A four-day march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of the plight of unrecognized Bedouin villages and to present a plan to recognize them began on Thursday morning as planned, even though President Reuven Rivlin will not be receiving the marchers in the capital, as they had hoped.
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Although Rivlin had agreed to receive the marchers on Sunday at the President’s Residence, the march’s final destination, it was learned on Wednesday that he will be in Singapore for the funeral of former president Lee Kuan Yew.
Organizers considered postponing the march, but in the end decided to proceed. They will be met by the president's wife, Nehama Rivlin, and will have an official meeting with the president next week.
Some 50 marchers set out in the morning from the unrecognized Negev town of Wadi al-Na’am, the country's largest with some 8,000 residents.
They were due to stop at the Bedouin market in Be’er Sheva before spending the night at the unrecognized village of Al-Arakib, which has been demolished numerous times by the authorities.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, one of the organizers, told Haaretz that he was not concerned about the small turnout.
"Our goal is to send a number of messages to the government and the country as a whole," Odeh said. "In the 21st century, there are people without water and electricity. At night, children in these villages see the lights of the children in the kibbutzim and it shouldn't be like that.
"It's a mark of Cain for all the country's governments."
The objective of the march is to get government recognition of all 46 unrecognized villages in the country, Odeh said.
About 100,000 Bedouin citizens live without basic infrastructure in the unrecognized communities. They are not connected to the national water and electricity grids and lack health services, paved roads and schools. The group plans to submit a plan to recognize the communities, including all the planning criteria for recognition, to the Knesset.
Bedouin leaders object to the government plan, known as the Prawer plan, which would require the relocation of tens of thousands of people.
"These villages account for only four percent of the country's land," Odeh said. "The government doesn't give us many parliamentary options, so we rely on grassroots struggles, like today's march. It is a popular, democratic struggle that will gain strength in the months to come."
Representatives of the unrecognized villages, students and social activists are participating in the march. Salman, a participant from Wadi al-Na’am, said that the importance of the march in his eyes was enabling the residents of the south to see all sides of the Bedouin community.
"I'm participating because I think it's important to put the issue on the country's agenda," Salman said. "Jews live beside Bedouin in the Negev, but never really get to know them. That has to change. We need to change the negative perceptions."
On Friday the marchers will proceed to Beit Jibrin, near Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, where they will spend the night. On Saturday, they will walk to Abu Ghosh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and on Sunday they’ll make their way to the President’s Residence.