The final part of a series by Paul Harris on JNF UK and the diverse Israeli projects it supports, most notably its determination to help the Negev flourish
NEW JNF UK employees often query the fact that their organisation sees the need to support Bedouin causes.
I did too when I was taken to see the Regional Campus for Education and Rehabilitation of Bedouin Children with Special Needs, in Tel Sheva, a small Negev town.
Why is JNF offering financial aid to such an institution in Israel, catering for a section of the country’s population some of whose members are actually hostile to the State of Israel and its Jewish population?
The answer is simple: JNF operates without barriers of race, colour or creed.
The Bedouin are citizens of Israel and that concurs entirely with JNF’s mandate, which means they, along with Israeli Muslims, Christians or any other section of society are supported where necessary and in line with JNF’s stringent vetting procedure.
In any case, is it not in Israel’s interests to keep everyone onside and content, bearing in mind that there are 200,000 Bedouin in the Negev alone?
There are 4,000 Bedouin children in that region with severe disabilities.
Among Bedouin 4.2 per cent of youngsters suffer disabilities, against 2.2 per cent of Jews.
These are predominantly as a result of congenital hereditary diseases and accidents.
It is not known how many Bedouin adults are affected.
There has been a big effort, including a substantial investment, to reduce the practice of intermarriage, which is one of the primary causes.
But gaining the trust of the community to persuade it to change those habits is not easy.
The campus is a project which is still evolving. The infrastructure is largely there, but building is still in progress and not all the space has yet been allocated to its eventual functions.
It has taken 12 years to reach its current stage and the school is headed by Abu Amra Ayesh who has 17 years teaching experience and is completing a masters degree in educational planning.
The Bedouin tend to hide children with disabilities.
“They did not let them out of their houses. They were hiding them from the rest of the community,” said Mr Ayesh.
The site of the campus was chosen because of its proximity to universities and colleges, allowing it to draw on prospective personnel.
Two of the prime movers behind the facility are paediatrician Professor Miki Karplus and his wife Zipi, an occupational therapist.
The couple lived in Cheadle, Cheshire, for two years in the 1970s, when Prof Karplus was completing his training at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester.
Prof Karplus told me: “The Bedouin have always been a disadvantaged minority.”
Ten years ago a committee appointed by the Ministry of Education, operating under a special Education Act, discovered that Bedouin children were receiving far fewer resources and a far lower standard of care than that enjoyed by Jewish Israelis.
As a result, with the inauguration of the new campus, the Bedouin community now feels that it is enjoying even better facilities for its special needs children than Jewish society.
“From becoming disadvantaged, they have become privileged,” said Prof Karplus.
“Previously, the Ministry of Education had built special needs and other schools for the majority.”
So far 140 children with severe physical and intellectual disabilities are being helped at the new campus. Next year 80 more will enter a new primary school.
Prof Karplus dreams of a campus integrating Jewish and Bedouin children, but meanwhile the Tel Sheva project is unusual, even by Israel standards.
Even Tel Aviv has only two schools for children with special needs.
Just over five miles down the road is Hura, a Bedouin town with 13,000 residents, established by the Israeli government in 1989.
After the peace agreement with Egypt, Israel moved its Sinai airforce base to the area and actually relocated the Bedouin village of Hura from nearby.
It was one of the fourth generation villages with a combined population of 40,000, within 35 kilometres of Beersheba, which were moved.
Hura’s mayor for eight years Dr Muhammad el-Nabari, revealed that the average Bedouin family had 8.6 children, against the Israeli average of four.
Previously, he said, Bedouin did not pay taxes and did not enjoy the same services as the rest of Israeli society.
Today, 80 per cent of Hura’s residents pay taxes, against two per cent in 2004.
“This community had been neglected by the government and local leadership,” said Dr el-Nabari.
“Even now there is the wrong type of dialogue.
“Bedouin have the lowest standard of education and the lowest economy level in Israel.
“The government have the feeling that they can’t make anything of this community and the feeling of the community is that the government won’t do anything.” A group of Bedouin academics took a tranche of proposals to the government, but says Dr el-Nabari: “My biggest problem as mayor is convincing the people we can change.
“We can take responsibility for our education system.”
Today, 60 per cent of Hura’s residents are under-18 and 92 per cent below 45.
There are 50 kindergartens, six primary school and the same number of high schools. Incredibly, only 418 people are aged 62.
But the Bedouin today are facing new problems which their old lifestyle did not encourage — 40 per cent of over-40s have diabetes, which was almost unheard of, and all the women are overweight.
Before converting to town life, the community would spend much of its time walking and working.
Said Dr el-Nabari: “In Hura, we want to bring back women to contribute to the economy of the home.”
And to that end 34 women are already running a catering company and a Bezeq telephone company call centre, offering Hebrew and Arabic services, employs only females and is based beneath a mosque.
But like other parts of Israel, Dr el-Nabari says that the Bedouin of the Negev feel under attack from Gaza which itself is home to a number of Bedouin tribes.
JNF UK is a partner in the development project which is planned to give Hura more of the appearance of a modern town.
It is the only Bedouin town with street signs and today 65 per cent of its residents use the internet.
“Until 15 years ago there was still the feeling that the Bedouin were just tribes,” observed Dr el-Nabari
Gradually though through investment and education it is patently becoming part of regular Israeli society.