Making the Desert Bloom. February 1, 2003.

Since 1948, with the creation of the State of Israel, the Israeli government, as well as its people, have maintained that they have brought “civilization” to the Holy Land, best summarized in their axiom that Israel has “made the desert bloom.” Of course such a statement denies the fact that much “civilization” existed in this small piece of land for long before 1948, or indeed the 20th century. The city of Jericho (in the Palestinian Territories) for example is globally accepted as the city that has had the longest consecutive inhabitation, dating back twelve thousand years. Never mind the various forms of civilizations that have existed here ranging from the Philistines to the Romans, from the Crusaders to the Ottomans, from the British to the “indigenous” Palestinians. Putting aside the historical facts for a moment, let us instead look at the current landscape.

To begin with much of the area that one may call the Holy Land (the borders of Israel, Palestine, the Palestinian Territories, or whatever contested name one may which to call the area) is not in fact a desert but is quite varied, ranging from mountains and lush green hills to sandy shores along the Mediterranean, and indeed to rugged mountainous deserts. There is much natural greenery, such as in the Jordan Valley where many Palestinians still tend to their land together with their whole families, displaying vivid colors for travelers along the main highway: tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, lemons, bananas, persimmons, dates, etc. And there is no denying the verdure of the many olive groves and vine yards all around the West Bank and the Northern parts of Israel. Of course the vastness and emptiness of the Negev desert to the South is stunning. But blooming? Not so much, unless you count military installations, nuclear stations and prisons as agricultural wonders. There are farms and plantations in the South, dispersed around the city of Be’er Sheva, surrounded by electric fences. But they do not compare to the natural growth of the various valleys farther North.

Be’er Sheva, in the Northern part of the Negev desert, is the fastest growing Israeli city. It’s quite ugly and lacks any sense of style. A huge expanse of apartment buildings and homes, with dust flying around in the wind, a few palm trees planted along the main streets and sings in Hebrew and Russian – reflecting the fact that a lot of the city’s residents are new immigrants from Russia. Otherwise Be’er Sheva looks more like a ghost-town, possessing a run-down old city center and a usually empty Bedouin market, except for on Thursdays.

The Bedouins are perhaps the most interesting aspect of life in the Negev, their status a great reflection of the mythical lies Israel sells of itself to the outside world. Historically nomadic tribes, the Bedouins have inhabited various parts of this land for centuries, and contrary to common belief are not always on the move. In current day Israel they are mostly gathered in communities in the Negev desert and in the area known as the Galilee, in areas deemed “illegal” by the Israeli government. One can easily say that the Bedouins are the forgotten inhabitants of the Holy Land. With international attention focused to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people seldom recognize the complexities and varieties of people that live here. Even when talking about Israel itself, how often do we hear of its diverse population of Western and Eastern Jews, of fundamentally religious and secular Jews? Likewise with the Palestinian population, we tend to lump-sum them and not recognize the many differences they possess: Muslim and Christian, black and white, refugees and long-time inhabitants, poor and elite. While we may seldom know of the differences that exist within the two main groups taking up our space in the news, it’s extremely rare to hear about the Bedouins.

Not only are they forgotten by those outside, but they are very much a blind sore to the Israeli government as well, treating them as if non-existent with absolutely no citizen or human rights. The Bedouin are considered ethnically Arab (although that may not be entirely accurate) and are usually Muslim in their religious affiliation. They live on the outskirts of towns like Be’er Sheva and in empty areas of the deserts and mountains. Their communities are not recognized by the State of Israel, never appearing on any maps, let alone classified as "existing" in government headquarters. Given that their “towns” are non-existent and illegal, they are not provided with any of the basic amenities of civic life: they have no roads, they have no electricity, and they have no running water. Instead they often live on the sides of highways, where their steps have formed paths, making fires to stay warm and to light their lives and must travel far to get any water. They live in shacks, made of corrugated steel, ash and blankets, with nothing resembling doors or windows. Ironically one of the communities lies right off the highway between Be’er Sheva and Eilat to the South, the only street sign around reads “Electricity Company” turning off into a dirt path that leads to a giant, industrial-looking area, barricaded by electric fences and barbed wire, supplying the surrounding Israeli towns and cities with electricity. Of course there is no electricity in the shacks of the Bedouins that live literally a stone’s throw away from the fence.

The Bedouins sustain themselves by relying on their flocks of sheep, for their milk, their meat, their blankets and a lot of their trade. Their sheep roam around in these off-limits areas, increasingly taken over by industrial complexes, progressively having less and less space (in what is seemingly an endless desert) to wander. It is of no surprise that they lose their sheep by oncoming traffic, a fact of life where the modern meets the rural. However the Bedouins lose most of their sheep because of Israeli government policies to kill any trespassing animals, or confiscating them only to be returned by extremely large fines impossible for them to pay. But the Bedouins – or their sheep – have much choice in the matter, their communities – and people – are unrecognized, they are forbidden to build real homes and districts, they are not given any civil rights such as an ID to prove their existence and somehow manage to move elsewhere and rent or build a place of their own, their areas are increasingly encroached by blocked-off government areas, leaving them almost no freedom to do anything but shepherd their flocks around electric companies or military installations.

The Israeli motto of making the desert bloom, as all other Israeli claims, such as being a true democracy, in the end only applies to certain people – many of whom are new inhabitants of this not so sacred Holy Land. If a person has the unfortunate luck of being born a Bedouin, it’s as if he were never born at all in the eyes of the government, as well as sadly, in the eyes of the rest of the world. Areas of the desert have perhaps bloomed, but much has been destroyed, negated and forgotten along the way.


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