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Report finds Negev Bedouins remain poorest population in Israel

The latest report by State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman highlights the plight of the Bedouin communities living in the Negev region, with little progress seen despite their new representation in the governing coalition.
Bedouin village

In February 2017, Israel's government adopted a five-year plan for socioeconomic development in Bedouin communities in the Negev region. Still, as the end of this program nears, the situation has apparently improved very little. In his annual report released last August, State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman examined various aspects of governance in the Negev. He found that “the Bedouin population of the Negev is the poorest sector in Israel, suffering from a lack of infrastructures and quality education. It is heavily involved in incidents related a failure to pay taxes, polygamy, racketeering and protection money, and willful damage to civilian and military infrastructures. It is incumbent on the government of Israel to increase government involvement in the Negev.”

The State Comptroller’s report also found that the educational system in Bedouin villages is impeding integration into the Israeli workforce. This accords with a 2017 report by the Knesset that the dropout rate in Bedouin schools in the Negev is the highest in all of Israel, reaching 31%. This contrasts sharply with the Israeli population in general, where the dropout rate is less than 10%.

In fact, according to the socioeconomic indices measured by the Central Bureau of Statistics, despite the significant investments over the last few years, Bedouin villages in the Negev rank lower than other localities in the region. 

For many years, Israeli Bedouins had no direct voice within the government. That changed earlier this year, with the Bennett government taking office. In an historic move, the Muslim Ra’am party, which considers itself the champion of the Bedouin cause, decided to join the coalition. The issue of improving the living conditions of Bedouins in the Negev, demanded by Ra’am, was part of the coalition agreement signed last June.

Analysts agree that the election campaign of Ra’am for the Bedouin cause was at least partly responsible for its success last March, passing the electoral threshold with four Knesset seats. The party's decision to join the government created big hopes, but three months later, the Bedouins are still waiting anxiously for the anticipated changes.

One government commitment was to tackle the problem of the unrecognized Bedouin villages — small localities set up without permit, where Bedouin families have lived for generations without electricity, water, health services or schools. The agreement says that the status of three such villages – Avda, Khasham Zana, and Rahma – should be regularized within 45 days of the new government taking office. That has yet to happen.

For the general Israeli Arab population, the June coalition agreement included a five-year comprehensive plan to reduce gaps with the rest of the country, with a budget of 30 billion shekels [$9.3 billion] through 2026. Similarly, the new government committed itself to rein in violence and crime in Arab society.

To date, the money has not been approved by the government. On Sept. 24, Ra’am party chairman Mansour Abbas attacked the government for failing to fulfill its commitments, adding that, “The government is at a crossroads.” The number two person in Ra’am, Chairman of the Interior Committee Walid Taha, was even quoted as warning that new elections were a reasonable option. He was referring to the upcoming final vote on the state budget, which must be approved by the beginning of November.

For many years, the Bedouins had no representation within the government. Ra’am's participation in the coalition changed that. Israeli Bedouin Saeed Alharomi had served twice as a Knesset member for the Arab Joint List, which included the Ra’am faction. When Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas decided to quit the Joint List and run independently, Alharomi followed him and was elected to the Knesset for Ra’am. Many within the Israeli-Bedouin community considered Alharomi their man in the parliament. 

The sudden death of Alharomi in August obviously changed all that. His passing left the one-quarter million Bedouin residents of the Negev without an authentic representation in the corridors of power.

In the past, the person who represented this community in the parliament (though not in the government) was Israeli Bedouin Taleb el-Sana. He spent over two decades in the Knesset, from 1992 to 2013. El-Sana continues to be involved in the problems facing Bedouin citizens in the Negev as a member of the Supreme Steering Committee of the Arabs of the Negev, a group that represents all movements and political ideologies among that population.

El-Sana told Al-Monitor that the passing of Alharomi is bound to impact the situation of the Bedouins in the Negev. “What we have seen in the past is that as long as the Arab population in the Negev had no representation in the Knesset, there was no one to deal with the most pressing issues," he said. "When I first entered the Knesset, I was able to put the problems facing the Bedouin population on the national agenda. Politically, we became part of the game. As such, there can be no doubt that that Alharomi’s passing, and the resulting lack of parliamentary representation, could impact the way that these problems are handled.”

Researchers are warning that poverty in Bedouin villages keeps escalating, and that urgent actions are needed, in direct cooperation with the community and its representatives. “We know that societies in transition can prosper and thrive, but can also decline and regress," Dr. Nuzaha Alassad Alhuzail, a resident of Rahat and a senior lecturer at Sapir College, told Al-Monitor. "That is why the educational system and its institutions are among the most important anchors of Bedouin society. People look up to it. That is why it is necessary to rechart its course …so that the educational system can create a new generation that will lead Bedouin society to safer shores in the future. Of course, it is important to remember that every child who drops out is more likely to get caught up in the world of delinquency and crime.”

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