“The Bedouin are an inseparable part of the state and partners in its construction. I’m proud to be Israeli.”
160 ambassadors and consuls who represent Israel in over 100 countries throughout the world took part in a tour of the Negev held in conjunction with KKL-JNF, the Or movement and the Israeli foreign ministry. The participants had the opportunity to observe KKL-JNF’s activities at first hand and see how the organization is developing the Negev for the benefit of all its residents, including the local Bedouin.
Group photo: Ambassadors and locals at the Bedouin Heritage center in Tel Sheva Photo: Dudu Grinshpan, KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Israel Ambassador to UN Ron Prosor experiences Bedouin hospitality. Photo: Yoav Devir
“KKL-JNF’s activity in the Negev is the true modern-day Zionism, and it is changing the face of both the area and of Israeli society in general,” said Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. “Nothing can compare with first-hand observation, with coming along to see how KKL-JNF is making the desert bloom.”
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler met with the members of the delegation in the course of their tour and told them: “The Negev is the growth engine of the Israeli State, and it’s very important that our ambassadors get a feel for what’s really going on here.”
The long tour of the various sites throughout the Negev revealed to the visitors a fascinating, complex and colorful mosaic of life in the desert.
Givot Bar: Jews and Bedouin living in close proximity
Kindergarten in Givot Bar. Photo: Yoav Devir
The first stop along the route was Givot Bar, a new community established in 2004 to the south of the Bedouin town of Rahat. The land was prepared for settlement and developed for public and recreational use with the help of KKL-JNF’s Friends in England and the USA. Today some 130 families live in the community, and there are plans to expand to a maximum of 500.
“This tour is a reminder to us all that, despite everything, we have a wonderful country in which wonderful things are being done,” saidNissim Ben Shitrit, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Hadara Gurfinkel, Director General of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, added that the Givot Bar community is an example of the accelerated growth spurt underway throughout the area.
Doron Almog, Director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin. Photo: Yoav Devir
Doron Almog, Director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin, stressed in his speech that the land arrangements in the Negev will benefit the Bedouin first and foremost and improve their quality of life. “A properly-run country cannot tolerate the presence of illegal poverty-ridden shanty towns where there is no electricity or water supply and no connection to the sewage system,” he said. “Working together with the Bedouin population, we are initiating a process at whose conclusion all the Bedouin will be living in officially recognized communities. We are aware that this process involves a profound cultural change.”
Over 200 thousand Bedouin live in the Negev today. Approximately half of them live in 18 recognized communities, while the remainder are scattered among 35 hamlets that have never been accorded official recognition by the state. “If we leave the Bedouin in unrecognized communities, we shall be perpetuating the poverty in which they live and we shall be unable to provide them with the appropriate services,” said Almog. “We want to see Bedouin society integrating into the Negev, improving its socio-economic status and contributing to the Israeli economy.”
Amer Abu Muammar, Mayor of Segev Shalom. Photo: Yoav Devir
“The Bedouin are an inseparable part of the state and partners in its construction. I’m proud to be Israeli,” declared Amer Abu Muammar, Mayor of the Bedouin community of Segev Shalom. “The campaign underway against the state has made us pawns in the hands of the politicians. If there is opposition to the land regulation on the left and right of the political map, that’s a sign that there’s something to build on. If we talk and listen to one another, we can find a solution to the disagreements.”
With regard to international reaction to the Bedouin issue, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler said: “The media are full of disinformation that is designed to harm the State of Israel and the Jewish People. The campaigns waged against us are a new form of anti-Semitism. As a Jewish Zionist organization, we believe that it is our job to help all citizens of the state, and this is why KKL-JNF promotes numerous projects for the benefit of the Negev Bedouin.”
The delegation made its way next to Rahat, where it toured the attractive new neighborhood that is in the process of being added to the town. Anat Gold, Director of Planning for KKL-JNF's Southern Region, showed the visitors another new KKL-JNF project in Rahat – the Gerar River Park. “This park is a source of both social and physical change in the town, and it has transformed the site from an eyesore into an asset. It links the different parts of the town and provides a connection between the various communities living within it,” she explained. The first stage in the establishment of the park, which included the preparation of the ground and the construction of paths and terraces, was carried out by KKL-JNF. Stage two, which is just starting now, comprises landscaping and the provision of lighting and playground equipment. “KKL-JNF works for the benefit of all residents of the Negev, Jews and Bedouin alike,” emphasized Anat Gold in conclusion.
Visitors are greeted with flowers by a local youth ensemble in the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva. Photo: Yoav Devir
The visit to the Bedouin community of Tel Sheva began inauspiciously, when a stone thrown at one of the buses shattered its rear window. Fortunately, no one was hurt. At the local Bedouin heritage center, however, the ambassadors were greeted by children offering flowers, while a traditional musical welcome was provided by a local youth ensemble.
Qasem Abu Sarhan, Deputy Mayor of Tel Sheva, told his guests about the community, which is home to eighteen thousand residents, 65% of whom are under the age of eighteen. The main challenges facing the community are education, employment and housing, he said.
