- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

BIR HADAJ, Israel - Like a mirage, this sprawling desert shantytown of thousands of Bedouin tribespeople fades in a twilight dust storm. There is no electricity, and it soon is lost in the night.

Israel refuses to run electricity, water or roads to 45 Bedouin encampments in the southern Negev Desert, or even list them on maps, because it rejects the tribes’ land claims.

With some Israeli officials warning that the country is losing its last frontier for Jewish settlements to an exploding Bedouin population, the government has adopted a plan to remove the encampments gradually. It will encourage residents to give up claims to scattered tribal grounds in return for housing lots in new towns.

But similar efforts to settle the Bedouin in towns in the past three decades largely have failed. There is growing Bedouin resentment over neglect, and some Jews worry about the possibility of violence.

About half the 140,000 Bedouin in the Negev have refused to leave villages that Israel considers illegal squatter camps. Many of those who did move to seven towns built by the government to house Bedouin since the 1960s have experienced bleak lives afflicted with drugs, poverty and unemployment.

Some in the outlying camps — though without running water, electricity or sewers — say they are better off than those in the towns because they have held onto their lands and a traditional livelihood of herding sheep and goats.

The harsh landscape mirrors a difficult life. On a recent afternoon in the Bir Hadaj encampment, wind and dust blasted dilapidated shacks. A few solitary figures moved about, silhouetted against the orange sky. A group of men left a mosque with their faces wrapped in scarves against the sand.

Under the new program, approved at an April 2003 meeting of a ministerial committee on the Bedouin, $110 million would be used to start building the infrastructure for seven new towns.

Bedouin activists and human rights lawyers say Israel isn’t so interested in Bedouin welfare, but rather wants to clear Israeli Arabs from large swaths of land that the government hopes to settle with Jews.

“The aim is to concentrate as many [Arab] people as possible on as little land as possible,” said Marwan Dalal, an Arab civil rights lawyer in Israel.

One town is planned for the area of the Bir Hadaj encampment, which is home to 5,000 Bedouin.

Ayid al-Azazmeh, 35, living at Bir Hadaj, said he would welcome living in a place with electricity. But he worries a town here might suffer the same ills that have befallen other government-built Bedouin towns. And, he said, the Bedouin could end up with considerably less land.

Bedouin tribes, most of them once semi-nomadic, began migrating to the Negev from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa around the 5th century. In a desert of scrub and sand, they herd sheep, goats and camels.

After Israel’s creation in 1948 and the Mideast wars, many Bedouin fled or were pushed out with other Arabs. Retroactive zoning laws in Israel classified much of their land as nonresidential, effectively making Bedouin villages illegal, civil rights groups say.

Traditionally, Bedouin land contracts were oral, and with no documents to prove ownership, few have made successful claims to keep land, said Alean al-Krenawi, a Bedouin college professor.

Yaakov Katz, director of the government’s Administration for Advancement of the Bedouin, denies the intent of the new-town plan is to uproot the Bedouin. He said towns will help the tribesmen as well as stop illegal construction in the encampments.

Mr. Katz also said the government hopes to reverse past mistakes, most notably the neglect of the 70,000 Bedouin who moved to government-built towns only to languish in poverty.

Those towns have Israel’s highest jobless rate — around 15 percent, compared with about 10 percent for the country as a whole. With more than half the people in the towns under age 18, academics and analysts warn of the danger of an entire new generation’s impoverishment.

The plan allocates $55 million over the next six years to improve roads, electricity, sewerage systems and build sports centers in the existing towns.

In Tel Sheva, the first of the towns built three decades ago, 10,000 people live in cramped houses on crowded lots. With few jobs, many live on welfare while trying to hold onto a lifestyle of subsistence agriculture. Sheep, goats and camels roam trash-strewn lots and muddy streets.

“I wish I could go to the past and live the way I lived before,” said Mohammed Abu Dawam, 47, who remembers raising sheep and goats with his family before he left his tribe’s nearby land. “We felt happier then. We felt safe.”

He said he hasn’t had a job since he worked years ago at a laundry in a nearby city.

Making things worse, the jumble of tribes gathered into the towns quarrels, sometimes violently, over property and control of town councils, one of the few employers.

There is also resentment over the two dozen nearby Jewish towns and villages that are flourishing, their neatly farmed rows of green crops bursting from the desert.

Shmuel Rifman, a local government official in charge of developing the Negev, wants to build a belt of Jewish communities around the desert city of Beersheba, but thinks it will be impossible if the Bedouin are not moved.

With one of the highest birthrates in the world — the women average 10 children — the Bedouin population doubles every decade, he said. Without action, a chain of Arab desert villages will soon link the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, cutting Israel in half, Mr. Rifman argued.

He complained that the money hasn’t been allocated yet for the new Bedouin program. Meanwhile, he said, Bedouin are growing angry and identifying more closely with the Palestinians.

“We are sitting on a powder keg,” he said.

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