Middle East

‘Powerless’ Bedouin Village Still Seeks Health Care

Palestinian Bedouin women carry greens as they walk past an Israeli tank

Palestinian Bedouin women carry greens as they walk past an Israeli tank near Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Fayez Nureldine / AFP-Getty Images)

Israel’s Negev desert is facing a public health crisis. After much public pressure, in June 2004, the Ministry of Health revealed the findings of its epidemiological study: Cancer and mortality rates are 65 percent higher within a 20 kilometer radius of the Ramat Hovav industrial zone. Some 350,000 people live within this danger zone, including the residents of Beer Sheva. The Bedouin village of Wadi el Na’am is located 500 meters from Ramat Hovav, which encompasses 19 hazardous agro- and petrochemical factories and a toxic waste incinerator. Ironically, the site has won state awards for environmental stewardship for four years in a row. In all the paradoxes of Israel, this one defies expectations. A few years ago, even the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) vacated the Manos military camp, 2 kilometers to the north of the factories, after soldiers became ill and complained about a fierce stench from the site.

In addition to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone, the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi el Na’am is surrounded by an I.D.F. munitions factory and military fire zone, the Efrat Oil Terminal (an oil-storage site), the Israel Electric Company and Makorot (the national water carrier site). Although the public amenities companies are located inside the village, the government does not recognize this village, or the other 70,000 Bedouin living in unrecognized villages in the Negev. These Israeli citizens live underneath high voltage pylons, but have no electricity. They live next to the water carrier, but have no water in their homes.

Persistent health problems in Wadi el Na’am include high rates of cancer, asthma in children under 6, eye infections and miscarriages. Livestock have also been killed off by infection. Wadi el Na’am is one of 38 Bedouin villages that do not have access to medical care in their villages. Lack of public transportation, socioeconomic conditions and other forms of state discrimination further marginalizes the Bedouin community. The Bedouin villages also lack access roads, sewage, welfare and educational facilities, further exacerbating health problems.

There are three principal risk factors related to the nearby Ramat Hovav chemical site. First, evaporation pools have been created to store toxic waste and extend over an area of 3,250 acres. The local industrial council (an independent municipality without any residents, which in essence gives polluters license to monitor their own pollution levels) has spent $10 million to construct a biological plant for treatment of waste in 2000, but it has yet to become operational due to technological problems. Secondly, the emission from the factories, particularly Bromine Compounds Ltd. and Makhteshim Group, emit hazardous and highly toxic chemicals and carcinogens. Thirdly, two plants — Government Company for Environmental Services and Akosol Ltd. — store toxic waste on-site. All of this has grave health implications for the two adjacent Bedouin villages of Wadi Al-Nam, which has 4,500 residents, and Wadi Almshash, which has 850 residents.

On the rolling plains of the Negev desert, there are modern incarnations of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s vision of “making the desert bloom”: New Jewish settlements are being established under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Negev Development Plan, which will include the transfer of 38 Bedouin villages into government planned townships despite the opposition of Arab and Jewish groups. These neighborhoods replete with full infrastructure were all approved by the Knesset with consent from the Bedouin Authority, a quasi-governing body falling under the Israeli Land Administration (I.L.A.). In other words, the Bedouin are being displaced and pauperized, as the Negev is being cleared for expansion by Jewish settlers from Gaza among other areas in the country. Millions are being invested in this unsustainable plan to develop the Negev.

In April of 2003, Bustan L’Shalom, a grassroots human rights and environmental sustainability organization, and its Director Devorah Brous, led the pioneering effort to build the Medwed Project, a straw-bale, solar-powered medical clinic in Wadi el Na’am. Without formal construction approval from the I.L.A., the Bedouin Authority or from regional health authorities who had failed to act in providing basic health care services – despite their High Court mandate to do so — Bustan built a solid partnership with the villagers and proceeded to build the clinic with the hope that health services could be provided by an H.M.O. or by volunteer health professionals. Since the village is unrecognized, it was built without a permit and like all infrastructure in these villages, it is subject to demolition at any time.

The medical clinic was built over six days with the aid of over 500 volunteers who also took part in lectures about land rights, human rights, development and Bedouin culture. The clinic is stocked with solar panels donated by six companies in the United States to help power the clinic — there is no other option for electricity.

The Ministry of Health and the General Health Fund (the H.M.O. with the most members from the village), which is “unwilling to expose their doctors to the health hazards from the plant.” do not provide health services in the village. Others claim that the Authorities are using the denial of health and other basic services to push the villagers to move to townships like Segev Shalom, the neighboring Planned Township. And so, the Medwed Medical Clinic, hand-built by volunteers only last year, sits empty except for an occasional community lecture about human rights and eco-building. It remains a pariah among state authorities for its technically illegal act of constructive dissent — the building of a medical clinic in the face of a health and environmental catastrophe for an indigenous community clearly facing state discrimination.

The problem of the unrecognized villages has become increasingly aggravated since 1965 when the government approved the Planning and Construction Law as well as an outline plan in which hundreds of Bedouin villages and localities were deliberately ignored and considered not to exist. The lands were classified as agricultural land, rendering all buildings erected as illegal.

The government has also passed the Removal of Intruders Law which effectively streamlines the effort of state agencies to expel Bedouin from their lands and accelerates home demolitions and land confiscations in the Negev. In the view of many Bedouin leaders, the government’s own Bedouin Authority is a chief culprit in discriminatory decision-making since its inception in 1987.

Almost 38 percent of the government’s funds for the Arab Bedouin communities in the Negev will be allocated to implement land confiscation policies, especially in the unrecognized villages. Nearly 200 homes have been demolished and 30,000 dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] of crops have been sprayed and destroyed in the Negev since 2002.

Orly Almy, the project coordinator for Physicians for Human Rights, says, “The state has obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to implement the right to medical care as an essential function of the right to health.” Some 40percent of the Bedouin population does not have health insurance.

The Bedouin have attempted to influence the Israeli government, the Bedouin Authority and the legal system through a variety of methods. They have also sought the aid of international authorities to help recognize their unique status within Israel.

Legal proceedings and government lobbying carried out on behalf of the Bedouin community and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, through the use of organizations like the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, the Mossawa Center and Adalah, have been minimally successful in gaining access to health care and other services. Governmental institutions seem to be very much in the process of carrying out the Negev Development Plan at the direct expense of the Bedouin minority in the unrecognized villages.

The broader question of how the Gaza withdrawal will effect the Bedouin settlements in the Negev has yet to be fully examined.