Friday I went on a tiyul (trip) with Bustan L’Shalom, an organization working on resources for marginalized people in both Israel and Palestine.
The goal of the trip was to educate people more on Bedouin issues and give them a first-hand look at how some abstract-sounding problems were affecting actual real people.

Some of the members of our host family in the village by Ramat Hovav

We all drove down in a big van together, and Devorah Brous, the founder of Bustan, gave us some background on the hour ½ trip from Jerusalem to Beer Sheva, a town south of J’lem in the Negev desert. I had met Deborah at a conference several years back; then, as now, she was quiet and soft-spoken, yet solid in her words and the way she uses them.

Devorah explained that much of the land around Beer Sheva has been the Bedouins’ for centuries; both the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate allowed them to assert and maintain claims over their ancestral land.

From a mural on the wall of a Bedouin school

There are a number of groups within the Bedouin, and each has their own territory. To say that the Bedouin are nomads has meant, for a long time, that they’re free to move around within their group’s large land plots to follow game, and sometimes to keep peace if there are inter-tribe disputes. “Even if you only move 1km, you can avoid bloody conflict,” one of our Bedouin guides later explained. Tents—still used today in the villages—allow for a certain degree of mobility, as well as being practical year-round.

In 1951, just after Israel won independence, the new government determined that the Bedouin were not legitimate owners of “Jewish” land. Rather, they were “intruders,” and the small villages in which they lived would not be recognized by the Israeli Government.

The government has been trying to move people into a number of recognized “townships” or “reservations”—larger towns/small cities. About half of Bedouin live in these iyyarot now.

“Downtown” in Segev Shalom, an iyyarah

I asked Deborah about the fact that “iyyarah” is often translated as “reservation”; to Americans that word’s pretty loaded with connotations. She said that the analogy to the Native American situation is apt, even if it’s not a perfect 1:1 comparison. These iyyarot are recognized, if neglected. If a whole family moves to the iyyarot, the government is then able to take possession of their land (which was part of the program in the first place.) As a result, families often split up—with some stay on the ancestral land and choosing the traditional way of life (including working the land, tending animals, weaving rugs, etc.).

Others, often those whose work was non-agricultural (like the school principal we met) chose to move to town. The town offers safety from the govt, and a chance at a modern, capitalist life, and that’s very appealing for some people.

Home at the rez (also Segev Shalom)

The switchover to urban capitalism is antithetical to the Bedouin values of minimalism. One of our guides told us, “All you need is good land, a good wife, and a good horse.” That is to say, he explained, sustenance, community, and safety (that is, means of escape.) Of course, given high levels of poverty throughout the communites, the desire to make a better life in the cities is also understandable.

Those who don’t move to the iyyarot say that they don’t want the erosion of their tradition and culture that comes with urbanization, that the iyyarot are full of drugs and other urban problems, and, fundamentally, that they don’t want to give up their land to the government. Those who stay in unrecognized villages do so not because they don’t know what else is out there, but for deeply political reasons.

To be not-recognized means, among other things, that they have no access to water, electricity, public transportation, access roads, schools, hospitals, or a number of other public services. It also means that the government can tear down their houses whenever it likes, as they are technically illegal.

The houses themselves are often precarious tin huts.

The metal is a readily available even at the general level of poverty in which many Bedouin live. It is very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We saw a number of tin houses demolished along the side of the road; the van was moving too fast for me to get a picture.

We went to one unrecognized village around which an industrial complex (called Ramat Hovav) has been built up. Ramat Hovav is, basically, a toxic waste dump.

There’s also a nuclear reactor not far from here.

The death rate in this village has been documented as being 65% higher than it should be, with cancer, miscarrages, asthma and the like being very common. Since they have no health care, Bustan built a health clinic—illegally—both in an attempt to provide health services and to call attention to the issue.

This is the clinic that Bustan built–it’s totally solar powered, mud walls, made of local traditional materials. Starting this week they’ll have a doctor come in weekly.

Evidently building the clinic worked, because the day before we arrived, the occupants of the village were finally (after almost ten years in court) given permission by the govt. to move somewhere else besides one of the iyyarot. This is a huge victory, albeit a bittersweet one. They’ll have to give up their ancestral land (which is now toxic) but will be able to live somewhere besides in one of the iyyarot.

So it’s a mess, for the folks in this village as well as for pretty much the entire Bedouin population. The Israeli government is acting a lot like the United States, which is not a good model. While I don’t think that this proves anything for anybody’s anti-zionist agenda (we can find evidence of this kind of behavior in countries all over the world) it doesn’t particularly make it OK. Thank God there are groups like Bustan out there, but something else is going to need to change, and change quickly, for all this damage to be anything but irreparable. I wish I knew how that could happen.

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