Israel is in the throes of an election cycle—a time when all eyes are trained at the political process—and its horse trading and Machiavellian maneuvering. New parties are emerging, and each faction is vying for the national limelight. The importance of the electoral process shouldn’t be underestimated—the next leader of Israel will help chart the course of Israel’s future. But that is not the only drama unfolding in Israel today.
While in the Knesset political divides can seem paralyzing or even insurmountable, across the country civil society is transforming communities.
Israel’s Negev region is home to 245,000 Bedouin citizens, an indigenous, semi-nomadic, and tribal community. Unfortunately, due to decades of neglect, dislocation, and urbanization, the standard of living in Negev Bedouin towns is among the lowest in the country by nearly every measure. Characterized by high rates of poverty and school dropout—as well as a dearth of adequate commercial, industrial, transportation, health, recreation, and sanitation infrastructure, Bedouin citizens in Israel face extraordinary obstacles.
But there is another story to tell. Shatil, in close partnership with Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, the Bedouin town of Lakia, and with funding provided by the European Union, is pioneering a different future — with Bedouin communities in the Negev at the helm. Shatil and its partners are working with Lakia to ensure the municipality has the tools, skills and knowledge to improve their residents’ lives.
The Bedouin town of Lakia is partnering with Shatil, Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, with the funding provided by the European Union, to build a better future for Bedouin communities in the Negev.
What is happening in Lakia is nothing short of quiet revolution, putting Lakia’s residents squarely in the center of the planning process. Civic engagement, exemplified by this new initiative, has been shown to improve public health outcomes, reduce violence in localities that struggle with crime, and help citizens access funding that may be available but inaccessible. And this collaboration puts marginalized groups at the center of the planning process, from which they have historically been excluded, training local actors to envision and implement a development plan with the participation of residents, especially women and youth.
NIF and Shatil have long worked on behalf of the rights of Negev Bedouin, including through our work as part of the Alliance of Organizations for Equality and Justice for the Bedouin, to prevent the displacement and forced eviction of the residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages. Last summer, Shatil in partnership with an ad hoc coalition persuaded the Subcommittee for Planning Issues to scrap plans for three proposed new communities in the Negev that would negatively impact Bedouin communities.
This new effort is the logical counterpart to that work. Lakia is a Bedouin town in the Negev, home to 12,000 people, and surrounded by another 4,500 residents who live in adjacent unrecognized villages who would be incorporated into Lakia as part of the planning process. The project trains the Lakia municipality in securing development funds allocated by the government’s five-year plan to address socio-economic gaps between Bedouin and other Israeli communities. As is the case with other marginalized communities, these funds have largely gone unused because the application process is complex and virtually inaccessible to local municipal officials.
It’s not possible to fight for economic justice and democracy in Israel without focusing on the needs and challenges of Israel’s most marginalized communities. This partnership is worth celebrating not only because it addresses an essential need of Bedouin in the Negev, but also because it exemplifies the crucial role NIF and Shatil play in stitching together Israel’s social fabric. Government officials recognize the value of our role—and they are enthusiastic about creating strategic planning divisions in every Bedouin town.
While Israelis, and those who care deeply about building a progressive and just society in Israel, will be watching the unfolding elections with anticipation, what is clear to me is that, regardless of their outcome, we have work to do. This is work that does not start when elections are called—and which will continue far in the future, long after the last ballot is counted.