Kids at Israeli Bedouin School Are Learning How to Spend the Day Without Water

The school is the only one in Israel that lacks a regular water supply, and the students wait every day for tankers to show up – which they often don’t, or come half empty

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The Bedouin school in the village of Tel Arad in the northern Negev, December 2020.
The Bedouin school in the village of Tel Arad in the northern Negev, December 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

The Bedouin school at Tel Arad in the south is the only one in Israel that receives its water from tankers. One day last week the children had to wait for the truck – the school day had begun without the kids having the chance to take a drink, wash their hands or flush a toilet.

According to parents, the tanker arrived two hours later. Other times, they say, it doesn’t arrive at all or doesn’t bring enough water.

The parents’ attempts to question the driver or his company were to no avail. The Education Ministry, ultimately responsible for the issue, declined to comment to Haaretz or provide details on the dropout rates of Bedouin students.

Murals at the school show a better world – a wide river with boats, green trees and plush lawns. The school and its preschools cater to 650 kids from the unrecognized village of Tel Arad, which lies five miles from the city of Arad. Some 2,500 Bedouin live in the village, on both sides of Route 80, the main highway in the area.

The school, a row of neglected classrooms, was built in the early ‘90s but was never hooked up to the country’s water grid, even though the area’s development plan from 2004 includes this option. Instead, the Education Ministry preferred to link the school up to the water supply of a local resident, transferring payment for water usage to the regional council, which is also responsible for education in the area’s unrecognized villages.

This pirate-like arrangement continued for at least 15 years, ending last year. A dispute over money between the local resident and the council led to repeated interrutions of the water supply. At the beginning of the school year, parents decided to suspend studies until the ministry found a permanent solution to the problem.

In May, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition with the Be’er Sheba District Court, asking that the school be connected to a proper water system.

The Education Ministry, the regional council and the authority charged with Bedouin affairs did not contest the state’s obligation to provide water to schools. But each party tried to fob responsibility  onto the others, or argue that effecting this basic right was a long process.

Judge Shlomo Friedlander was unimpressed. “Neither of these arguments are tenable,” he wrote, calling on the ministry to immediately solve the problem.

In court, the state argued that a water tanker was an expensive solution, 9,000 shekels ($2,800) a day, so it could only be used intermittently – though it turned out that a tanker can be used every day.

Early in the year, the tanker arrived every day. “But for a long time there have been days with no water,” says Adnan al-Nabari, chairman of the school’s parents’ committee.

“Sometimes the tanker arrives late or only half-full. By the time it returns full, school is over. So another day goes by without water, and I have to convince my young daughter that the next day she’ll be able to wash her hands there. It mainly affects the girls.”

Signs at the front of the school.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

According to Nabari, no one warns the school or parents when there are problems with the tanker. “There's no one to talk to, not the driver or the company he works for,” Nabari says. “Even in Third World countries you don’t have this situation.”

A letter in August from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to the  Education Ministry’s southern division stressed the need to hook up schools to the water grid and not rely on tankers even as a temporary solution. No answer has been received yet.

As attorney Sana Ibn Bari of ACRI puts it, “There is no reason the authorities don’t use the coronavirus period for laying down a pipeline, before the school resumes its normal operations”

An official at one of the entities handling the case adds: “There is no other instance of water-supply problems. Once the right to water is established, cost is no longer an issue. The government managed to appoint a water resources minister but failed to supply water to an elementary school.”

Unpaved road

A few miles from Arad there is another unrecognized Bedouin village, Al-Fura. In 2005, following a High Court petition by the Adalah rights group, the state committed to pave, “within a month or two,” an access road to the village. This never happened.

And in 2009, as part of a five-year plan for paving access roads to unrecognized villages, the government approved the paving of this road. Responsibility went to the Transportation Ministry.

More than 11 years later the project has not been completed. A 500-meter section in the middle of the winding road remains unpaved. The school complex includes preschools, two elementary schools and a high school. Some 2,500 children attend these institutions.

