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

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.

But then, four days later, it was under discussion in a Knesset committee as if nothing had happened. The lawmaker chairing the discussion, Miri Regev of the ruling Likud party, denied having received any instructions to drop it. And one day after that, Ami Tesler, head of the Community Relations Department for the Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office, told the Forward that the plan is continuing.

Al-Krenawi believes that before the government continues with the plan, it should take a good look at Rahat. “They haven’t learned,” the mayor said of the government. “They just want to move the Bedouin out of their villages to towns and give us their problems.” He said regarding Rahat: “There is no work, there is no building and there is no land to give [newcomers]. We can’t cope with the problems we have here from existing residents, so we can’t take in newcomers.”

Last year, the government launched a major investment plan for Arab towns and is hopeful about the new industrial park near Rahat. But Al-Krenawi said that, at best, these developments will belatedly help Bedouins who are already urbanized, and are not enough to support further urbanization.

The prospect of forced urbanization is tied closely to the issue of “unrecognized” Bedouin villages — districts where Bedouins live and claim longstanding land ownership, but where the government contests these rights and maintains that building has been illegal. As a result of the government’s refusal to recognize these villages, they lack many basic services. These often include legal connections to the national electric grid. Moreover, dwellings in these villages can be subject to demolition orders. The 20,000 to 30,000 Bedouins destined for urban life by the government plan will come from “unrecognized” villages, but the plan would also grant official status to villages of more than twice as many Bedouins.

A few hundred yards from the city hall, Ibrahim Abu Shareb, director of the Rahat Community Center, sat at his desk looking vexed. On the one hand, he wants to see the Begin-Prawer Plan killed off, once and for all; on the other, he fears that if the legislative route for addressing Bedouin issues is not explored, the limbo of the “unrecognized” villages, with their lack of many basic services and continued conflicts over home demolitions, will just continue. Abu Shareb believes it could “take years now to find a plan now for the unrecognized villages.”

Abu Shareb’s family chose to make the move from village life to urban life in 1978, and has been in Rahat ever since. “For me it’s a good place — the way I’m living here is perfect,” he said, adding that he thinks that Rahat life suits around 50% of locals.

So what is Abu Shareb’s objection to the government’s program? It is the fact that the relocation is forced, and not consensual as was his family’s move. “A minimal right is for people to decide what style of life they prefer,” he argued.

The government holds that it isn’t determining people’s living choices beyond planning the removal of villages it regards as illegal. Evacuated villagers will be free to live anywhere in Israel they want. But the government’s compensation packages for housing will take them exclusively to the planned Bedouin urban centers the state is constructing.

Rekan Abu-Wadi, 22, is one of a new generation of young Bedouins who want it all — and believe that it is attainable. He is a university student, studying political science, and hopes to become a professional, eventually living for a time in Tel Aviv. But he sees his long-term future in his parents’ village — the unrecognized Dchaya, where he currently lives — once their disputed land ownership is confirmed and the status of the village is formalized.

Bedouin activists like Abu-Wadi were key players in the campaign to kill off the Begin-Prawer plan. Even if Begin’s announcement of the plan’s death turns out to be premature, the experience has changed Abu-Wadi’s perspective. “Now I believe we can get recognition for all the villages,” he said.

Unlike some Bedouins, Abu-Wadi didn’t serve in the army. He defines his identity as Bedouin and Palestinian. Nevertheless, he is keen to draw on what he sees as the best of Jewish Israel. Inspired by nearby kibbutzim, he wants his parents’ village to become a cooperative if and when it becomes recognized. “I want to be a professional but at the same time I want to live in a kibbutz with my parents. I want to keep my land and get the benefit of my land,” he said. “It’s my land — why can’t I do this?“

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected].


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