In the Negev Desert of Southern Israel the sun beats down mercilessly, dust clouds rising in the distance, and every so often, a camel or two can be spotted against the hills. To an outsider, it is barren land, hot and dry and dusty, but to those who live there, Arab Bedouins and Jews, it is land worth fighting for.
This past weekend, on a tour with other Yale students, we experienced the Bedouin communities of the Negev. We visited both an unrecognized village and a recognized township. The history of the Arab Bedouins living in the desert is a long and complicated one but it is also one that, in the past 40 years or so, has been fraught with discrimination from the Israeli government. Although the Bedouins have been living in the Negev for hundreds of years, the area that they are permitted to inhabit has been increasingly restricted since the early 1950s to an area in the Eastern Negev called the “Siyag.” In order to receive benefits such as water and electricity provided by the federal government, those in the Bedouin communities have to move to settlements built by the government—settlements that ignore the traditions of the Bedouins, and that have large unemployment levels and poor housing and promises unfulfilled. And these are the recognized townships. In comparison, unrecognized villages undergo much worse treatment, such as the inability to build new structures, limited access to water (other than for drinking) and electricity, and above all the threat that their entire village will be completely demolished by the government.
During the day we heard from the head of an unrecognized village and then from a community leader in Segev Shalom, one of the recognized townships. Under the blazing sun, we looked upon houses and other buildings made out of plastic, crumbling cinder blocks, tarps – all cheap material. The head of the unrecognized village told us that it costs more to demolish their homes than to build them. He told us about the poor education that the children in the village receive, about the medical treatments that are almost never administered because the clinic is so far away, and about how there was absolutely nowhere in the government they could go for help. As we stood on top of a hill, looking out upon the sprawl of dwellings that made up the unrecognized village, we were told that the government planned to build a highway right through the middle of the village. When the villagers’ complaints were brought to the Israeli Supreme Court, they were told that no one lives there because the unrecognized village does not appear on a map.
Meeting in a community center, we heard much of the same from a leader in the recognized township. Describing Bedouin participation in the Israeli army during most of the wars Israel fought in, he noted how now it seemed like the government had turned its back on them. He talked about how Bedouin fathers and grandfathers wished to return to the “old” days, of agricultural communities and small villages. He questioned the current Bedouin status, seemingly stripped of dignity, of human rights and opportunities, of promising futures for their children.
As we were leaving, a boy around 5 years old peeked out from behind a door. He proceeded to play “peek-a-boo” for about 20 minutes with the entire group, sticking his head out the door, staring at everyone and then slamming the door shut again. With a toothy smile and mischievous brown eyes, he thought it was the funniest thing.
As we piled into our tour van and pulled away, our new friend stood and watched us solemnly, with hands folded over his stomach, leaning against the wall of the community center. As we left I wondered whether or not, by the time he was my age, his future would look a little brighter than it did now.
Jerelyn Luther ’16 is blogging this summer from Jerusalem, Israel.