The Chemistry Ph.D. With the Formula to Save One of Israel's Poorest Communities

How does a poor Bedouin community become the Negev's pride and hope? Mayor Muhammad al-Nabari started by cleaning up local government and fund-raising in the U.S. Jewish community.

Ofer Waknin

Shortly after Dr. Muhammad al-Nabari took office as mayor of the Bedouin town of Hura, his telephone rang. The caller was the director of the southern district of the Mekorot Water Company, telling the new mayor that the town’s water supply was about to be cut off because of a large unpaid debt. “That was my inaugural present,” al-Nabari laughs. He managed to win a reprieve with a bit of personal charm and a request for a hundred-day grace period. “I never heard from him again,” he says. “And I never got any more phone calls like that, either.”

Nine years later, al-Nabari is still the mayor of Hura, which has changed beyond recognition. “Until a few years ago, if you were to ask people who lived in Hura where they were from, they would give you the name of their tribe. Now, the residents say first of all that they are from Hura. They finally feel proud to say the town’s name,” he says with satisfaction. “I found a council with many chiefs, none of whom provided services to the residents.” In the first days of his term, he fired a quarter of the department heads, including members of his own family, lowered salary costs by a million shekels (almost $300,000) and began an aggressive municipal tax collection program.

The road to Hura passes by other Bedouin communities, which all look the same from the main road — faded and covered with desert dust. Spots of green, which hint at bits of lawn and trees, are still the province of the region’s kibbutzim and moshavim, or small Jewish farming communities. We do not know the way so well, so we turn on the navigation app Waze, which guides us to the town. At the entrance, we call al-Nabari’s office to ask for directions. “Turn right at the statue of the big finjan," Ghadir Hani of the mayor’s office explains, referring to the traditional Arabic coffee pot. As we look around for the statue, the voice from Waze, which we had forgotten to turn off, keeps trying to direct us. It seems to know the streets around here, which only sounds like a trivial detail. The streets in most of the nearby communities are not even named, much less catalogued in mapping software. Hura has not only street names, but also addresses, street lamps, traffic lights and traffic islands. There are even isolated bits of gardens and landscaping. These basic services, which are standard fare for almost all the Jewish areas in Israel, are much less common in Bedouin communities in the Negev desert.

Hura is one of the poorest communities in Israel. About 45 percent of its salaried employees earn less than minimum wage, and its unemployment rate is high (although the official statistic is 21 percent, the actual rate is much higher). Still, under al-Nabari’s leadership, it has become a success story and a model how to properly manage local government, not only in the Bedouin sector but in the Jewish one as well. Among the sands and dirt roads is a bustling town with public buildings, a community center that provides activities for children, a public library and a high school that teaches science to gifted students. According to the Interior Ministry, in 2012, the council succeeded in collecting 78 percent of the residents’ municipal tax debt — a much higher percentage than is conventional in the Arab towns and one that approaches the national average of 89 percent. But according to the local council’s statistics, roughly 93 percent of the town’s households pay municipal tax, and the town’s financial situation has improved considerably. “Financially speaking, the municipal tax represents a small change,” al-Nabari says. “[It's] more important from a cultural perspective.”

Investing in excellence among the Bedouin

Al-Nabari, who has spent most of his life in Hura, decided at the age of 16 that he had no future in the Negev. He found a high school in the predominantly Arab Triangle Area in central Israel and moved north to attend it. After he graduated, he studied chemistry at Hebrew University, and later on continued his studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev eventually earning a doctorate in organic chemistry. His family’s pride knew no bounds when he began working at Perrigo Pharmaceuticals, where he headed a research and development team and was one of only two Bedouin employed by the company.

Why did he leave such a comfortable job? “The truth is that I never wanted the job,” he says. “I never cut myself off from my identity as a Bedouin. At the time, I was living in the dispersed Bedouin community near Hura and ran a non-profit group that encouraged higher education among the Bedouin population." The group was supported by several agencies, including the Islamic Movement, whose slate he ran on for mayor of Hura. "I never believed I would get elected. I went on leave from Perrigo just a month before the elections.”

We drive with him along a curvy road that leads to the Ahad High School for Science, which he established especially for gifted students, four years ago. It is a source of great pride for the Hura mayor. Until it was established, the Negev had no school for gifted Bedouin students. We watch as four girls, each wearing a head covering, go into the small office of the principal, Musa Abu Ghanem. They smile shyly as the principal tells us about the school. One of the girls says that she dreams of being a physician or a brain surgeon, while another says she wants to be an engineer.

The Ahad High School for Science accepts gifted Bedouin students from every community in the Negev on condition that they can pay tuition of up to 3,000 shekels ($870) a year. al-Nabari says that roughly one-third of the pupils receive scholarships. Last year, the school received the first and second place prize in an international physics competition out of 400 schools in 60 countries, and roughly 96 percent of the students are eligible for the matriculation examinations — a rate that is among the highest in Israel.

Although more than 70 percent of Hura’s residents have no matriculation certificate and only 6.5 percent have a college degree, al-Nabari is determined to change that. 62 percent of the students in Hura are eligible for a matriculation certificate today — a higher rate than nationally. According to the local council’s statistics, when al-Nabari took office, only three to four percent of Hura’s students went on to college after high school, while now roughly 13 percent of high school graduates go on to college.

“I have told my principals to be responsible for the students even after they graduate,” al-Nabari says. “We check to see how many of them go on to college and careers.” There has been a dramatic change in the primary schools as well: Three schools in town are ranked in the two highest deciles of student achievement in the national standardized tests, though three middle schools were ranked in the lowest three deciles. Like the gifted students, the special-needs ones among the Negev’s Bedouin had no solution either. Autistic children had a particularly difficult time, since they had no appropriate school setting at all. al-Nabari took up the challenge, and now the beautiful and well-kept Alufa School (the name means “loyalty”) in the center of town has 74 students from all over the Negev.

