Bedouin in Remote Negev Villages Fend for Themselves During COVID-19 Pandemic

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.

A view of the unrecognized village of ʿAtīr, southern Israel.Amal Abu al-Qin / Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality

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