Two and a half years ago, then interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz participated in the official state recognition ceremony for the Negev Bedouin community of Umm Batin. Last Wednesday, Pines-Paz, as chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee, met in the Abu Basma Regional Council headquarters with representatives of the "scattered" Bedouins. Attorney Amer AbuAssa, who lives in Umm Batin, told him that nothing had changed in the community since that ceremony. "We get our water from a contractor, there's no electricity, no road. I am upset over how crappy my life is."
Pines came to the council in the framework of what could be called a Knesset Interior Committee tour of the backyard of the State of Israel: Gush Katif evacuees in Nitzan, Abu Basma, the local industrial council of Ramat Hovav and Ketziot Prison, where refugees from Darfur are being held. The Abu Basma council has assumed responsibility for the operation of the school system for all the "unrecognized" Bedouin villages. Aram Qalaji, head of the Abu Basma Regional Council, said in an overview that the council has 24 elementary schools (with a total of 18,000 students), but only three high schools (with 600 students). How is that possible? The elementary schools in these villages were established after legal battles, but no high schools were built. Umm Batin, too, still has no high school.
The truth is that when it comes to Bedouin schools, it's not clear that the term "establish" is accurate. Out of the 24 elementary schools, according to the director of the Abu Basma Educational Administration, Hanan Ufata, 21 operate out of mobile structures. Thus, it would seem that when one speaks of Bedouin schools, the operative verb is not "build" but rather "locate."
Where do the students from the 24 elementary schools of the scattered Bedouin disappear to when they reach high-school age? They travel to high schools on permanent Bedouin settlements such as Segev Shalom and Kseifa. The result: an attrition rate of 16 percent between elementary and high school, despite the fact that education is mandatory at this age. One of the main reasons for this is that parents, particularly in the more traditional tribes, do not want their daughters going outside the community for school. Among the Azazma tribe, for example, the dropout rate for girls is higher.
In the two high schools established over the past year in the scattered communities, in Abu Krinat and Al-Hawashla, the attrition rate dropped to zero. It occurred after regional government officials spoke to parents, reporting the establishment of a school close to home and obtaining their agreement to send their daughters. In other words, every additional high school can provide an education and livelihood to dozens of young Bedouin women. The council brings the ORT education network into every high school to provide some of the students with a technical vocation.
Qalaji said he needs to open 10 high schools, but this year only a single new school is planned, in Be'er Hil. According to Qalaji, establishing schools will save money because Abu Basma spends between NIS 50 million and NIS 60 million a year on school transportation, while the cost of operating a high school is just one-tenth of that. In practice, the savings are only partial because transportation is needed even to get to schools that are relatively close to the unrecognized villages.
The treasury is making an exerted effort to increase participation in the country's workforce. Giving Bedouin women more years of education translates into a greater likelihood for them to join the labor market, as well as a reduction in poverty and the birth rate. The Finance Ministry would therefore do well to recognize that there are very few investments that will pay off for the Israeli economy as much as creating high schools for the scattered Bedouin communities and allocating the necessary funds with all due speed.
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