Imagine a month of seder nights, all of them spent alone at home rather than embraced by the warmth of family or friends. For Muslims, that’s what Ramadan is like this year, in the face of COVID-19. Normally, during this holy month, the fast begins daily as dawn breaks after a festive meal is shared with the extended family. This year, Muslim religious leaders have told the faithful to keep their distance and enjoy the Iftar meal in isolation.
For the roughly 90,000 residents of the Bedouin villages of Israel’s Negev, the feeling of being on their own is a familiar one, certainly since the start of the coronavirus crisis. While all Israelis have had to accommodate themselves to the burdensome restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus, for the residents of the Bedouin “dispersion” – as the 35 “unrecognized” villages are sometimes referred to – the crisis has meant facing a whole series of protective measures they can’t begin to comply with. And with the start of Ramadan last Thursday evening, the challenge will become even more difficult.
About 40 percent of the Negev Bedouin live in the villages, 35 of which are not recognized by the state, and another 11 of which had their status normalized two decades ago. (The majority of the Bedouin, some 150,000, live in seven urban townships established for them by the state.) Left largely to fend for themselves by the government and the medical establishment, the residents of the unrecognized villages Bedouin, with the help of a number of private bodies and friends, have organized to look after their own needs.
The nerve center of the Bedouin coronavirus response is a voluntary “situation room” in the village of Abu Talul, set up by the Council of Unrecognized Villages in early March. Despite its name, the council is a voluntary organization, not a governing body, since the 35 unrecognized villages lack legal status, along with electricity, running water, waste disposal or paved roads. The seven towns, which include Rahat and Lakiya, have their own set of social and economic problems, but they do have most of the minimal conditions that are absent from the villages.
When I spoke in mid-April with Ma’egel Al Huashla, a longtime volunteer for the council, he noted that to date, all of the food and supplies they were distributing to local residents was donated by private organizations. These include such Israeli NGOs as Sikkuy and AJEEC (the Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation), as well as individual Jews and Arabs from around the country. The Islamic Movement’s relief organization Al-Irateh ’48 also has a situation tent set up at Abu Talul, and is involved in all aspects of assistance.
According to Huashla, the situation room keeps track of 11,500 families, “60 to 70 percent of them living under the poverty line.” Representatives of the Home Front Command have visited and promised that government assistance would be forthcoming, but he was still waiting for it to show up when we spoke. The state also promised to set up three or four drive-thru coronavirus testing stations at intersections around the area, but Huashla commented that “that’s much too late.”
Could be like Bnei Brak
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Fortunately, the incidence of infection has been very low, one of the few advantages that the isolation of desert life give these residents over the general population. According to Dr. Naim Abu Freha, who heads the Association of Arab Physicians in the Negev, only 28 had tested positive as of mid-April, with no deaths. At the same, he warns, if and when the disease does arrive in a village, “it will be like Bnei Brak,” where inadequate isolation and distancing in the early weeks of the crisis led to a rapid spread of infection through the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
That moment could well arrive in the coming weeks, since despite the remoteness of the villages, those who continue to be employed often have to leave their villages to work, at hospitals, senior residences, or supermarkets, in cities like Be’er Sheva and Dimona. Those are ideal venues for picking up the virus. As soon as someone unknowingly returns home from work with the virus, the spread could be quick and devastating.
In normal times, the constant threat hanging over residents of the unrecognized villages is that of house demolitions, since by definition, any and all construction is illegal in the eyes of the state. In fact, demolition orders have risen dramatically in recent years, with more than 2,300 in 2018, about one-quarter of them for residences. (Frequently, the residents themselves carry out the work, because if the state sends in a wrecking crew, the bill goes to the offender.)
Ongoing legal disputes with the state also mean that very few Bedouin actually have the right to farm the land, either, whether with crops or by sheep- or goat-herding.
Even after they were told to stay at home, their homes were not necessarily safe. Bulldozers continued to plow under Bedouin shacks until mid-March. During that same period, more than 2,000 dunams (nearly 500 acres) of fields being harvested in the villages of Tel al-Arad and Tel al-Malah were destroyed by the state.
Isolation proves impossible
On March 19, a coalition of more than a dozen human-rights groups wrote to the Justice Ministry requesting an end to the enforcement at least as long as the medical crisis continued. In its response to the letter, the ministry agreed to a moratorium on destruction of existing homes, but warned that it would not tolerate Bedouin who “exploited the emergency situation” to undertake new construction. They did not acknowledge the request to stop destruction of crops during the spring harvest. And livestock farmers continue to get fines for grazing their animals in the region.
The homes that the state considers such a threat to its authority are the most rudimentary and crowded of structures. According to Attia Asalam, the chairman of the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, the average Bedouin family has six children, with all them often living in a single room. That makes social distancing next to impossible. According to Dr. Abu Freha, “It’s just not possible to isolate people.”
In any event, for people to undertake isolation, or any of the other hygienic measures we have been asked to practice, such as wearing face masks, they need to be aware of the medical threat they face. In the Jewish sector, between almost nonstop media coverage of every imaginable aspect of the virus situation, official messaging, and social media discussions, it would be difficult to remain oblivious to the situation, of the measures called for by the health authorities, or of the assistance and services available to help people get through this period. Not so among the Bedouin.
