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On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant
Nomad people in Israel but it’s still crazy ( 13 June 1997)

THE Joint Israel Appeal has recently seemed to be fading into oblivion, and not before time. It did a valuable job well — perhaps too well, for it raised so much money for Israel as to starve local causes of badly needed funds.

It was never completely an Israel fund because its money went only to Jews. Thus, for example, when the Jewish Agency — the ultimate repository of JIA funds—builds a housing estate for poor Israeli families, Arabs, who comprise the poorest families, are excluded. This is even where the houses are built on public land leased on favourable terms from the government.

Such discrimination, which would be unthinkable in any other democracy, has led a number of people who used to subscribe to the JIA to send their money to the New Israel Fund. This seeks to help all Israelis in need; to advance social justice for all Israelis; and to integrate Arabs more fully into the life of Israel.

A worthy cause indeed, and I was delighted to read that it is to receive a grant of £280,000 from the National Lottery.

I have been an occasional subscriber to the NIF, and a regular investor in the National Lottery, without winning as much as a tenner, and I am glad to see that my money was not entirely wasted. I am half hoping that the NIF will now declare a dividend.

But, given the urgent cause which NIF has taken under its wing, and the fact that the grant is to be spread over five years, £280,000 isn't all that much. By JIA standards it is petty cash. The NIF plans to use the money on pre-school education for Bedouin children, and the training of Bedouin teachers.

If the Arabs are the poorest Israelis, the Bedouin are the poorest Arabs. Not that they were ever anything else; their traditional, nomadic way of life never called for more than humble sufficiency, and sometimes not even that. But they were hardy and resilient and were content with the little they had—or hadn't.

The emergence of Israel changed everything. They were no longer free to roam across borders, and their movements were restricted within Israel itself.

They were cherished in that they —and their black tents and their camels—lent a splash of colour to the drab stretches of the northern Negev, and were good for the tourist trade. They were also useful as trackers in the army, but were otherwise regarded as a nuisance and since there are about 100,000 of them, a fairly large nuisance.

Once Israel began to develop the northern Negev for agricultural settlement, the Bedouin began to complain that they were being cut off from their traditional grazing grounds which, of course, they were.

The trouble with any claims, however far they may go back in antiquity, is that they have to be backed up by documents, especially in Israel. And the trouble with the Bedouin is that they never went in much for documentation of any sort.

They could not back up their claims in the courts and, as a result, the government has confiscated their lands and they have been shifted, shunted and decanted, now to this area of the Negev, now to that and finally into Bedouin towns.

It would be wrong to ascribe these policies entirely to the Jewish hunger for land, for there was a belief that, if the Bedouin were more concentrated, it would be easier to provide them with decent housing, education and welfare.

The Bedouin themselves were rarely consulted and the schemes were thrust upon them. When the towns were finally built and regional councils appointed, all the councils were headed by Jews, usually from one of the religious parties, which assured a minimum of competence, with a maximum of indifference.

The towns have not been a success, partly because successive governments have allocated funds to the different communities in opposite ratio to their needs. The Bedouin, being the poorest of all, got the least of all.

The towns became instant slums and were never provided even with proper sewage systems. But that is perhaps the lesser part of the problem. Their main drawback has been social, for the Bedouin have not adapted readily to their new environment and they have been distanced from their old ways without being integrated into the new Israel.

The NIF is now trying to ameliorate some of the wrongs they have suffered. It can do so only in a minor way because—even with the help of the National Lottery—it has only meagre resources, but the very fact that it is drawing attention to the plight of the Bedouin is, in itself, an important contribution to their welfare.

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