Poverty rife among Bedouin women denied status by Israel

Khadra El Saneh started a weaving center that employs seventy women.

Phoebe Greenwood IRIN

TEL AVIV (IRIN) - More than 180,000 Bedouins live in the Negev (Naqab) desert but there is a big gap in terms of life opportunities between those Bedouins who live in 35 unrecognized villages, and those for whom Israel has created seven towns or who live in seven officially recognized villages, say human rights workers.

Those in unrecognized villages face a constant threat of eviction and are cut off from even basic services. Aside from the threats to their homes, not enough is being done by Israel to lift these Bedouin communities out of poverty, they say.

Amal Elsana al-Hajooj, a Bedouin woman living in the Negev and the director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, explains that unemployment and poverty rates among the Negev Bedouin in unrecognized villages are the highest in Israel.

“Residents of unrecognized villages have no status,” she says. “They have no address, their Israeli IDs state only the name of their clan. They have no claim to land. Their communities have no water, electricity or roads. There are no education or health services. The Negev is the backyard of the State of Israel. We are struggling to get any investment here.”

Al-Hajooj says the situation is most difficult for Bedouin women who face the dual challenges of living as Bedouin in Israel but also as women in a patriarchal society, where 30 percent of families are polygamous.

The conditions for women living in unrecognized villages are dramatically worse than for their counterparts in Israeli-built Negev towns, she says. “Today 75 percent of the Bedouin students [largely from recognized Negev towns] in university are women. But in the unrecognized villages the situation is very different — 65 percent of girls are out of school because there are no schools.”

Sued to pay demolition bills

The Israeli government’s recent suing of the Bedouin residents of al-Araqib village in the Negev — for $500,000 to cover the cost of repeatedly demolishing their homes — has sparked fresh debate over Israel’s treatment of its Bedouin minority.

Claims by Bedouin residents that al-Araqib is built on ancestral land have been dismissed by Israel, which has carried out more than twenty demolition and eviction operations in the village since July 2010. Israel considers al-Araqib, along with 34 other Bedouin villages in the Negev, an illegal village.

Ortal Tzabar, spokesperson for the Israel Lands Authority, says, “This case is not about demolitions; these people are criminals. This land has been deserted since 1950, when it was taken by Israel. We had even leased the land to other Bedouins for agricultural use and they chased them away. But their claim that the land belongs to them is now under investigation and if it is found they have any rights at all, they will be allowed to return.”

In response, a spokesperson for al-Araqib residents, Awad Abu Freih, says: “The court [process] is going to take some time, the next hearing is not soon. It has been very exhausting. The government doesn’t like us; they don’t want us but this is our land. They have been using our land for over sixty years. We don’t owe them any money. They should give us compensation.”

Empowerment through weaving

Khadra El Saneh is the director of Sidreh, the only organization of its kind in Israel working to educate and promote the rights of Bedouin women. A mother of four, El Saneh overcame initial opposition from the traditional elements in her community to set up a weaving center. The center now employees seventy local women to make rugs that sell in boutiques across Israel and are exported as far afield as New York and Tokyo.

“Our aim is to empower women here with basic things. Bedouin women are at the lowest level of employment in Israeli society; 90 percent of Bedouin women living in recognized villages are illiterate. In unrecognized villages, that number is more like 100 percent. If a woman has education and economic empowerment, she can take more control, make decisions, be more useful to her society and her family.”

In an effort to combat low literacy rates, Sidreh also runs courses teaching Arabic, Hebrew and English. Since it opened in 1998, 1,400 women have graduated from its literacy course. It also offers community services, like early childcare.

Sidreh’s weaving business was launched in 2007. The 70 women employed to spin wool, stitch and weave the rugs each earn on average 2,000 shekels ($586) a month. The organization is supported by a number of international and national aid agencies, including Oxfam, but has received no support from the State of Israel.

According to El Saneh, the solution to her community’s education and employment crisis is simple: “If we have schools, girls can go to school. If we don’t have schools, girls can’t go. If a woman doesn’t have skills, transport and basic logistics she can’t open a business. If she has, she can.”

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