professionals to serve the Negev communities; assist Bedouin in attaining professions and well-paying jobs through higher education; support academic research about Bedouin societies in transition; and sponsor seminars and conferences for researchers, community leaders and the public.
Bedouin students were unheard of when Ben-Gurion University opened its doors in 1969. According to official printed materials, from the school's initial graduating class through the year 1990, a mere 38 Bedouin obtained bachelor's degrees, only one of whom was female. By the late 1990s, the number of female graduates increased to 22; from 2001-06, female Bedouin bachelor-degree candidates jumped to 112; the comparable figure for men was 162. Bedouin who earned master's degrees in 2006 — both genders included — amounted to 31.
It's a beginning, believes New York City real estate developer Arnow, who's poured millions of dollars into the effort, along with other areas of study, such as solar energy, medicine and astrophysics, over his 25 years of involvement with the university. "It's the beginning of a ripple … I do feel the time is coming, and change is going to take place. This is a group that's becoming more entitled to their rights."
But why him? And why this populace?
Israel is a democracy, he replies, "but you can't be a democracy for 80 percent — you either are or you aren't." The Bedouin "are not going to go away. Someone must do something."
He eases up a bit, and gets practically poetic: "If someone falls down, you help them get up," continues the 82-year-old. "These are Jewish values."
He quotes the oft-repeated phrase that "Israel will be judged by how it treats its Arabs," and then goes on to echo something much older, much more profound and much more analogous to the matter at hand: "Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."