Fighting COVID-19 in the Bedouin community

Fatma Abosheab, 20, who oversees Communal Resilience at the New Dawn in the Negev. (Photo taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, courtesy of New Dawn in the Negev.)
Fatma Abosheab, 20, who oversees Communal Resilience at the New Dawn in the Negev. (Photo taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, courtesy of New Dawn in the Negev.)

As Israel rallies to battle the coronavirus, it seems that one group in particular lingers on the outskirts of the national mindset. Although the Health Ministry and experts have recently sounded the alarm and taken drastic steps to tackle the outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox population, which has significantly higher rates of the coronavirus than the general population, and while testing has increased somewhat in the Arab sector, which was also initially overlooked, the Bedouin sector, with 220,000 residents living primarily in the Negev, has been largely left behind.[i]

VULNERABILITIES

As yet, virtually no testing centers have been set up in Bedouin communities, despite the potential for an outbreak. While Rahat, the largest Bedouin city, did receive its first mobile coronavirus testing unit in early April and 450 people were tested in a matter of days, little has been done in the six recognized townships or in the 37 unrecognized villages in the triangular-shaped desert area in southern Israel, in which 100,000 residents live off the grid. As the stay-at-home rules and social distancing were taking hold in corners of Israel and consumers were stockpiling toilet paper, paper towels and hand-sanitizer, Bedouins were largely left out of the national conversation. Schools and mosques did shutter their doors in Bedouin localities, yet a lack of access to technology and low digital literacy translated into limited exposure to the most basic information on the coronavirus pandemic that was broadcast on television and radio and saturated social media.

Many Bedouin residents, who don’t speak Hebrew and mistrust the government, are disconnected from Israeli society. While media campaigns were tailored to Haredi citizens in terms of tone and distribution and some efforts have been made towards Arab citizens of Israel, there has been no public awareness campaign specifically tailored to Bedouins thus far.

“It’s almost if we are invisible,” says Jamal Alkirnawi, a social worker born in Rahat, who founded and directs A New Dawn in the Negev, an NGO that provides programming for Bedouin youth-at-risk. When schools switched to distance learning in mid-March, Alkirnawi pivoted the organization to address the pandemic. The organization allocated its hotline, staffed by trained volunteers, to help the community get through the lockdown: secure the delivery of provisions, obtain their civil rights, and manage their stress. The NGO created an online platform to maintain contact between the organization’s 1,000-strong alumni from previous programs and disseminated a survey throughout the Bedouin population across the Negev to assess how it is coping.

Jamal Alkirnawi, founder and director of A New Dawn in the Negev. His sign reads ‘The Weak are Being Wiped Out: #ThirdSectorCrashing.’ (Photo taken while working 18-hour days in the office to support his community. Photo courtesy of A New Dawn in the Negev.)

To sound the alarm about the dire need for action, Alkirnawi joined other NGOs, academics, social activists, communal leaders and lawyers in appealing to decision-makers to take steps to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. On the first of April, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of civil society organizations calling upon Israeli authorities to provide testing centers in proximity to Bedouin villages and bolster emergency ambulance services. “It became very clear to me that if we weren’t going to be proactive about containing Corona in the Bedouin community, the consequences could be tragic,” says Alkirnawi.

It is easy to understand his trepidation. The Bedouin sector is perhaps least equipped of all to fight COVID-19. In the unrecognized villages, residents live in prefabricated structures or shacks. These localities often lack infrastructure and basic services such as electricity, running water, sewage, garbage collection, paved roads, pharmacies and health-care clinics. Many do not have even a corner store to purchase groceries, or hand-sanitizer. Some of the villages receive electricity through diesel-fueled generators and have exposed sewage lines. For the vast majority, some 80,000 people, drinking water is provided by attaching a plastic hose to a water line of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, or transported by tank to distribution points. The lack of a sanitation system makes coronavirus-style personal-hygiene ordinances that mandate scrupulously washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds extremely difficult. “Just uttering that request sounds laughable,” says Meigl Alhawashla, 59, a member of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, a Bedouin political advocacy group.

