Bedouin Town Rewrites the Rules by Developing Infrastructure and Business

Led by a dynamic PhD chemist, the Negev town of Hura scores high on the socioeconomic scale. 'Instead of whining, we need to see how we change the facts,' he says.

Eyal Toueg

Driving around southern Israel, you can’t help but notice differences between the Jewish and Bedouin towns. The Bedouin towns, recognized and otherwise, have dirt roads, illegal construction, donkeys and horses wandering about. The Jewish towns have paved roads, legal homes, no donkeys and no horses. They do have swimming pools, though.

From 2011 to 2014, according to the group Beterem Safe Kids, 47 children drowned in Israel, half of them Arab — which is way beyond the Arabs’ 20% share of the population. When children who almost drowned are added to the list, the number shoots up to 66%, clear evidence that too many of them don’t know how to swim.

And that, in turn, is because few Arab towns have a swimming pool — probably less than 10 in all Israel. All are in the north, and none are in the Bedouin areas in the south, where 200,000 people live.

So yes, in the absence of pools, Israeli Arabs in general and Bedouin in particular don’t know how to swim. When Bedouin had no access to the sea, that was one thing, but today they have cars, drive to the beach — and drown.

This zero-swimming-pools statistic symbolizes the discrimination against the Negev Bedouin. And they have little access to swimming pools in Jewish towns, whether because of cost or modesty — women and men swim together.

So the state, which seeks to eradicate this inequality, tried to build the first Bedouin pool as part of a modern country club. For purpose it turned to Muhammad Al-Nabari, chairman of the Hura municipal council. Hura is a town east of Be’er Sheva with 18,000 residents.

Eyal Toueg

Nabari is fiercely critical of Bedouin society. “Stop complaining,” he says of his brethren. “Everybody here constantly whines that they’ve been robbed and haven’t been given anything. It’s true, we’ve been screwed all these years. But instead of whining, we need to see how we change the facts.”

This approach by Nabari, who has a PhD in chemistry, has made him a superstar not only in Bedouin society but in local-government circles. He created a robust Bedouin town that ranks a high two out of 10 on the socioeconomic scale, and for once government ministries are lining up to pour money into the town because they know that if one Bedouin local authority will be managed well, it will be Hura. So when the government decided to build a Bedouin pool, it chose Hura.

But a pool did not ensue. The neighbors worried about noise, says Nabari, although he suspects the opposition may have originated with the Islamic Movement, which views swimming pools as immodest.

Thus a pool remained a distant dream for the southern Bedouin until the advent of the nonprofit company PresenTense, which aims to eradicate inequality through business ventures and fund activities in the Negev with the support of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Social Venture Fund and the New Jersey-based Ness Fund.

PresenTense operates a number of “accelerators” — short intensive courses to encourage entrepreneurship. In the past year, it has launched one for Bedouin.

When looking for a venue for the Bedouin accelerator, PresenTense leader Guy Spigelman received a cold shoulder, says Nabari.

“Bedouin are afraid of innovation,” he says. “Every new idea that would bring change deters at first. They objected to women working and now they object to encouraging entrepreneurship.”

He didn’t object, though. “We try to think outside the box. We function like a municipal startup, introducing initiatives that wouldn’t be acceptable in Bedouin society. We have to. The Bedouin are a weakened society with high unemployment rates.”

The Bedouin need work. “We need commerce, high-tech, a Bezeq call center, support for employment of women, and entrepreneurship,” he says. “As shepherds they were independent, but urbanization and modernization left them behind and they lost their confidence. They’re afraid to initiate.” It won’t work for all the Bedouin men to work as bus and truck drivers, he adds.

The five-minute deal

So the first accelerator for Bedouin arose in Hura six months ago. Unlike the accelerator for ultra-Orthodox women, which was instantly flooded with demand, it can’t be said the Bedouin one magnetized the masses. Only 25 people took an interest — and this only after Nabari made the rounds, cajoling. Finally 12 were chosen and nine made it through the three-month entrepreneurship course.

A swimming pool was not one of the initiatives, but one eventually got built thanks to a Be’er Sheva accelerator for social entrepreneurship, which PresenTense operates with a Negev-based community development group called Tor HaMidbar. Social entrepreneurs build businesses that make money but do good.

Some 80 people applied, including Yael Knaani and Arik Peri, certified nurses who share a passion for swimming. Knaani lives in Kramim, a kibbutz near Hura, and as a nurse she knows well of the Bedouin’s inability to swim.

