Fatemeh has experienced more than her share of misfortunes, but the first — and the worst — was to be born in Khashem Zeneh in 1923 just as storm clouds were gathering beyond the horizon and Jewish immigration to Palestine was rising. Balfour had made his famous Declaration in 1917 and decisions were taken in far away places that would seal the fate of Bedouin tradition and culture in the Negev forever.
The village of Khashem Zeneh is now part of Israel and remains to this day Fatemeh’s home. But the semi-nomadic world of her Bedouin youth has vanished, replaced by a constrained life in a one-room, corrugated zinc shack, fifteen feet wide by eighteen feet long. A shack I initially mistook for a chicken coop.
The rolling plains of the northern Negev are home to most of Israel’s Bedouin Palestinian Arab citizens — 70,000 people not yet cajoled by the Israeli authorities into living in seven especially built ghettos around Beer Sheva. Today, all but 2% of their traditional lands are off limits, having been appropriated for Jewish-only settlements or military zones.
Khashem Zeneh is not difficult to find. Just head out of Beer Sheva on the Dimona road, opposite the exclusively Jewish community of Moshav Nevatim — 10 kilometres down the dual carriageway — turn right at the sign which reads “CEMETARY.” Then follow the dirt track directly to the village.
It sounds easy. And it is easy. But not if you use a map. On the map, Khashem Zeneh does not exist. In 1965, a quick stroke of a Knesset pen created the phenomenon of “Unrecognised Villages” by passing the Planning and Construction Law, and even though in reality Khashem Zeneh does exist, post-1965 legally it does not. Along with many other Bedouin communities in the Negev, it was disappeared — made invisible to governmental planners and thus illegal in the eyes of the authorities. What is more, bureaucratic logic then dictated that a community that did not exist had no further need for municipal services. Consequently, Khashem Zeneh has no school, no clinic, and no electricity supply and — had the villagers themselves not funded a hosepipe connection to Moshav Nevatim’s water main — no source of clean running water, either.
It was a few days ago when I walked through the village. The winter rains had not yet arrived. Cyclones of rubbish and dust spiralled through the air. Grey, desiccated earth stretched away on all sides with no hint of vegetation except for the swaying green trees and shady shrubbery of the Moshav and its cemetery, where the dead are provided with what passes for a paradise on earth in comparison to the neglected Bedouins living in nearby Khashem Zeneh.
Although autumn was well underway and the time was 10:15 a.m., the corrugated zinc sheets of Fatemeh’s shack were already hot to the touch and the temperature inside was oppressive. In summer, temperatures in the Negev soar above 50 degrees Celsius, and at that time of year, if left long enough in the shack, a chicken would probably roast.
Alas, roasting — in the true culinary sense — is impossible in Fatemeh’s kitchen. She has no oven. She possesses only a single iron ring screwed into a gas bottle for cooking. Nor does she have a lavatory. She must hobble outside into the yard with her stick, go round to the acrid smelling alley at the back of the shack, and squat on the bare earth.
Unlike Moshav Nevatim, Khashem Zeneh has no land to speak of — nowhere to grow crops or keep animals. Unemployment hovers around 80% and ill health is endemic. Fatemeh has diabetes. She also suffers from asthma and high blood pressure and travels to Beer Sheva for treatment — unlike Israeli citizens in nearby Jewish communities, who enjoy support for the aged and infirm in their homes, which is provided to Jews as right. Not that Fatemeh has no rights at all. She has two: As a fully-fledged citizen of the state and an Israeli national, she has the right to pay taxes and she may vote in national elections — just like any Jewish resident of the Moshav. Who says Israel is not a democratic country?
Nick Pretzlik is a British writer and human rights activist who is currently traveling in Israel and Occupied Palestine. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.