Meigl Alhawashla, member of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages, a Bedouin political advocacy group. (courtesy of author.)

Nor does the edict of social distancing mesh well with either the physical conditions of Bedouin homes or their social-organizational structures and kinship-based family fabric. On average, Bedouin family size numbers seven, double the size of the average Jewish family. Multiple generations live together in crowded conditions in one household. Grandparents either live with or adjacent to their children and grandchildren. Unrecognized villages constitute one hamula, one extended family, which makes it more difficult to keep a safe distance while sheltering at home. A 50- or 60-meter shack can house between seven to 12 people. There isn’t adequate room for quarantining. Even if an individual family member were to fall ill, it would be culturally unacceptable to send that family member away. Salame Alatrash, head of the Al-Kasom Regional Council, penned a call-to-action letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he proposed that local schools could be converted into quarantine centers.

The Bedouin sector is ranked in the lowest socioeconomic cluster of society. Approximately 70 percent live in poverty. Residents usually collect Bituach Leumi (National Insurance Institute of Israel) allowances in cash at the post office, but under the current stay-at-home edict, they cannot leave to draw their salaries and benefits. Because the localities are unrecognized, the residents do not have an address, so they cannot have money sent to them. In addition, many of the older residents are illiterate and cannot fill out forms without assistance. “I myself can’t figure out those forms on my phone,” acknowledges Alhawashla. His grazing sheep can be heard bleating in the background.

Bedouins in unrecognized villages live in an ongoing state of insecurity. The failure to resolve this decades-long dispute over ownership means that home demolitions are not uncommon. Beyond the trauma of having a home demolished at any time is the fact that today it means even more people living even closer to each other. In late March, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, along with 22 other civil society organizations, appealed to Attorney General Mandelblit to stop demolishing homes and crops in Bedouin localities.

Unfortunately, those who are on the geographic and social periphery are also on the periphery when it comes to health services. Many Bedouins suffer from chronic health conditions like diabetes and asthma, which place them at higher risk of having more severe symptoms from COVID-19. Notably, more than 25 of the 37 unrecognized villages do not have primary health services in their localities. Rather, they have access to HMOs that operate with limited facilities. This population sector suffers from structural deficits in chronically underfunded medical care, leaving them poorly equipped to handle the outbreak. As health-care recipients, they have not enjoyed the kind of consistent quality health care over time that facilitates a reliable patient-provider relationship.

Even going to the doctor or to the store to procure supplies is no simple feat. There is virtually no public transportation in Bedouin settlements. Residents are dependent on family members with cars. With almost no access to the internet, telehealth services are not an option. And there is a need for more ambulances for Bedouin residents that can access the hard-to-reach roads in the South.

While the closure of schools was needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it had grave consequences for Bedouin students and families. Across the Bedouin townships and unrecognized villages, some 78,000 students are enrolled in 140 schools and 24,000 children are enrolled in 640 preschools and kindergartens. (The Bedouin population is young; 60% are under the age of 18.) The absence of computers and access to technology has also made it extremely difficult for many Bedouin students to engage in distance learning. When national online broadcasts are slated to continue after the Passover holiday, the question remains as to how many Bedouin students will be participating. These pupils are already at risk of attrition (what is called “dropping-out” in the UK). The rates of Bedouin students that complete the Bagrut matriculation exams are the lowest in the country. In 2016, that figure was 32.7% as compared to 63% for the Jewish students and 50% for Arab and Druze students. The rate of those attaining Bagrut for entrance to the university is even lower. Dropout rates are very high; in 2015, some 30% of Bedouin 17-year-olds did not go to school.

There is concern that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to increased rates of attrition, closing the door to formal education. “We fear that students will be absorbed into their family’s business and won’t come back to the classroom,” says Alkirnawi. Those who struggle at this time may opt to not return. Alkirnawi was among the lay leaders who sent letters to the director general of the Ministry of Education, Mr. Samuel Abuhav, imploring that steps be taken to bolster distance learning in the Bedouin sector. Suggestions include small-group learning over the telephone, using cellphones as hot spots to connect to the internet, providing laptops and routers to students, and offering alternative programs for those who cannot do distance learning.