“We all need to work together to improve the state of Bedouin society,” said Kheyr Al-Baz, Director General of the Bedouin social organization Ajik. He told his listeners that 50% of Bedouin families live below the poverty line, and that only 3% of Bedouin youngsters pursue academic studies. “Education is the key to closing these gaps,” he said. “Despite all the difficulties, many of the young men volunteer to serve in the IDF, and young women volunteer for civilian national service.”
“We’ve learned at first hand about Bedouin society, and I share the view that education can help to break down all barriers,” said Foreign Ministry Director General Nissim Ben Shitrit.
Maryam and Naji Abu Rqaiq. Photo: Yoav Devir
At the Bat Midbar (“Daughter of the Desert”) company in Tel Sheva, which manufactures the first Bedouin line of cosmetics, the visitors met Maryam Abu Rqaiq, who founded this successful enterprise. She recounted how she had used her grandmother’s knowledge of traditional plant remedies in order to produce creams, soaps and oils that are now sold throughout the world. Today she employs a staff of five Bedouin women and dreams of continuing to expand the business to provide employment for many more people.
“People from all over the world come to our visitors’ center, and I believe we can serve as an example of how we can all live together,” said Maryam’s husband Naji Abu Rqaiq. The ambassadors, of course, did not leave the factory empty handed: they concluded their visit with the purchase of a selection of cosmetic products.
“This visit has helped us towards a deeper understanding of the Bedouin issue,” said David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles. “Developing the Negev benefits all residents of Israel. This is a complex situation, and it is our job to explain it to people abroad.”
Carmit is a new community in the northern Negev that was established jointly by KKL-JNF and the Or settlement movement. KKL-JNF prepared the land for the construction of a community of 510 families, who will constitute the first stage of settlement. KKL-JNF will also develop adjacent green areas, with the help of its friends in Spain and Australia, and with the help of its Friends in Mexico, it will plant trees in the community’s environs.
The community is designed to comprise 2,500 housing units over an area of 4,500 dunam (approx 1,125 acres), and residents are scheduled to move into the first neighborhood at the end of 2015. The synagogue and community center have already been built, thanks to a donation from Robert and Shirley Levitt.
“People have been quick to declare that Zionism and KKL-JNF are ancient history, and to tell us that young people are no longer interested in settling the Negev. But all these gloomy predictions have been proved wrong,” said Roni Palmer, CEO of the Or settlement movement. “The Negev and the Galilee constitute 70% of our land, and 100% of our future. Together we shall continue to build the state.”
Avner Ben Gera, the Mayor of Meitar, the nearby settlement under whose aegis Carmit is being founded, recalled in his speech the vision of David Ben Gurion: “All these years we’ve talked about making the desert bloom and settling the Negev, and now here we are busily founding new communities in this part of country.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin met the ambassadors at Carmit and told them, “There’s nothing better than seeing for yourselves, so that you can tell the world what’s really happening here.” He added with a smile: “Where public diplomacy is concerned, the truth, too, is an option worth considering, and it’s by no means the worst option available.”
Efi Stenzler told those present something of KKL-JNF’s activities in the Negev as a green-oriented Zionist organization involved in planting trees in the desert, establishing parks and recreation areas and developing water resources and agriculture. “KKL-JNF’s expertise in these fields is of help to many other countries throughout the world,” he told the ambassadors. While the speeches were in progress, the heavy-duty bulldozer could be observed through the windows of the hall as it doggedly continued to operate. It takes more than words to establish a new community, and work does not stop for a moment. Before leaving Carmit, the guests planted an olive tree together. This tree will grow, the community will develop, and before long, its residents will be able to enjoy its fruit.
Beersheva River Park Bridge lit up at night. Photo: Yoav Devir
Those who visit Beersheba River Park find it hard to believe that until just a few years ago, this area was the city’s neglected backyard and the site of a polluted rubbish dump. Today it is a beautiful park with well-tended lawns, impressive landscaping and attractive promenades. Development is carried out in conjunction with of KKL-JNF’s Friends in Canada, Germany andSwitzerland.
This strip of parkland occupies an area of 4,500 dunam (around 1,125 acres) for a length of eight kilometers between Tel Beersheba and B’er Avraham (“Abraham’s Well”). The site includes an open-air amphitheater with room to seat 12,000 people. Work on Israel’s largest artificial lake is now in progress at the site; when completed, it will extend over an area of 80 dunam (some 20 acres) and will be surrounded by restaurants, cafés and recreational areas that have yet to be built. All the water in the park is purified effluent from the reservoirs established in the region by KKL-JNF.
Plans for the future include a botanical garden of desert plants, a sports center and an amusement park. The park area includes archeological and heritage sites such as ancient wells, a Turkish railway bridge and the Beit Eshel scenic lookout. “The park has changed the city’s image and the leisure habits of residents of both Beersheba and the Negev,” declared KKL-JNF’s Anat Gold.
Ilan Peretz, CEO of the Beersheba River Authority, presented the development plans, which include the construction of ten bridges over the river to link the park to the city’s different neighborhoods. At present the river is dry for most of the year, but future plans include filling it with water.
“I take part in a variety of KKL-JNF events in the USA, and it’s amazing to see the results of our activities abroad as they come to fruition here in the Negev,” said Opher Aviran, Israel’s consul in Atlanta. “People overseas are unaware of KKL-JNF’s investment in the Bedouin sector, and it’s important to bring these activities to the attention of the public.”