Student internship: Kiera Lewis, Politics '11

As an intern for a Bedouin women’s organization in the desert, I’ve come to recognize heaps of plastic scraps and bottles in every valley, children without shoes, and livestock maintained in driveways, as part of a narrative of a people forcibly settled just two generations ago, not yet adapted to city life.

Amerat Al-Sahara, (Princess of the Desert) was founded by one woman, among hundreds of women suffering under the pretense of tradition; rituals exacerbated by the conflict. The main issues here for Bedouin women arise out of the dialectic of identity.

Technically, the Negev is under the control of Israel, yet upon first impression one finds that there are forty-five villages, “unrecognized” by the Government, outside of the development townships that were created to “collect”1 the Bedouin. Unrecognized villages are not Israeli insofar as the Government is not required to provide a police force, hospitals, electricity, running water, or legal housing. All housing in these villages is illegal and therefore subject to demolition when necessary.

This is not to say that these villages should stay intact. In fact the Government gave these people the opportunity to live in one of the seven townships, but these Bedouin claim it is their homeland and refuse to settle elsewhere. For this reason they will remain unrecognized unless they can meet the legal living standards of one of the townships. Over the last few weeks, I have been briefed on the status of Bedouins and their communities in the Negev Desert and the issues of contention.

Lack of basic social services is only one contentious issue. How can a person with an Israeli passport not receive basic social services in their community?

Today a pregnant woman was found dead in the desert, near Rahat. As my director Muna told me what happened we shared a knowing stare. Honor killings, a crime that is hard to punish because of its detailed trail of lies, is a reality in the Negev. Amerat of the Desert, English and Arabic name, deals with incidents like this. Mainly it is just Muna Al-Habanen, the director, who has put women into hiding before because of this nightmarish reality in Bedouin communities. If a woman is violated, becomes pregnant, or even loses her virginity before marriage, sometimes a male member of the family will attempt to save the “family honor” by ending her life in secrecy. I’ve been told the main methods are poisons---detergents, acids, pills---leaving few fingerprints and an alibi. Israeli law doesn’t seem to have jurisdiction over these incidents either. It’s a very real issue that rarely ends in prosecution or deep investigation. Some of the other issues confronted by women here include forced marriage, denial of education, and polygamy---which also is illegal under Israeli Law. A concern for the Israeli Government is whether imposing such laws on Bedouin community will ignite backlash. For this reason and a festoon of others, the Negev is virtually lawless, controlled by ad hoc government rule as much as cultural more.

Writing about the state of Israel involves studying one of the more challenging polemics of our time. A woman in Jerusalem put it this way, “Those who come to Israel for a day write a book. Those who come for a week, write an article. And people who stay for longer don’t write anything.” That is to say, the political, religious and social schema here is such that one cannot decipher where the legal parameters end and religious convictions act as law. Sieving to find “truth” is moot. Truth is relative. Some of the complexities concerning the Bedouin population here are bred because of the ambiguity of identity. Israeli or Palestinian? Full citizens or Resident Aliens? Identity, though, should not determine human rights.