01/19/2011 22:58

The JNF’s reputation and ability to effect positive change would be enhanced by a decision not to plant trees on lands that are in dispute with the Beduin.
Talkbacks (8)

The boycott, divest, sanctions (BDS) movement is using the challenges faced by the country’s Beduin population to justify cutting off support for the Jewish National Fund.

During a recent three-week trip to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, I spent a lot of time meeting with Beduin and organizations involved in Beduin issues. The bottom line is that the Beduin have very serious and legitimate concerns – best addressed by engagement, not boycotts.

A quick disclaimer. I traveled to Israel as the volunteer chair of the Friends of the Arava Institute. The Arava Institute is the premier environmental studies program in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges.

Together, faculty and students are advancing a critical common goal – a sustainable future for the region’s human and natural resources. The Arava Institute receives support for scholarships for Arab and Jewish students, and funding for infrastructure from the JNF. I also just joined the JNF board for the Washington metropolitan area.

More than 200,000 Beduin live in the Negev, and due to land restrictions are, for the most part, no longer nomadic. Like similar groups in Australia, Africa and Canada, the Beduin are victims of discrimination, poverty, environmental degradation and the challenge of adopting to modern society. The difficult political situation in the Middle East has contributed to their problems.

Israel, Jordan and the PA have programs for Beduin; none goes far enough. On an international level the UN maintains a Forum on Indigenous Issues in which the Beduin participate.

Dr. Alon Tal, founder of the Arava Institute, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and a member of the JNF Board of Directors, is a vocal advocate for the Beduin, and set up some of my meetings. I also met with Beduin and volunteers supporting them who are not working with JNF.

Tal and I visited the Beduin community of Rahat, where we met with Deputy Mayor Ahmed Amerani. Rahat is an early community built by Israel to encourage Beduin to settle down. Many mistakes were made in the early development process, and the community is still plagued by high unemployment, limited educational opportunities and poor transportation.

Amerani showed me the only playground in the community, donated by JNF, and the greenbelt/recreation area under construction by it. These are small steps and much more is required before a real change can be felt, but Amerani is optimistic.

I ALSO met with Dr. Muhammad Alnabari, mayor of Hura, and Muhammad Abd, education adviser to Project Wadi Attir. Hura shares the same challenges as Rahat but, with support from the JNF and other organizations, the community is developing the Wadi Attir project to use sustainable agricultural methods in order to develop and process modern crops and traditional medicinal plants used by Beduin. Based on Beduin cultural values, the project will provide good jobs, protect the environment and develop a reproducible model for change-related initiatives.

Alnabari believes that change is possible through “dialogue, not begging.”

I also learned that the JNF partners with Beduin tribes in the Beersheba area, enabling them to graze their herds in the local forests, thus controlling underbrush while providing natural fertilizer.

Communities off the grid have more serious issues – no running water, electricity or municipal services. Thanks to support from the Irmgard Baum Estate, the Beverly Foundation and the Friends of the Arava Institute in the US, the Arava Institute has launched a biogas project developed by alumni Ilana Meallem, Mazen Zoabi and Yair Teller in Susia (an unrecognized Palestinian village in Area C of the West Bank). Bio-digesters are using animal manure and grey water (used for washing and cleaning) to generate methane for cooling, lighting and electricity generation. With a grant from USAID, the Arava Institute hopes to expand this project into the Beduin communities of Israel and Jordan.

Through the years, the JNF has supported the Arava Institute’s alumi and research programs, which provided the infrastructure for the biogas program.

While some Beduin are starting to receive badly needed services, others live in unrecognized villages. Such villages are built without permits or legal standing, and are therefore subject to destruction by the government. As you would expect, these legal issues are complex, involving Ottoman Empire land rights, British Mandate rules and current government policies. Beduin I met in these communities are angry and distrustful of the government.

Two Beduin-centered NGOs, the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, work with these communities, and educated me on their concerns, and arranged for me to tour some of these villages.

Overall I found the Beduin I met to be warm, hospitable and deeply concerned about their future. I sincerely hope that the country will do more for them and other minorities. The ongoing policy of destroying houses in unrecognized villages may have a legal basis, but is clearly leading to an increase in the frustration and alienation.

In addition to the moral dilemmas these policies create, they cannot possibly serve Israel’s own best interests. The JNF’s reputation and ability to effect positive change would be enhanced by a decision not to plant trees on lands that are in dispute with the Beduin, many of which are still under discussions in the courts.

I believe boycotts only add to polarization and strengthen those on the Right who claim the world is against Israel no matter what it does. It must fulfill its commitments to providing services to minority residents.

The JNF and other NGOs must work harder to provide more services in a culturally sensitive way, and the Beduin themselves must do their part.

The writer chairs the Friends of the Arava Institute.