While devising a transit system for Bedouin towns, Yaakov Malka discovered their lack of bus service has had a detrimental influence on the health, education and professional lives of residents
By Yigal Mashiah

It’s very hot. The child pulls a plastic bottle out of the basket and drinks. There are three bottles of water there and it’s going to be a long day – the ride to Be’er Sheva, waiting for the doctor, waiting for the van, the trip back and the walk home.

This is not a story from the early days of the country; it is happening today. Yaakov Malka, owner of a long-time consulting firm MTP Transportation Systems recounts the incident.

In an era in which little is done without PR and image advisers, advertising or marketing agents, Malka continues to maintain his firm’s reputation with nostalgic loyalty. About two years ago, MTP won a tender to organize a public transportation system for the six large recognized Bedouin communities in the Negev: Lakiya, Hura, Kseifa, Arara, Segev Shalom and Tel Sheva. Malka heard the story about the Bedouin woman and her son on the highway to Be’er Sheva during one of his personal encounters with residents in advance of preparing the plan.

One of the local council heads told Malka: “Today we’re like that Bedouin from the stories – the one Israeli tourists meet in Sinai. To their question of how far they are from a water cistern, he replies, ‘a distance of three cigarettes.’ It turns out that three cigarettes is a day’s walk. We no longer actually talk like that, but to reach Be’er Sheva for us is three cigarettes. You just never know when you’ll arrive.”

Malka explains that the Transportation Ministry has understood, perhaps very belatedly, how much the fabric of life of the Bedouin community suffers from an absence of public transportation, and how important it is for rehabilitating Israel’s relations with the community. The contrast between the Jewish populace and Bedouin villages exacerbates their frustration and anger, he notes.

For example, the Jewish community of Omer and the Bedouin village of Tel Sheva are neighbors. “Omer officially has a very high socioeconomic level of 10 [the top of the scale] and looks like a neighborhood of private homes in Ramat Hasharon, with 400 vehicles per 1,000 residents. It is directly served by about 40 buses a day to Be’er Sheva and back, for which passengers pay the public rate. Omer, it should be noted, also sits on the main highway. You get off the bus and walk home.”

In the Bedouin village of Tel Sheva, Malka continues, “there are 14,000 residents with an official socioeconomic level of 1 – the bottom of the scale. But not a single bus passes through on the way to Be’er Sheva. Anyone who hitches a ride still has to walk about three kilometers from the main highway. Inside the community they get around on foot, summer and winter. They use unregistered, unsafe vehicles. Women march to the clinic in the village with their child in their arms; children of every age group go to school on foot. They go everywhere on foot – to the community center, to the market. They walk on the highway, which is very dangerous.

“The disparity between the two communities is incomprehensible. But these are Bedouin and those are Jews. A trip on public transportation from Omer to Be’er Sheva costs about NIS 7, with the usual discounts. But a trip from the Bedouin village to Be’er Sheva in dangerous vans costs NIS 10-11 each way.

“It’s not popular to praise government ministries, but I want to state that there’s a group of smart people in the Transportation Ministry who don’t accept the injustice and also see the tremendous human importance of organized public transportation.”

So will the Bedouin start to love us?

Malka: “I don’t know if they’ll love us, but maybe they’ll hate us less.”

In Rahat there has been organized public transportation for about a year. What’s happening there?

“There is completely modern public transportation there, an achievement of the Transportation and Finance Ministries. Modern air-conditioned buses, a regular schedule, discounts as in the major cities in Israel. The operator is a firm owned by Bedouin businessmen.”

Malka emphasizes that he learned a lot from instituting public transportation in Rahat. “Anyone who travels in the area like me definitely sees a degree of improvement in the relations between us and them. For now it may be a matter of nuance, but it’s a great beginning.”

“My love affair with public transportation,” says Malka with a slight smile, “began in childhood. I wanted to be a bus driver. I used to get up early so as not to miss my bus to school. The driver liked me. Among all the unruly kids I was quite a well-behaved child, and he used to let me open and close the door and to hand him the money and the ticket. I felt important. Tiberias was a little village at the time, everyone knew everyone else and anyone who misbehaved on the bus on the way to school would get a ‘home visit’ from the driver.

