Bedouins: folded tents in a shrinking desert

"We're not Palestinians," says a member of Israel's Bedouin community in perfect Hebrew. "We've been loyal citizens of the state. We've served in the Army. So why is the government trying to drive us into a radical position? We're Israelis. Doesn't Sharon realize that?"

The Bedouin and his surroundings would disillusion any Western romantic. Outside the window of Suleiman Abu-Karen's prefabricated house there are no goatskin tents to be seen. Instead, the dun-colored moonscape of the Negev desert northwet of Beersheba is pockmarked with clusters of scrap-iron huts covered by asbestos, more evocative of a shantytown in the American South than a Bedouin encampment in the Holy Land. The cardamon-flavored coffee and the worry beads sliding through the fingers of Suleiman's grandfather are the only remnants of a nomadic life depicted by explorer Richard Burton in the 19th century and T. E. Lawrence in the early part of this one.

The discussion takes place around a Formica table, with Bedouin wearing Western clothes and Seiko watches. Seleiman's daughter is not hiding behind a black veil braided with gold coins, as Bedouin women do in Jordan and Syria. DRessed like any Jewish girl in Israel, she greeted this reporter with a handshake that wasn't the least bit shy.

But if these things symboilize the advances made by Bedouin under three decades of Israeli rule, then the multiplying shanties symbolized the trap they have fallen into as a result of the same rule -- a trap which, ironically, the Camp David accords have helped to seal shut.

In 1948 there were 13,000 Bedouin in the Negev, with flocks of 30,000 black goats and sheep. While their nomadic brethren in Syria were having their land expropriated and their movements curtailed in the 1950s, Israel brought modern medicine to the desert, encouraged the tribes' economic development, and admitted Bedouin to its schools and universities. Negev Bedouin now number 42, 000, with 200,000 goats and sheep. The Bedouin have reciprocated by volunteering for service in the Israel defense forces. There is hardly a Bedouin family in the Negev without one male who has been an Israeli Army "tracker," patrolling the Israeli-Jordanian border for terrorist footprints.

Yet, while the Bedouin population has increased more than threefold and their flocks close to sevenfold, the land area in which they could roam has been, and is being, reduced drastically. Kibbutzim have expanded. Large tracts of the central Negev have been declared nature reserves. And finally, much of what was left has been confiscated by the Israeli Amy, relocating from Sinai as a result of the Israeli- Egyptian peace agreement.

"Don't make us the kurbanm [sacrifice] of Camp David," Suleiman warns. That seems to be what's happening Israel's Knesset (parliament) voted in July to expropriate 20,500 acres of Bedouin land for the building of the Tel Malhata airfield near Arad, slated to replace the one at Sharm el Sheikh, which will be given up to the Egyptians in April 1982. The 5,000 Bedouin affected will receive approximately $10 million in compesantion, $12,500 for a family of six or seven persons. But new land, taxes, surveyors, and lawyers will cost the 800 Bedouin families a total of $13 million, according to Meir Lamm, a Bedouin legal adviser.

The plan being pushed by Agriculture Minister Sharon is to evacuate these 5, 000 nomads and others in the Negev to six new townships -- Tel Sheva, Kseifeh, Hurah, Shglib, Rahat, and Laqiyeh. Laqiyeh is the cluster of shanties where Suleiman Abu-Karen and his family live. The 300 families who now occupy the place have no natural water source. They have a school only because voluneers nearby from Kibbutz Lahav helped build and operate one. There is no sign of construction anywhere. With the exception of Rahat, the four other townships are in a similar state.

The Bedouin are reluctant to move into the dormitory- style dwellings designed by Israeli architects because the 18 substribes -- some of whom are on bad terms with one another -- will be living side by side. Yet Mr. Sharon has said that places like Laqiyeh will have to grow quickly.

Claiming that their dilemma is a result of the Israeli- Egyptian peace treaty , the Bedouin have recently taken their case to the United States and Egyptian ambassadors in Israel. But, Suleiman says, "I don't want to make trouble for the state, I want to settle it internally."

"The Bedouin, as a rule, are usually hesitant to take drastic action. They tend to roll with the punches when it comes to government," says Dr. Yitzhak Bailey, senior lecturer in Bedouin history and culture at Tel Aviv University. But the adds: "Relations now between the government and the Bedouin are worse than ever. The Bedouin are being pushed into a corner and I don't know where it's going to lead."

Estimates are that the next decade will see 100,000 new settlers in the Negev. Prof. Haim Darin-Drabkin, a United Nations consultant on land policy, says the Negev could potentiallly support a population of 6 million, more than 15 times its present population, and twice that of all Israel today. Peace has forced a new military-industrial reality on this desert region. And it is difficult to see how these Arab nomads are going to fit in.

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