Promoting Bedouin Rights in the Negev-Naqab

6 May 2021

On April 14, 2021 Shatil program coordinator Sliman al-Hawashla was named as one of 12 Negev personalities worthy of lighting an Independence Day torch for their contributions to Israel by MyNet Be’ersheva, a local affiliate of the Ynet online newspaper. The local news outlet recognized al-Hawashla for his work to promote Bedouin rights and a shared life for Jewish and Bedouin residents, especially in his role as co-coordinator of the Good Neighbors Shared Society Network.

The Negev-Naqab region in Israel’s south is home to many socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, both Jewish and Bedouin-Arab. Despite facing common challenges, the two groups rarely interact in a meaningful way, and collaboration on shared goals remains infrequent.

The Good Neighbors project, co-led by al-Hawashla, is an exception. Originating in a 2017 initiative to start a bilingual kindergarten for Jewish children in Yeruham and Rahma, a neighboring Bedouin village, Good Neighbors has turned into a full-fledged network of paired Bedouin and Jewish communities. Its fifteen joint projects include the Ajram women’s sewing cottage industry, a bicycling club for children of Arad and the unrecognized Bedouin village, Tel Arad, and a Bedouin tourism initiative. During the pandemic, the network mobilized to provide food and other essential items to local communities.

“Despite everything, there are buds of cooperation between Jews and Bedouins in the south. The Jewish community increasingly understands the challenges faced by the Bedouin community, which I see as an achievement,” al-Hawashla told the news outlet.

Fifteen years ago, al-Hawashla was living in the Bedouin village of Qasr al-Sir near Dimona, where he had grown up with five siblings, and where the authorities demolished homes on a regular basis. He had an opportunity to build a house in the village of Abu Qrenat, on family land that has not been recognized by government authorities as part of the village, and was vulnerable to demolitions there as well. Al-Hawashla took the risk, and moved to Abu Qrenat. Today he lives in the village with his family—under the constant threat of demolition. Both Abu Qrenat and his childhood village of Qasr al-Sir have been granted government recognized status; neither, however, are connected to the public water system or electrical grid.

Al-Hawashla ‘s frustration with this injustice fueled his early political activism, participating in demonstrations and other activities advocating for Bedouin rights.

“What I love most about my job at Shatil is working with the Bedouin communities, helping form activist groups, and guiding them to advocate for their rights,” says al-Hawashla. “Shatil is a warm home for the groups and organizations in the Negev-Naqab, a big umbrella under which they cooperate and coordinate activities.”

When asked about his dreams for the future, al-Hawashla says, “My dream is to live in a safe and secure home. There is nothing more important than a person’s home. I hope the day will come when Bedouins enjoy full rights and integration into Israeli society.”

In November 2020 the Good Neighbors Network’s conference drew some 75 participants, including Minister of Agriculture Director of Strategic Planning Yair Heruti and MK Michael Biton, with another 500 joining via Facebook livestream. The conference showcased new initiatives such as a network for young Bedouin women to improve their Hebrew by speaking to Jewish counterparts on the phone, and a project to preserve the Negev eco-system and Bedouin heritage.