Haaretz published a very interesting opinion piece this week asking if a plan by Israeli President Shimon Peres to open a university for the Bedouin near the city of Rahat is really "what the Bedouin need right now."
The university will be built as a part of the Age of the Negev project, an "employment park" to be built near the impoverished Bedouin city of Rahat for the benefit of the Bedouin community. While the project will be built outside of the city, according to the piece, Rahat has been given a 46 percent stake in the joint venture that will manage the project, meaning that a good deal of the park's revenue will flow to municipal coffers.
The question is, does the building of this park, and the university within it, really solve any problem? Surely, in the western sense, it does. It will provide jobs for Bedouin workers, especially for women, who, according to the writer, are sorely in need of employment. Age of the Negev will direct financial benefit to Rahat, one of Israel's most impoverished communities.
But, the writer argues, the project deflects from the elephant in the room. The Prawer Plan, if passed by the Knesset, will force the dislocation of a great many Bedouin. The effect of the plan will be to try and "civilize" the Bedouin, moving them into communities like Rahat and Segev Shalom while expropriating the Bedouin's land for "state purposes." This comports with Israel's longstanding state interest in the "Jewishization" of the Negev, a policy reaching back to the days of David Ben-Gurion.
To Shimon Peres, the Age of the Negev is a shining example of Israel's plurality, its willingness to reach out to minority communities and do tikkun olam, the Jewish virtue of "repairing the world." But to the Bedouin community, it is just another example of a colonial power trying to displace its traditional way of life.
While projects like Age of the Negev are backed by good intentions, we have the results of the westernization of the Bedouin. Cities like Rahat are beset with poverty. Since most Bedouin don't serve in the army, many employers will not hire them, meaning that, unable to farm their land and tend to their animals, some Bedouin have turned to lives of crime. Ironically, this has had the effect of turning Israel's policy of civilizing the Bedouin into a massive security threat for the state, as some Bedouin turn to lives of smuggling on the Egyptian border. Unemployment and poverty are among the ingredients of radicalization, and one cannot help but think that Israel's policy towards the Bedouin might someday result in disastrous consequences for the state.
So while the government and organizations like the JNF introduce initiatives to "improve" the lives of the Bedouin, as the opinion piece argues, efforts like this are merely a smokescreen to deflect the true injustice being inflicted upon the Bedouin people. The cultural misunderstanding here is significant, and is a true impediment to successful coexistence between Jewish and Bedouin Israelis in the Negev.