“At home they also admired bus drivers, but for different reasons. Who didn’t dream then of having a share in Egged? I had a relative who married a driver, a member of a cooperative, and at home they were surprised at how she, the ugly duckling, had found such a catch. Membership in the cooperative, the salary and the other fat benefits guaranteed a good life. Mothers dreamed about their sons being Egged drivers the way they did about them being doctors and lawyers.”

Years later Malka learned about the national cost incurred by the shareholders’ good life behind the wheel. He was then beginning his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was working in the Transportation Ministry as an economist. He recalls there was a group of young, educated and combative people there, who dreamed of bringing about a revolution in local public transportation. Very few people traveled to Europe at the time, and those who returned told of the wonders of transportation there. The highways, the sophisticated buses, the punctuality of the trains, the good manners. “We were so naive and provincial, like children at an amusement park,” he muses.

And then, already at the start of the fight for more modern transportation, Malka and his colleagues met their major opponents: the Egged and Dan monopolies. “It was impossible to get anything done without their consent. Whatever we had seen in Europe – covered bus stops, signs, clean buses, efficiency, manners – didn’t exist here. We were defeated, of course.”

During the Yom Kippur War, Malka says he was pulled from his tank by then-transportation minister Gad Yaacobi, who appointed him traffic supervisor. “The drivers and trucks had been mobilized, food and vital equipment were stuck in the warehouses, buses were standing idle and there was chaos in the emergency transportation system.”

Did you save the country?

“I introduced some order. What I’m really proud of is that during my tenure they instituted free rides for soldiers on public transportation.”

Malka’s term as traffic supervisor, and the beginning of his work at MTP, occured during the major battle against the large monopolies, in spite of their historic contribution to the development of the country. In the late 1990s, he recalls, there was a government that backed the transportation minister, Yitzhak Levy, and made far-reaching decisions about opening public bus transportation to competition. An administration was established to promote this and a plan was drafted to ensure the entry of additional, private firms into the field.

When his firm won the public transportation tender for the six Bedouin communities, Malka wanted to provide a suitable answer to the needs of residents. In each community, a respected local representative was chosen, and was asked to organize meetings for him with politicians, activists and mainly “ordinary people.”

There were several innocent mistakes, he says. Men and women, it turned out after the first meeting, had to meet separately. The number of meetings was doubled.

“I went to these meetings with a stereotypical idea of Bedouin women, and it was quickly shattered. To my surprise, I met women who speak excellent Hebrew, are well-educated and assertive. A large percentage of them are graduates of the colleges in the region.”

Malka learned from them, for example, that pursuing a higher education without having regular public transportation is almost impossible; a student cannot organize a class schedule if she doesn’t know when she’ll get to the college, if at all. It’s impossible to depend on rides or vans. How do you get back home at night? In the colleges, students are in class until 8 P.M. There are many Bedouin women who began post-high school studies and gave up because of transportation problems. The absence of proper transportation destroyed the chance for advancement and for eliminating social gaps. If there’s no education, there’s no work in the big city. What remains are traditional jobs, including manual labor.

The problem is just as severe for the men. There’s more work for them in the area, but again there’s the same situation: There’s no way to get there. A person may not be hired if he doesn’t have a car, which, in light of the poverty in the sector, is an expensive dream.

“I have a car,” says one local council head, “but I’m always traveling. If I can’t drive my daughter to the community center, she stays home. She misses out on meeting with her girlfriends, she misses enrichment classes and social activity.”

During one of the meetings with activists involved in the advancement of women in the Bedouin community, participants complained: “Without public transportation how will we achieve equality with the men? If it’s impossible to get to school, to the colleges, to the places of work, earning a livelihood will continue to be in the hands of the men.”

“Imagine,” said one to Malka, with surprising lack of inhibition, “that you and I arrange a work meeting in some cafe in Be’er Sheva to talk about a project, and you say to me, ‘I’ll come between 3 P.M. and 6 P.M.,’ in other words, wait for me for three hours, woman, because I don’t have a car and I don’t know when I’ll catch some van at the junction. Our challenge will begin the day when we can plan for tomorrow, like the Jews.”