In addition to safety issues, the unpaved road means that there is no public transportation for the village’s 5,000 residents. Further along, on Route 31, the first buildings of Arad, a city of more than 25,000 people, are visible.

“No one is maintaining this road or promising to finish paving it,” says an Al-Fura resident who only provided his first name, Ahmed. “The unpaved section is a safety hazard. On rainy days there’s a risk of cars skidding or overturning.”

Adnan al-Nabari, chairman of the school's parents' committee.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Other people say the Transportation Ministry’s infrastructure division transferred their complaint to Netivei Israel, the national transportation infrastructure company, but since this authority deals with intercity roads, it considered the project completed after the main road was upgraded a few years ago.

A Transportation Ministry official told Haaretz that the road wasn’t completed due to “objections and ownership demands on the land along the planned route,” and that the Al-Kasom Regional Council was responsible for “lifting the obstacles.” Only later, he said, “will the ministry be able to adjust the route for public transportation.”

The Bedouin-controlled council was surprised by the answer. “We provide only education and social services to Al-Fura and are not allowed to address infrastructure matters,” an official said. “The Transportation Ministry is trying to shift responsibility onto us.”

Ella Gil, an official at the nongovernmental organization Sikkuy, heads a project to advance equality in the Negev. She says that along 400 meters at the entrance to the village “there is no problem of ownership demands or opposition from residents.”

Similar to the water problem at Tel Arad, this time too it seems the various authorities are busy passing the buck. As Gil puts it, based on the district court ruling, “the Transportation Ministry bears responsibility for paving roads and access to public transportation.”

But the nearest bus stop is 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Al-Fura. The residents say this means problems getting to work, school and university, and in receiving medical treatment or just running errands in the city nearby. And women suffer from it more than men.

“It's not possible to accept a situation in which thousands are cut off from public transportation, especially when it involves a road whose paving is almost complete. And this situation has existed for years,” Sikkuy wrote to the ministry in December 2019. The group is still waiting for an official response from the ministry, which says it has “responded to all requests on the matter.”

Yeela Raanan, a local activist, wrote: “The lack of bus stops severely impedes the residents of the villages, and as a result the entire Negev. After more than 70 years, the time has come to give these citizens, too, access to public transportation.”

Gil adds: “The state is obligated to provide education services to all citizens, including the children of unrecognized villages in the Negev. But the establishment of schools and preschools – which there aren’t enough of – doesn’t serve the goal if it doesn’t include the required infrastructure so that the children can reach school safely and study in proper conditions. Especially during the days of the coronavirus, without infrastructure, there is no education.”

The unrecognized Bedouin village of Tel Arad in the northern Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Soaring dropout rates

Infrastructure problems also contribute to dropouts. According to a recent report by the Knesset Information and Research Center, about 74 percent of 17-year-old Bedouin were registered for the previous school year, compared with 88.5 percent for the overall population. The figures apply to the school system before the coronavirus crisis.

From interviews with Bedouin principals and teachers at a number of schools, the dropout rate may have doubled in recent months – a development that the Education Ministry has been told about, said a source familiar with the situation.

Before the coronavirus crisis, the schools were losing about 10 percent of each age level every year, said someone from a high school that serves Bedouin students from both permanent towns and unrecognized villages.

“Now the connection has been cut completely by at least a third, and about another 15 percent show up once in a while,” he says. “We’re left with about 50 percent who are somehow studying, but they don’t always turn on the camera.”

Some principals have told Education Ministry inspectors that they don’t have a dropout problem, while teachers have spoken about attempts to address the shortage of laptops, a lack of internet infrastructure and inadequate internet packages.

“I begin classes with 10 to 15 students, but at the end of the day I’m left with only one or two,” one teacher says. “I’m not sure that it’s still possible to reach these children and convince them to return to school.”

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