This past May, I was invited to be part of a team of Yale University interns working in the Negev Desert for a non-profit to more adequately combat gender-specific issues in Bedouin communities. This organization, Amerat Al-Sahara, or Princesses of the Desert, was created by a Bedouin woman nearly 10 years ago to combat cultural practices such as forced marriage, polygamy and “honor killings” that afflict the Bedouin communities in Israel.
In my one month as an intern for the organization, I came to recognize heaps of plastic scraps and bottles in every valley, children without shoes and livestock maintained in driveways as part of a narrative of a people forcibly settled just two generations ago. The main issues for Bedouin women here arise out of the dialectic of identity. Technically, the Negev is under Israeli control, yet there are 45 villages — “unrecognized” by the government — outside of the development townships that were created to settle the Bedouin. An unrecognized village is one the government does not consider to exist under the law because they are technically on military land. Unrecognized villages are not Israeli insofar as the government is not required to provide a police force, hospitals, electricity, running water or housing. All housing in these villages is illegal and therefore subject to demolition when necessary. This is not to say that these villages should stay in tact.
On a typically hot day in July, a pregnant woman was found dead in the desert near Rahat. Honor killings, a crime that is hard to punish because of its trail of lies, are a reality in the Negev. Amerat of the Desert deals with incidents like this. Muna Al-Habanen, director of Amerat of the Desert, has put women into hiding before because of this nightmarish reality in Bedouin communities. If a woman is violated, becomes pregnant or even loses her virginity before marriage, a male member of the family will sometimes attempt to save the “family honor” by ending her life in secrecy. I’ve been told the main methods are poisons — detergents, acids and pills — leaving few fingerprints or an alibi. Law enforcement doesn’t seem to thoroughly investigate these issues either. It’s a very real issue that rarely ends in prosecution or deep investigation.
Some of the other issues confronted by women here include forced marriage, denial of education and polygamy — all of which are illegal under Israeli Law. A concern for the Israeli government is whether imposing such laws on Bedouin communities will ignite backlash. For this reason and a festoon of others, the Negev is virtually lawless, controlled by ad hoc government rule as much as cultural ideologies.
Writing about the state of Israel involves studying one of the more challenging polemics of our time. A woman in Jerusalem put it this way: “Those who come to Israel for a day write a book. Those who come for a week write an article. And people who stay for longer don’t write anything.” That is to say, the political, religious and social schema is such that one cannot decipher where the legal parameters end and religious convictions act as law. Sieving to find “truth” is moot. Truth is relative. Some of the complexities concerning the Bedouin population and women here are bred because of the ambiguity of identity. Israeli or Palestinian? Full citizens or resident aliens? Identity, though, should not determine human rights.