'A solution for all the Arabs'

Hura is 15 kilometers away from Omer, one of the three wealthiest communities in Israel (the other two are Savyon and Kfar Shmaryahu). If there were ever a sure recipe for hostility, envy and tension between the two communities, that would be it. But contrary to all expectations, the mayors of Omer and Hura have a deep friendship. “When I took office, I had no experience in the field, and I wanted to learn how to manage projects. I needed a bit of direction at first,” al-Nabari says. “So I contacted Pini Badash, the mayor of Omer.”

And their friendship is strong also despite the tense relationship between Badash and the Bedouin community — which includes some harsh statements by Badash (His “I will close the post office in Omer because the Bedouin are polluting the area” was just one of them) and the torching of Badash’s private plane by a Bedouin.

“Sometimes he calls me and I don’t notice, so he sends me a text message: ‘Are you willing to reply to Arabs already?’” Badash says with a smile. “Once, he saw that the flag we had put over the water tower in Omer was torn, and he wrote to me that it wasn’t respectful that the flag of Israel was torn. We’ve had the opportunity to tour together in the field. He enjoys off-road vehicle tours, like I do. It’s a shame we can’t make copies him in the Negev, because then everything would look different. Hura has leaped a hundred years ahead thanks to him. I’m sure that in another five years, it will be a completely different place — like Jewish communities. Muhammad has started a revolution.”

Five years after asking Badash for advice and guidance, al-Nabari has come full circle. Recently, he was chosen to serve as one of the monitors in an Interior Ministry program for new mayors. When we ask what advice he gives to them, he says right away: “The problem with many mayors is that they are mired in ongoing, day-to-day management. I don’t deal with that at all. I only deal with long-term projects. I’ve appointed people to deal with the day-to-day matters; that’s their job. Take me, for example. Just last November I went to Jerusalem 18 times, and tomorrow I’m flying out on a fund-raising trip in the United States. If you’re not dynamic, you won’t get budgets and you won’t move ahead.”

Fund-raising from Zionist American Jews

Despite all the positive developments, Hura still suffers from poverty, unemployment and violence. In recent years, seven murders motivated by tribal blood-feuds have taken place in Hura and in the region. It seems that the mayor has an easier time dealing with the high unemployment rate than he does with the tribal conflicts. “We have a serious unemployment problem,” he admits. “Half the residents here are unemployed, and 80 percent of those unemployed are women. But I’m not giving up. We’ve mapped out everyone who has a job in town. I know where workers are needed, and we do training programs according to the demand on the ground.”

Al-Nabari has started economic cooperation with government ministries and nearby Jewish communities. “I don’t believe in a story of co-existence because co-existence sharpens the conflict,” he says. “I believe in better economic, cultural and social cooperation. We have joint projects with Omer, Be’er Sheva and nearby kibbutzim.” One of the most ambitious projects that al-Nabari is working on is Wadi Attir, an initiative of Hura and Michael Ben-Eli’s Sustainability Laboratories, together with the Jewish National Fund, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Economic Development. Wadi Attir will include a 300-dunam agricultural complex with a visitors center, the production of organic dairy products from sheep and goats, solar energy production and various agricultural projects. The farm will serve as a unique global model of sustainable development in an arid desert region, and one of its goals will be to develop the local economy and provide jobs for the residents of Hura and the surrounding area. “When I proposed the project to the Interior Ministry, they told me it was a crazy idea. We invested money and did fund-raising, and now the government has decided to provide 50 percent of the project’s budget.”

But far from resting on his laurels, al-Nabari has already moved on to his next dream. “We’re sitting on Route 31 — the main route to the Dead Sea. This is a tourist route, but the Bedouin get no benefit from it. Together with the Al-Kasom Regional Council, I plan to establish a colorful tourist commercial zone, combined with archaeological sites in the area, that will expose people to Bedouin society. We have already received funds from government ministries for specific planning, and we are working intensively so that we will be able to start construction in two years. The idea is that Hura will become a tourism center, and the municipal taxes paid by businesses will increase. It’s going to happen.”

Some of the budgets for Hura’s projects come from unexpected sources: Jewish donors from abroad — mostly from Jewish foundations in the United States and Jewish families — whom al-Nabari brought on board during his fund-raising trips. Al-Nabari also raises money for regional projects via the fund-raising branches of the Jewish National Fund in the United States and the United Kingdom. “These relationships were built over many years. We work with more than 25 foundations. Last year, our donations totaled more than $1.5 million.”

How does the mayor of a Bedouin town — a member of the Islamic Movement — raise funds from Zionist Jewish donors abroad?

“They want what’s best for the country. Many Jewish organizations all over the world feel that narrowing gaps is good for the country, and that issue is on their agenda. But I wasn’t the first person to think of that. Many groups donate to local Bedouin non-profit organizations, but I’m the Arab community’s biggest fund-raiser,” he says with a laugh.

Do you feel that the revolution you’ve started in Hura has made any change in the prejudices Jews have regarding the Bedouin?

“Unfortunately, there are many people in our sector who help that prejudice to develop and remain. We, too, have a responsibility for the way we are perceived and for the way we behave.”

You speak often about cooperation with government ministries. Do you have any complaints about the way the state treats the Bedouin communities?

“I have lots of complaints, but if you focus on the discourse about the development towns — ‘They screwed me over; they discriminated against me’ — then you’ll stay with the problems and have no solutions. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and then ask for what we need from the state. It’s very easy to put the blame on others, but if we do our jobs and then fight for what we need from the government, then gradually the situation will improve.”

Ofer Vaknin
Ofer Vaknin
Ofer Vaknin