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With mere 2% vaccinated, unrecognized Bedouin villages are an Israeli blind spot

Off the national grid and with conspiracy theories and fears of inoculation running rampant, few have elected to get the shots to protect themselves from COVID-19

A healthcare worker prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev's main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A healthcare worker prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev's main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Deep in the Negev desert, Bedouin residents of a village deemed illegal by the government say more houses have been demolished than people vaccinated, despite Israel’s world-beating coronavirus inoculation drive.

“No one is vaccinated here,” said Adnan al-Abari, a maintenance worker at the school in Tel Arad.

Israel is a global leader in coronavirus vaccinations per capita, having administered both recommended shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to roughly a third of its nine million citizens, while around half have received at least one injection.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said authorities are on track to fully inoculate the entire over-16 population by the end of next month.

But in the Bedouin villages in the arid Negev desert of southern Israel, many of which are deemed illegal by the government, the vaccination rate is at around 2 percent, according to official data.

A general view shows the unrecognized Bedouin village of Tel Arad in Israel’s Negev desert, on February 24, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Tel Arad residents say they have not been visited by a single health worker since the pandemic began.

But demolition orders have continued to arrive, targeting houses built without impossible-to-obtain permits.

 ‘It does not exist’

Bedouin have lived in the Negev desert for generations, but in Israeli society they are marginalized and often live in poverty. Israeli authorities have sought to relocate such villages to authorized towns, but in many cases, residents say they will not be forced to leave their homes. The government’s effort to transfer Bedouin has fueled tensions.

A woman hangs laundry on a clothesline in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Tel Arad in Israel’s Negev desert, on February 24, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel says Tel Arad, which has no electricity or running water, is just one of the dozens of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the region.

“Everything that currently exists in the village is illegal and cannot be legalized because the law alleges that it does not exist,” the association said. “Residents of the unrecognized villages cannot receive building permits, and the structures in the villages are accordingly designated as ‘unauthorized,'” it added.

Israeli authorities say they cannot allow illegal construction and want to regularize the Bedouins’ living situations, including by improving their conditions.

Abari told AFP that the government had not sent “anyone to explain the [coronavirus] crisis or to help us.”

Goats scour the rocky hillside for grass in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Tel Arad in Israel’s Negev desert, on February 24, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Tel Arad, where goats scour the rocky hillside for blades of grass, does not have reliable internet access, making pandemic coping strategies like remote schooling impossible. Abari said his 12-year-old son Yussef had not had a lesson in more than a year.

Anti-vaxxing conspiracies

Patchy web access hasn’t stopped anti-vaccine conspiracy theories spreading via WhatsApp, text message, or word of mouth. In Tel Arad, many fear that the jab will alter their genes, make them sterile or even contain a microchip allowing Israeli security services to track their movements.

About 60% of Israel’s 290,000 Bedouin live in villages or towns which are officially recognized.

But despite having clinics, schools, and public services, fewer than a fifth of residents in these communities have received even one vaccine injection, according to official data.

Women wait for their turn to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at a clinic in the Negev’s main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

“Fake news travels faster than real information,” said Mazem Abu Siyam, a doctor coordinating the vaccination campaign for Negev Bedouin. “There is really this fear of the long-term effects.

“We are a traditional community and it’s difficult to convince people to get vaccinated, to adopt a new technology.”

Faith-based argument

Jameh Abu Odeh, a 36-year-old lawyer in the Negev’s main Bedouin town of Rahat — population 22,000 — won a small victory over such fears.

After telling relatives about the benefits of vaccination, he convinced his mother to get inoculated.

“Everyone is afraid of the vaccine! In fact, it’s a mixture of fear and confusion about the side effects,” he said, as a nurse injected his frail, shy mother in the arm. “We must not forget also that here many don’t know how to read.”

Jameh Abu Odeh (C), a 36-year-old lawyer, accompanies his mother to receive her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev’s main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Bedouin elder Ibrahim Leamor, 70, blamed “ignorance” as the primary cause of anti-vax sentiment. In his village of Kuseife, fewer than 10% have received the shot. He quotes the Quran to convince the most reluctant.

“‘The prophet said that every disease has its remedy,’ and today this remedy is called the vaccine,” Leamor said.

Abu Siyam said that in recognized villages, Bedouins have begun to accept the vaccine. “We are only just beginning to overcome fear… I hope this is the start of a boom.”

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