For one, most families in the villages lack internet service at home, and although most have smartphones, 4G coverage doesn’t extend to some of the more remote villages. Electricity is generated by solar panels, so recharging one’s phone is not always straightforward. Proper sanitation is also a challenge when you lack running water or sewerage.
Mansour Nasara, an expert on Bedouin history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, notes that there are some 50,000 Bedouin schoolchildren who do not have access to online learning, “the majority of whom lack computers.” Ibrahim al-Hawashleh, head of the Neve Midbar regional council, said that the council’s education department had compiled workbooks for some grades, to take the place of online learning. Still, he noted, “with schools not in session, many of the kids go out with their families to pasture with their flocks, which makes it harder for us to reach them.”
It gets worse. In a community where it’s the women who run the home and manage the children, some 75 percent of Bedouin women over the age of 35 are unable to read or write, according to Hanan Alsana, a Bedouin feminist activist and lawyer. That is the legacy of the fact that until the 1990s, the state was not required to provide transport to school, so that many Bedouin children did not get an education. Of the explanatory information in video or audio form, too little of it is in Arabic, and when it is, it is not always culturally appropriate.
No elevators please
For example, says Yeela Raanan, a longtime activist who volunteers with the Council of Unrecognized Villages, a clip was prepared “in Arabic with a person dressed in business clothes entering an elevator and pressing the buttons,” an action we all know is to be avoided. But, she explains, for the Bedouin, “Elevators aren’t part of their lives. What is part of their lives is the ‘shig,’ the tent where the Bedouin men meet. They all shake hands. If you are a man, it’s difficult not to shake a hand that is outstretched, you can cause serious offense.”
Raanan notes that it’s not especially difficult to produce a culturally appropriate clip: She herself was involved in producing a short clip in Arabic that provided a number to call for help in filling out the online forms that need to be submitted to the National Insurance Institute to register for unemployment insurance. (That service is being offered by the organization Rabbis for Human Rights.)
The geographical remoteness of the unrecognized villages is also an obstacle to Bedouin taking advantage of assistance programs. The villages lack streets and addresses, so that residents cannot be located by Waze. Generally, they pick up their mail at the closest post office, which also serves as a bank for many in the community. But in the days of social distancing, people are being asked to keep away from the post offices, which is why the National Insurance Institute has begun sending out debit cards loaded with people’s child-welfare allocations. Even those who have a way of receiving the cards are hard-pressed to use them, since the villages are not serviced by cash machines.
As might be expected, the extraordinary situation also exacerbates mental-health issues. Dr. Lama Abo Ajaj is a psychiatrist in the mental-health clinic for children and adolescents at Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva. She notes that for children with “syndromes, attention disorders, autism – children who need order and routine in their lives,” this is a particularly difficult period.
Today, she is unable to receive patients at her clinic, and so is limited to phone consultations. Abo Ajaj says that for her as well, the situation is unsettling for her as well. “I am taking calls from people I have never met, and I have to deal with the#m on the phone. I generally try not to prescribe anxiety medication, but now I find I am giving out more.” The lack of physical contact, she says, makes it much harder to do her work with young people. “We want to play with the children, to experience the warmth, see their faces. This is completely new. I don’t know if I can call it treatment – or just ‘support.’”
Tal Avrech, of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, notes that during the two years she has worked with the Bedouin of the unrecognized villages, she has been impressed with their “resilience and their steadfastness,” despite their difficult physical conditions and the fact that the authorities generally take an adversarial stance toward them. In my telephone interviews with a variety of figures in the community, I too noted a positivity and a lack of bitterness.
The religious leadership has played a constructive role in responding to the situation. All of the mosques in Israel have been closed since mid-March, with the muezzins continuing to call the faithful to prayer, only at home. Ramadan celebrations have been cancelled, and the Hajj to Mecca, which would have begun at the end of July, is expected to be postponed.
Abu Freha, a gastroenterologist and a member of the Bedouin community, says that, “People are taking it with understanding. If the tradition is to eat with others – we tell people it’s very dangerous, and we look for other solutions.” For example, he says, “If you want to feed people, prepare the food and send it to them. This is a way to avoid crowding.”
Waleed Alhawashla, who heads the Islamic Movement’s emergency situation room in Abu Talul, said that Islam “places preservation of human life above all other considerations,” so that none of these decisions should be surprising. He also stressed that the motto of the movement’s relief organization, Al Irate ’48, “is to help everyone. We also offered to provide help to Bnei Brak.”
In the Negev, the movement’s principal effort has been directed to helping families under the poverty line, whose numbers, said Alhawashla, have risen by 20 to 23 percent since the start of the crisis. “We have delivered 4,000 relief packages,” including food staples and items like face masks and alcogel.
Asked if he believed that Israeli society might become more sympathetic to the Bedouin when the emergency situation ends, Ibrahim Al Hawashleh of Neve Midbar council expressed his sense that the current period is “an opportunity for us all to do heshbon nefesh” – a personal accounting. “We have all been so busy, without time to think about things. I see this [hiatus] as a positive thing. We are all people, we are all in it together, all humanity. We need to help, rather than to dominate, one another.”