Desert Town's Struggle Shows Pitfalls of Israel's Policies to Bedouin of Negev

Rahat Is Model Only of Failure, Critics Say

Ancient People: A Bedouin girl seeks shelter from rain. Israel’s efforts to force the nomadic Negev desert people into settlements have mostly ended in failure and confrontation.
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Ancient People: A Bedouin girl seeks shelter from rain. Israel’s efforts to force the nomadic Negev desert people into settlements have mostly ended in failure and confrontation.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 27, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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This four-decade-old city was meant to kick-start an urbanization of Bedouin life that would lead to a new prosperity in the Negev. But if the Israeli government is hoping to use Rahat as a model for its current push to forcibly settle other Bedouins in urban developments, they have a struggle ahead.

The reality check comes long before one actually arrives in Rahat. The city was built — like six other Bedouin urban centers in the Negev — with the hope of integrating desert dwellers into Israel’s economic life. But simply getting in and out of the city, a prerequisite for most employment, is far from easy.

Bus services are poor. And while there is a train station called Lehavim-Rahat, it is several miles away, without any regular shuttle transport to Rahat itself. This reporter resorted to a $35 ride with a taxi ordered from nearby Beersheba. For a city that was meant to be a bastion of integration, the rest of the country seems a long way away.

Aspects of Rahat do, however, seem to show promise. Some aspects could almost serve as an advertisement for urbanization. Its modern shopping facilities are busy; its schools, though subject to all sorts of infrastructure problems, are producing a generation of young Bedouins with Western educations; and some of the homes are positively plush.

To a large extent, this is what other countries would call a dormitory town — but a dormitory for nowhere. The difficulties of commuting are clear, and there is limited work in the city; when it was planned, there was no provision made for building an industrial park of the sort that is commonly constructed next to planned Jewish locales. Only now, some 41 years in, is one finally under construction. Almost one-third of adult residents are considered unemployed, and while this is partly due to Bedouin cultural concerns about women working and the existence of a large, unregistered grey economy, these factors do not tell the full story.

Social problems are widespread, including violence among different clans who were moved from different villages and thrown together in this town. Furthermore, the plushest houses happen to be the very same places that locals will direct you to if you are in the market to buy drugs.

Rahat Mayor Talal Al-Krenawi sits next to the Israeli flag in his office — Bedouins are traditionally less antagonistic to the state than other Arab citizens and many serve in the army — and says that he wishes his city didn’t exist. “I would prefer it had remained a village,” he said.

Israel’s Bedouins are currently on tenterhooks, waiting to find out whether more of them will be moved to townships that, like Rahat, bring together people from different villages and tribes. Urbanizing 20,000 to 30,000 Bedouins — residents of villages that the government considers illegal — is one of the central planks of a government program, the Begin-Prawer Plan, which passed its first Knesset reading in the summer.

Arab groups and left-wing Jewish-run organizations have opposed the plan tooth and nail, and on December 12, they seemed to have triumphed. Former govern ment minister Benny Begin, who was leading the plan for the government, announced that it was being shelved.


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