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Reimagining Israel’s Negev

August 2010

Down south in the Negev desert, the sounds of jets fill wide-open spaces. Increasing militarization is constant — at least 80% of the land there is used for military training purposes, including weaponry development. The Negev also contains the largest petrochemical processing center in the Middle East and Israel’s nuclear facilities. Bedouin communities who call the remaining land home are routinely — and forcibly — displaced. For the Bedouins, the sound of homes collapsing under bulldozers often drowns out the sounds of jets.

Bedouins on the Israeli side of the green line are in constant legal limbo, living in villages that do not appear on maps because mapping them would require providing public infrastructure, which is a mess — there is no access to water and no garbage collection for e.g. Building schools is discouraged because of the “legitimacy” that they provide in terms of establishing residency. Approximately 70,000 Bedouins inhabit 45 of these villages across the Negev.

Al-Arakib, population 300, is one such village that Israeli authorities do not recognize. Last week on the eve of Ramadan, Israeli forces stormed the village and demolished about 40 homes. When the authorities had finished their job, the people were left homeless under the blazing sun. To make matters even worse, this was the third time in less than two weeks that Al-Arakib had been demolished.

The Bedouins have few options in terms of rebuilding or relocation. Scattered throughout the desert are seven reservation-like towns sanctioned by the Israeli government. Since the towns are allotted the lowest municipal budgets in Israel, people living there have some of the lowest socio-economic indicators in the country. “This is not the proper way to develop a rural population,” said Ra`ed Al-Mickawi who directs the Negev-based NGO, Bustan. “The towns are kind of like hostels,” he continued, “they are not good for much more than sleeping.”

Al-Mickawi’s organization Bustan promotes sustainable development for both Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev. The word “bustan” means fruit-yielding orchard in both Arabic and Hebrew — and is symbolic of what they hope to achieve as an organization that is focused on environmental justice. “We offer a model of development that is built on bottom-up solutions and works for economic empowerment and equality,” Al-Mickawi added.

Bustan’s mission is to garner the best of traditional wisdom and merge that with the benefits of renewable technologies. One example of this work is the Children’s Power Project where they provide solar powered equipment to ill children in unrecognized villages without access to electricity. This equipment is used to refrigerate medications, power oxygen machines, and heat the homes of premature babies. The project brings attention to and, hopefully, action around the unequal provision of services and its health impact on Israel’s Bedouin citizens. At the same time, it promotes renewable energies as alternatives to the more standard electricity grids and diesel generators.

Bustan is also in the final phases of completing their “Green Center” in the desert. This space is a showcase for sustainable rural development, and a meeting place for Jewish Israelis, Bedouin Israelis, and international volunteers to strategize and work together. Among other things, the center includes a rooftop garden, an outdoor grey water-fed nursery, wind turbines, and space for the community to gather for events. Bustan hopes to replicate this model in other villages and provide ways for youth to stay on their lands. “The State has been seeing Bedouin settlement as a problem,” said Al-Mickawi, “but we see this as an opportunity that can be a showcase for sustainable development both in Israel and worldwide.”

“These recent demolitions in Al-Arakib underscore the urgency for rethinking development in the Negev for all its inhabitants, and, especially, recognizing the resource rights and human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel such as the Negev Bedouin,” said Nikhil Aziz, executive director of Grassroots International, a Boston-based organization that supports resource rights and sustainable development in the Middle East and around the world.

Meanwhile, the people of Al-Arakib have already started to rebuild, and many others like them are determined to avoid displacement.

A version of this piece was first published by Huffington Post.

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