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Walking the tightrope between modernity and tradition: A Bedouin story

This blog was written by Betty Soibel, an alumna from the 2017-2018 Yahel Social Change Fellowship. Betty is currently a Shatil social justice fellow interning at Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, which pursues human rights and democracy in the field of planning.This article was originally in the Times of Israel.

Last Wednesday, I visited Ras Al Tin, a Bedouin community northeast of the settlement of Kochav HaShachar. Our visit was part of a new Bimkom project to conduct aerial photography of various challenges faced by Bedouin communities in the West Bank. Moments after we entered the community, I found myself cooing at an adorable 3-month-old baby girl, as her grandmother kissed her cheek and readjusted her soft pink blanket. Curious, I turned to my colleague to ask where local women gave birth and if they had access to reproductive healthcare. When I looked around at the seasonal cloth tents, the shepherds and their flocks, the women laboring over outdoor stoves, it was hard to imagine how the bucolic solitude of Ras Al Tin could coexist with a modern healthcare clinic.

Ras Al Tin, Feburary 14, 2019. (Betty Soibel)

Over the last five months, I’ve had the opportunity to regularly visit unrecognized Bedouin villages in the West Bank with Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights. As an organization, we help marginalized communities achieve their rights through access to equitable planning and infrastructure. In the case of pastoralist Bedouin communities in the West Bank, Bimkom’s work often occurs at the intersection of the local Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the global trend of sedentarizing and modernizing indigenous communities.

In the complicated political landscape of the West Bank, Bedouin communities are located in Area C, meaning they fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA), a planning institution in which the Bedouins have no representation. Currently, the ICA’s policy towards the Bedouins focuses on displacement and sedentarization, and those that refuse are isolated from modern development and services.

However, from Bimkom’s strong relationships with communities, we have learned that this policy is the opposite of what these Bedouin communities want — they desire to have access to modern infrastructure while preserving their pastoral lifestyle. They don’t want to be forced to choose between an urban lifestyle with modern services and a traditional lifestyle in isolation. Instead, they currently live in protest of the dichotomy that the ICA has created-they embody the struggle between embracing modernity and an ancient pastoral identity.

For example, the baby girl that I met in Ras Al Tin was born in Jericho hospital, as were the majority of children in the community. The community values reproductive healthcare and education, but their access to it is often limited by infrastructural disinvestment. There is a singular unlit, unpaved road leading to the isolated community, which means that during cold, rainy seasons, access to outside services is severely compromised. This means that women who wish to get prenatal care cannot travel to a nearby clinic or even reach the main road with public transportation. This issue is emblematic of the Bedouin struggle — instead of proper infrastructure supporting their way of life, they are forced to grapple between living in a traditional pastoral setting and utilizing modern services.

Singular road to Ras Al Tin, on February 14, 2019. (Betty Soibel)

Access to electricity is even more illustrative of this tension. The Bedouin way of life is based on a culture of herding and seasonal migration; shepherding is so essential that it influences everything from communal income to traditional gender roles to cuisine. As the ancient backbone of the culture, it requires the community to maintain its semi-nomadic ways, as a healthy herd needs vast grazing areas. From an outsider’s perspective, shepherding and migration seem like a relic from a different era and incompatible with a modern technology. However, in many of Bimkom’s workshops in Bedouin communities, conversation about the need for better electricity is front and center. The residents want access to reliable electricity in order to strengthen their traditional lifestyle, not to replace it. For instance, access to electricity provides power for lights, computers and WiFi routers, which allow children to finish their homework after sundown and for adults to pursue higher education.

Furthermore, it powers refrigerators, cheese makers, and stoves, which means that the residents can produce and sell more milk and cheese products to economic sustenance.

Solar Panels in Wadi Abu Hindu, December 10, 2018. (Betty Soibel)

During my visits with Bimkom to Bedouin villages, I often struggle with how Bedouin communities can maintain their ancient lifestyle in the midst of an area where both Palestinian and Israeli society have unequivocally embraced modernity. Yet, upon greater reflection, I realize that I am often so blinded by the foreign aspects of their culture that I lose sight of our greatest commonality — the desire for self-determination. For centuries, Western civilization has deemed indigenous cultures all over the world as backwards and undeveloped, and as result, destroyed them by enforcing Western standards of life. Somehow, in spite of living in the midst of a brutal conflict, the Bedouin communities of the West Bank have succeeded in preserving one of the world’s last remaining traditional pastoral cultures. If given the right support, planning, and infrastructure, their unique indigenous culture could flourish for years to come, instead of joining the graveyard of ancient societies.

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