The Silent Population

By Joharah Baker – Jerusalem

If it weren’t for two little boys hitching a ride with us, this article would never have been written. Thanks to the mysterious way the universe operates, I will admit I am glad for the bizarre events of yesterday so that I could be reminded of a sector of Palestinian society all too often disregarded. I am talking about the Bedouins, those silent nomads of whom I was reminded because of two tiny first graders who needed a ride home.

To and from Jericho, two checkpoints meet you. One is Israeli and the other, just a few hundred meters away is manned by Palestinian police. After saluting the Palestinian guards at the checkpoint with a friendly "salaam", we instinctively slowed down as we approached the Israelis, not wanting to be accused of storming the checkpoint or trying to evade an inspection. On the side of the road, small children with oversized backpacks were walking through the dust, some so tiny it was hard to believe they were of school age.

After answering the customary, "Where are you from" and "Where are you going" from the Israeli soldier, we were met with an unorthodox request. "Could you take these kids with you if you’re on your way to Ramallah?" the soldier inquired from my husband in Hebrew. "They live near Nabi Musa," the soldier clarified.

Before I knew it, two tiny, timid and dark-skinned boys slipped into the back seat, sitting uncomfortably upright and looking so nervous I thought one of them was going to cry. We made small talk with the boys to help them relax and I realized I could not understand half of what they were saying even though they were speaking Arabic. I realized why not long after. They were Bedouins and their dialect was amazingly different from my own.

The closer one gets to Jericho and its rolling beige hills, the more one sees the corrugated tin shacks spotting the hillsides. Sheep can be seen grazing in the few patches of vegetation and makeshift clotheslines show rows of wet clothes drying in the arid desert wind. It is a common sight but not one that I personally could ever put a face to. Until now, that is.

Our two little travel companions explained to us how they went to school everyday in Jericho and waited for public transportation the main road to get to and from their homes in "Al Khan". Sometimes the boys walked kilometers before a taxi passed, their dusty and scuffed shoes testimony of their treks across the dry terrain. Halfway between Jericho and Ramallah, Munir, the more loquacious of the two, pointed to his friend’s house. As we dropped the unnamed boy on the side of the road, I peeked over at his house. A tiny shack nestled deep between two hills – a typical Bedouin dwelling. Mounir’s house was just a little ways down and looked almost the same.

Meeting our two little Bedouin companions made me think of the fate of the Bedouin population in Palestine. According to a 2006 UNRWA report, there are approximately 50,000 Bedouin living in the West Bank. Most of these communities, which are now settled in the Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jordan Valley areas, are originally from the Beer Saba’ area and were made refugees in the 1948 war. Not only did they lose their homes the first time, many are now being threatened with expulsion by Israel, their tiny shacks torn down to make way for new settlement construction.

Shuffled from one area to another, the Bedouin population of Palestine is clearly marginalized both in Palestinian society and by Israel for those who remained inside the Green Line. There are approximately 80,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel living in unrecognized villages, mostly in the Negev desert. This means their villages lack the proper services such as electricity and running water, a proper school system and infrastructure services such as paved roads.

As a result, Bedouins often do not integrate fully in Palestinian society in the West Bank or in Israeli society inside. Moreover, some are often scorned by Palestinians for enrolling in the Israeli army. For economic, educational, social or even national reasons, there are Bedouin citizens of Israel who serve in the Israeli army. Their nomadic nature may be reason behind why they adopt the national sentiments of the place of their dwelling, but most likely it is for economic reasons and the benefits from enrolling in the army that entices young Bedouins to join Israel’s military service.

This does not sit well with Palestinians who are harassed and checked at an Israeli checkpoint by someone who speaks their language. Being oppressed by an Israeli is one thing but being oppressed by an Arab is quite different, which is why there is sometimes little sympathy for the plight of Bedouins.

Still, their economic conditions and the hardships they have endured over the years should make us less quick to judge. Our little car companions, Mounir and Friend, were two ordinary boys, the products of their environment, just like all of us. Who knows what other difficulties are in store for them and what value systems they grew up with. If we are really interested in their future and the direction their lives take, we need to be more concerned with making their present a little more tolerable.

– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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