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Israel’s Bedouin doubtful of positive change under new government

Even with MK Mansour Abbas’s $9.1 billion budget for Arab community, residents of Negev’s unrecognized towns are skeptical promises will translate into reality

A view of houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawaneen in Israel's southern Negev Desert, June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A view of houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawaneen in Israel's southern Negev Desert, June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

From her tin-roof home in the sweltering Negev desert, Umm Jawad Abu Qwaider offers her bleak assessment of the first Arab party to back an Israeli government — a shoulder shrug.

For this Bedouin woman, none of the promises made to her community will translate into reality.

“The promises are all false,” Abu Qwaider said. “They are just lies.”

Mansour Abbas, leader of the conservative Islamic party Ra’am and a champion of the Bedouin cause, became a political kingmaker this month by supporting a new coalition to oust Israel’s longest-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ra’am’s support paved the way to end two years of political crisis in Israel, bringing in an ideologically disparate government headed by right-wing nationalist Naftali Bennett.

In exchange, Abbas earned an NIS 30 billion ($9.1 billion) pledge to tackle inequalities in Israel’s Arab community, the freezing of the demolition of houses in Bedouin areas, and government recognition of three Bedouin villages.

Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) talks with Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamic Ra’am party during a special session to vote on the new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP)

The vast majority of Israel’s nearly 300,000 Bedouin live in the arid Negev in the south of the country, on the fringes of Israeli society.

“We will begin the process of regulating the Bedouin settlements in the Negev, so that Israel’s Bedouin citizens can live in dignity,” Bennett said in his inaugural speech.

The new prime minister criticized a “lack of governance” in the Negev during Netanyahu’s 12-year rule.

Home demolitions

Abu Qwaider said she has heard it all before.

“Every time a new government is formed, they talk about it but nothing happens,” the 40-year-old said.

Her village of Sawaneen is a cluster of simple houses in the desert scrub home to some 4,000 people.

Members of the Abu Qwaider family sit together at home in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawaneen, in Israel’s southern Negev Desert, on June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

It is one of 30 Bedouin settlements not officially recognized by the government, many of which lack basic infrastructure, including electricity and water.

For the 40 percent of the Bedouin who live in such settlements, there is a constant threat of house demolitions or expropriations.

“I cannot explain to the people of the Negev that I will be part of the coalition as bulldozers move towards [their] houses,” declared Said al-Harumi, the only one of Ra’am’s four lawmakers to refuse to vote to establish the ruling coalition.

In Rahat, a large Bedouin town with some 90,000 residents, mayor Fayez Abu Souhaiban said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the new government.

“There are agreements, and if the government does not respect them, there will be no more government since any party can reserve the right to withdraw its support,” he said.

Abu Souhaiban said that under Ra’am’s deal struck to join the coalition, “the government must recognize three villages within 45 days.”

And he warned of plans by the authorities to transfer the inhabitants of the village of Al-Zarnuq to Rahat, where he said people were already crowded as if living in “sardine cans.”

The issues of Bedouin rights and their settlements are not new.

The government says Bedouins in unrecognized villages are squatters on public land, while Bedouins have long insisted on their right to remain where they are.

Authorities have been seeking to relocate such villages to authorized towns, but in many cases, residents say they will not be forced to leave their homes.

Fayez Abou Souhaiban, Head of the local council of Rahat municipality, gestures before a map of the area as he gives an interview with AFP at his office in Rahat, a Bedouin town in Israel’s southern Negev region, on June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

In 2013, the government planned to demolish around 40 villages, confiscate 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) and move 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin in exchange for compensation.

The government backed down in the face of furious Bedouin protests.

‘Life is difficult’

Still, according to civil society activist Amer al-Hazil, from the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages of the Negev, more than 10,700 houses were demolished in these areas between 2009 and 2019, putting more than 33,000 children at risk of psychological trauma.

“They destroyed the village of Al-Araqeeb more than 150 times. I can’t help but wonder: why are they doing this?” said Umm Anas, 42.

“My daughter lives in the unrecognized village of Shaqurat, which has had no water for over a month, so she must come to our house,” she added.

Abu Qwaider’s husband, Mahmud, detailed the tough conditions they face.

People shop at an open-air market in the Bedouin town of Rahat in Israel’s southern Negev region on June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

“Life is difficult,” he said. “We lack water, we lack electricity, and we pay NIS 500 to 600 ($150-$185) per month for water. In winter, there is mud. And when it is windy, the roof flies off.”

Abu Qwaider sees little prospect of things improving.

“Even if the government wants to put the subject of Bedouin on the Knesset table, the majority are against the Arabs,” she claimed. “And the voice of Arab lawmakers is very weak.”

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