Knaani and Peri brought their vague idea of swimming classes for Bedouin children to PresenTense. They didn’t think for a second that PresenTense would bite, but Spigelman liked the idea. The three met and closed the deal in five minutes.

Eschewing fancy country clubs, the idea touted by Peri and Knaani is nothing more than a pool to teach swimming — just 15 meters long and a meter deep. There are no fun and games in leisure time and no sports — which jettisons the religious opposition. In the winter the water will be heated using solar energy. Hura’s 8,000 schoolchildren now have a chance to learn to swim.

The Hura city council allotted land for the pool near a school. Construction hasn’t started but once it does, given the small size and low costs, it shouldn’t take long. A pool should be ready within six months, Knaani and Peri believe. They won’t be millionaires from it, but they can make a living, they say.

Privatizing the city hotline

The nine Bedouin who completed the business accelerator program in Hura include Salam al-Asem and Talal al-Nabari, both employees of the Hura Economic Company. Their venture belongs to the city and shows something of how Hura operates.

Jewish cities have 106 hotlines. In the Arab community, there are two: in Nazareth and Hura, where the initiative was to expand the hotlines to cover six other Arab towns as well — three of which were actually in the north. Even the local water company hired the hotline to field its calls at night.

To help its burgeoning call center work better, Hura invested in software to manage phone numbers. The software was expensive and its translations into Arabic proved difficult; ultimately the town hired a Jordanian programmer to write contact management software. An Israeli programmer would have cost 20,000 shekels ($5,090) a month; this guy cost them 2,000, the town officials say.

By now they think they have most of the mobile phone numbers of the Negev Bedouin in their system, so they’re planning their next moves — like sales and advertising to Bedouin by text message, and surveying services.

Their success in building the phone-number database led to another business idea. The Arab towns don’t have document management software in Arabic; Saudi Arabia does but it’s horribly expensive. Nabari is now working on developing Arabic software to sell to Israeli Arab towns and Arab countries, while the money would go to the Hura Economic Company.

Violence in the streets

The Israeli government wants to give resources to Bedouin towns but the towns need people who know how to use the resources, says Nabari, pointing out that money allotted for a five-year education plan was never used.

The government computer people know when money is just sitting around and cancel the budget, he adds. Since he knows how to utilize budgets, he winds up withdrawing the money for other towns that don’t.

One budget he took over was meant to create networks of CCTV security cameras to reduce violence in some towns. Most Bedouin towns shrugged and didn’t take the money because of — again — modesty issues. Nabari pounced and got the whole budget —150,000 shekels — to which he added a million shekels (from donations, and by replacing security guards with cameras). Hura now has 87 CCTVs connected to a 24/7 city hotline.

“Almost every weekend we’d have melees involving hundreds of people,” Nabari says. “The police were here all the time. Now these fights have almost entirely disappeared. Break-ins to the school — one year a whole room with computers was emptied one school reported. In one year, 600 cases of violence. Last year there were four.”

Taking it personally somewhat, Nabari adds: “Just the theft of manhole covers cost me 300,000 shekels in the last year no question, Big Brother does his job.”

The cameras even persuaded the Hura post office, where officials were tiring of robbery, not to close down. They also helped the police catch thieves stealing from an ATM. All cars that drive into Hura are photographed, Nabari adds.

Now the town even has a camera drone that hovers over the town and records cases of illegal dumping. The information is handed over to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which catches the perps, fines them and shares the proceeds with Hura.

Why stop with trash? Gangsters demanding protection fees is big business in the town, so Nabari suggests that the drone help local businesses too — by guarding the shops from the air, for a fee. All the profits would go to the municipal company, where the people are already working on their next phase. Hura will raise 2 million shekels, some from donations, and will deploy another 120 cameras operating on fiber-optic infrastructure.

Other towns have shied away from aerial observation mainly because of modesty — they wouldn’t want the drones to shoot pictures of women. Nabari, who had promoted women’s education, is a little sorry about that — 77% of Bedouin students are women, he says, partly because donors want to promote Bedouin women’s rights. But the outcome of women being better educated than men is destabilizing Bedouin society, Nabari says.

He’s all for women’s education, but the men need it too, he adds. And when it comes to the Jewish neighbors, “I don’t believe in coexistence. I believe in partnership,” including agriculture partnerships with nearby towns. In any case, the most important thing is not to sit back and whine, says Nabari. Just get things done.