Shuttered schools have brought another risk: food insecurity. Some 76% of students hail from families that live in poverty; many count on the free hot meals served at school to meet basic nutritional needs and feed their children. As Alkirnawi works on disseminating surveys about stress, he eyes hungry children wandering the streets, looking for distraction. “There is a real danger of malnutrition and hunger,” he acknowledges with a sad sigh.

SOLUTIONS

Bedouin communal leaders, academics and activists collaborated on a plan of action with Dr. Dorit Efrat Treister, a faculty member at Ben Gurion University’s School of Management, who specializes in cross-cultural management and reducing aggression. “We understand tackling Corona isn’t only a medical problem. It’s also about behavioral change.”

The following measures were proposed to educate and build trust: Stop home demolitions and immediately implement a public awareness campaign on COVID-19 shared by respected authorities and sources. Form a task force of lay leaders to disseminate recommended behavior during the coronavirus pandemic. Establish a center for the Bedouin population to give directives on dealing with the coronavirus in Arabic in the Bedouin dialect as well as in sign language for the hearing-impaired. Use the muezzin’s platform to share information and post lampoons at mosques and corner stores as well as the communal councils. Go door-to-door to distribute soap, face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Other measures include: connecting Bedouin families to the water supply; enabling house-to-house testing; affording Bedouin residents of unrecognized localities to secure addresses; and arranging for deliveries of food and medicine to the villages as well as internet access.

These measures would greatly help the Bedouin population, assures Alkirnawi. Yet he urges us to shift our focus to also consider the emotional and psychological implications of this pandemic on Bedouin life. For Bedouins, not touching and keeping a distance calls for casting aside cultural practices of intercommunal intimacy expressed through hugs, handshakes, and kisses, and precisely during this time when fear is amplified. Tactile communication is paramount in honorifics and respect towards one another. “How do you tell people who have been reared in a society where hugging and kissing are part of the honorific that they can’t touch their elders?” What will be the emotional price of going through this trauma — isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and financial challenge — without those regular outlets for expressing love and respect?

“This is Israel’s test,” says Alhawashla. “Does it want to treat it citizens equally, or create a second-class and third-class status? Corona doesn’t distinguish between Jew and Arab, European origin or otherwise. Bedouin doctors and nurses are caring for everyone on the front lines, endangering themselves like all of the other medical professionals. Please care for us like they’re caring for you.” Alkirnawi echoes this sentiment. “We are NGOs with meager means, providing essential services that ought to be provided by the government. I myself feel a personal crisis: how can I support the thousands of people, physically and emotionally, crippled with fear and ignorance who need emotional sustenance and financial support more than ever? Decades of neglect are now coming to the fore, with catastrophic consequences. Without a swift and sweeping effort to help our population fight Corona and its concomitant effects, I worry that Bedouin society will collapse.”

FOOTNOTES

[i] Of the approximately 220,000 Bedouins living in the Negev, some 100,000 live in “unrecognized villages” on which land tenure is under dispute. As a result, they live off the grid, and municipal services are often lacking. The Bedouin are descended from formerly semi-nomadic tribes that have a range of cultural traditions that distinguish them from other Muslim Arab groups. Most Bedouin live in the Negev region of southern Israel, with a sizeable population in the Galilee in northern Israel. Rahat is the largest Bedouin city in the Southern District of Israel. In 2018 it had a population of 69,032, making it the largest Bedouin city in the world. Over the years the Israeli government has made attempts, unsuccessful so far, to resolve long-standing and complex land and housing issues affecting Bedouin communities in the Negev, known in local parlance as Naqab. Minister Benny Begin was appointed to lead a consultation process and presented a plan in 2013. Agreement was not reached, however, and the plan was shelved. Issues of ownership and construction and services remain mired in the decades-old controversy.

This post was originally published in Fathom.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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