The first thing visitors to the Bedouin town of Rahat notice is the litter. Household garbage lies strewn at the sides of treeless streets. When the wind picks up, plastic bags, newspapers and sacks billow across the surrounding desert wasteland. Discarded construction materials mar the landscape.
“First you have to understand why they throw litter everywhere,” says environmentalist Ahmed Amrani, who was recently appointed municipal chief of staff of Rahat. “They don’t see it as a crime. Awareness is the key – not punishment. I regularly lecture to local teenagers on ‘Islam and the environment,’ when I emphasize the need to protect the land from a religious perspective,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
The Bedouin of Israel’s southern Negev desert are a society in transition, whose lifestyle transformed from nomadic to sedentary in little more than a generation. Their situation is roughly akin to that of Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians.
Established in 1972, Rahat has grown substantially over the years and is home to some 48,000 residents (and another 10,000 or so on its outskirts).
Israel’s poorest city and the Negev’s second largest, it has the highest rate of unemployment in the country – about 12 percent. Nearly 80% of its residents live below the poverty line. Some 60% are under the age of 18. They are served by one dilapidated sports field, a very neglected park and not a single playground.
Encountering threats and resistance
Amrani is undeterred. His goal is to clean up his town and he’s set about the task with great vigor.
Already the 29-year-old has a number of successes under his belt, like setting up a green organization – the Green Rahat Association, or convincing all the local school principals to include a green project in this year’s curriculum, as well as some serious neighborhood improvement projects.
It hasn’t always been easy, however. Along the way, he has encountered threats and stiff resistance when his environmental efforts challenge the status quo.
For example, his efforts to halt the leakage of dangerous chemicals into the ground and air from illegal gas stations around town and to evict families of squatters from open spaces, have met with fierce opposition, because they involve uprooting already disgruntled people and would affect their livelihoods.
Amrani was born and raised in Rahat. “My family lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle based around Beersheba, and moved their camp according to the season,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “After Israel was founded they lived in various parts of the Negev, until the state decided to establish seven towns for the Bedouin. We underwent internal migration.”
Less than one percent of Bedouin school students reach academic studies. And those who do graduate find limited employment options – in Rahat there’s only the schools, the municipality or working in a bank,” explains Amrani, who graduated from university in 2007 with a BA in geography and media studies.
“Many youths don’t have frameworks during the day, and many slip into crime, drugs and extremist Islam. Very few of my peers reached university, which is what made the difference for me,” he adds.
“In the 1980s, when I was a child, there were 10-15 kids in our street. Now there are over 40 – but there’s still nowhere for them to play. The situation is getting worse. If a child has nowhere to play he plays on the computer. They have become part of the computer generation, and are losing their roots,” Amrani laments. “They don’t come into contact with the older generation, with its traditions of respect.”
Amrani first became interested in the environment in 2003. It began with a chance meeting. Amrani, then a student at the Achva College in the northern Negev, was on his way to school. Inefficient bus connections and no money for a car meant the young Bedouin had to hitchhike from his home in Rahat.
“At a bus stop stood a pleasant-looking man and we struck up a conversation,” Amrani recalls. “I told him about my home reality, and he told me his ‘green’ world vision. We are friends to this day – only last week my family visited Eran and his wife in Ramat Gan.”
Introducing green thinking
Eran is Eran Ben Yemini, one of Israel’s leading environmental activists. A month later, their paths crossed again. Ben Yemini – then head of the fledgling students’ environmental activist group Green Course – addressed a parlor meeting at Achva College.
Very few people attended the event, but Amrani was one of them, and the two got talking about how they could introduce green thinking to the Bedouin.
In the wake of this meeting, Amrani came up with the idea of the Green Rahat Association, a non-profit organization designed to improve Rahat’s environment. “I helped him set up a non-profit organization to improve Rahat’s environment, and gave him professional advice based on my experience,” says Ben Yemini. “But he did all the work.”
“That was in 2003 – no one then understood what I was talking about. The term ‘environmentalism’ was foreign to Bedouins,” admits Amrani.
Since the association was founded, it has been responsible for a number of clean-up campaigns in the area. Trees donated by the Jewish National Fund have been planted around town, and an ongoing environmental workshop is empowering young people to shape their city’s future.
The association’s most important achievement so far, says Amrani, is the establishment of a community garden. It is Rahat’s first garden, and was built by local children. Also important is that these activities have succeeded in introducing the concept of environmental quality to local residents.
Recognition from local government
Despite this, he believes there’s a long way to go toward transforming Rahat into Israel’s first green Bedouin city. Unlike in most Israeli cities, where “environmentalism” means recycling your bottles and newspapers, in Rahat it’s all about basic quality of life, he explains.
“The Bedouin community is too preoccupied with land issues and other, more serious problems, and it’s hard to induct them in environmentalism,” says Amrani.
Earlier this year, Rahat elected a new mayor, Faiz Abu Sahiban. He immediately appointed Amrani his chief-of-staff. The young environmental activist can now attempt to transform his cash-strapped municipality from a position of influence.
“Every school principal in Rahat has promised to introduce an environmental project this year in cooperation with green organizations, and five of the schools have asked the Environmental Protection Ministry to recognize them as ‘green’ schools. Only three years ago they were telling me that the children wouldn’t understand what we’re talking about. The change has begun,” Amrani declares.
Amrani’s forcefulness has led to the establishment of the city’s first environmental quality committee, and a municipal steering committee is drafting an environmental master plan.
Environmentalism is in his blood
His persistence has also led to the latest collaborative effort with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to rehabilitate Wadi al-Hazan (known in Hebrew as Nahal Garar), a dry riverbed to the east of the city, beyond which a new residential neighborhood is planned. The valley is slated to become a large regional park.
Despite his successes, however, Amrani is well aware that Rahat faces a slew of environmental hazards that can only be dealt with at the national level, such as the nearby Duda’im and Ramat Hovav dumps – the former for household refuse and the latter for industrial waste.
“Ahmed has already achieved the near-impossible,” says Ben Yemini. “Environmental awareness is still very low there. He’s entered two potentially dangerous conflicts – evicting his neighbors from open spaces that have been squatted by Bedouins, and the stymieing of the proliferation of pirate gas stations around the town.
“He’s trying to pull people out of places they have made their homes. The pirate gas stations involve families’ livelihood. He’s had his life threatened because of his activities, but he perseveres. I really admire his courage,” adds Ben Yemini.
“What makes him special is his activism combined with diplomatic abilities. He’s found partners for all sorts of projects, such as getting the Islamic Movement to support him in cleaning up and landscaping Rahat’s cemetery,” continues Ben Yemini, who is convinced that Amrani will succeed. “Environmentalism is in his blood. He’s immersed himself in the issue – and he’s very determined.”
More on Bedouins and the environment:
Immersion Arabic Course in First Solar Bedouin Village in Israel
Ben Gurion University Helps Green Bedouin City of Rahat
Bedouin and “Bustan” Green The Desert With Tree Planting Event
Water & the Bedouin: Sharing the Resources
Support Bedouin treeplanting and Green education with a Tel Aviv shakedown!
(This article by Daniel Ben-Tal was first published on ISRAEL21c – www.israel21c.org Photo by Green Prophet writer Daniella Cheslow.)