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Few friends in the Negev: in 1993, Dvorah Brous was a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey who went to Israel to discover her cultural traditions. Today she's the champion of the disenfranchised Bedouin Arabs of the Negev Desert.

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OVER THE 14 years, since she first arrived in Israel, Brous has learned to speak Hebrew and Arabic, earned two master s degrees and founded Bustan ("orchard" in Arabic), a grassroots organisation that assists Bedouins and brings their plight to the awareness of Westerners.

Brous doesn't idealise Bedouins, they are no better nor worse than any other group of people, she says. "But I wish affluent consumer cultures would stop long enough to examine how traditional people interact with the land and enrich it," Brous commented during a visit to Los Angeles. "The Bedouins know how to grow wheat, barley and lentils without water, fertiliser or pesticides. They are stewards of the land who can teach us how to connect with our environment."

Brous founded Bustan in 1999. "There are no overheads because we don't have an office," she says proudly. "We don't want to profit from Bedouin suffering." An e-mail newsletter is transmitted regularly from her Jerusalem apartment to more than 30,000 people worldwide. Some 30 Israeli, European and Bedouin volunteers work on carrying out Bustan projects.

Speaking to a largely Jewish audience in the Los Angeles home of a Bustan supporter, Brous recalled how she first became intrigued by the desert dwellers. She eschewed the black tents where Bedouin crafts were sold to tourists and approached the cement block houses in which the Bedouins of the coastal region make their homes. The American sat beside Bedouin women as they went about their daily chores such as preparing food for the family; friendships were established with communication largely conducted through sign language.

Travelling home from the Sinai through the Negev, Brous noticed shacks in areas devoid of so much as tumbleweed. She asked about the shanties and was told dismissively they were unrecognised Bedouin villages. Wanting to know more she began to visit the communities that reminded her of photos of American Indian reservations.

Her interactions with these outcasts produced an unexpected linguistic bonus. Today a fluent Arabic speaker whose accomplishment nonplussed Southern California Arabs who met her, Brous explains: "Slowly, slowly they taught me Arabic as we brewed tea, baked bread or went about the chores of communal life."

In her talk, Brous uses several maps to help her convey statistics. She explains that the Negev comprises 60% of Israel's land but only 2.5% has been made available to the Bedouins who once grazed their animals throughout the Negev, as well as the Sinai and Jordan.

The estimated 190,000 Bedouins of the Negev make up 27% of the population but they have been forced to live within the small area called the siyag ("fence"), a confined space containing the infamous Dimona nuclear plant and reactor, 19 agro and petrochemical factories, a toxic waste incinerator, an electric power plant, a prison, quarries, industrial and military zones and a military airport.

Raw sewage and toxic waste are dumped into the Hebron and Dimona rivers, the chief source of water for the Bedouins' sheep and goats. Meat and cheese from these flocks are regularly contaminated. Tin shack encampments are often in close proximity to incinerators burning toxic waste. Cancer risks for the inhabitants run as high as 65%.

An estimated 84,000 Bedouins have been resettled by the Israelis into seven government-planned townships.

"These impoverished townships have electricity, water and basic schools, but there are no libraries, post offices, recreation areas or trash pick-up facilities," Brous confirms, "and there's no space to grow crops or livestock. The inevitable outcome is high unemployment, drug use and crime."

It is the 76,000 Bedouins who opt to remain in 45 unrecognised villages that stir Brous' sense of fair play. "It hurts me, it's a stain on Israel's moral conscience when its government puts politics over public health. Demographics and land confiscation come at the expense of the civil rights of an entire sector of Israeli society ...

"Displacing a population against its will and moving it into townships that are not in conjunction with Bedouin traditions is wrong. Israel has raised billions to develop the Negev, but it offers only cosmetic projects for the Bedouins such as temporary work, building Jewish settlements."

Bedouins living in unrecognised townships are regarded by the Israeli government as squatters on a land they have inhabited for millennia. They continue to cultivate crops but a paramilitary group, the Green Patrol, has so far sprayed 8,750 acres of cultivated fields with toxic chemicals and also confiscated the Bedouins' livestock.

The Israeli newspaper, Maariv, described the Bedouins as an environmental hazard because they take up open space. The Israeli approach is to criminalise the Bedouins, accusing them of encroaching on the last "southern frontier" as pastoralists, not befitting a modern state.

Into this situation came Brous, riding not on a white horse but a bus that travels one-and-a-half hours from Jerusalem to the Negev to reach her Bedouin friends. With the help of solar engineers, hydrologists and mud brick architects from non-governmental groups, she has attempted to make life a little more tolerable for the outcasts of Israeli society.

Her initial project was a playground in the unrecognised Dreijatt village, an unpaved, grassless, gravel-pitted eyesore that lacked any recreational areas. It took one year, but Brous and her volunteers recycled discarded materials to create a playground. A carousel was made with a telephone pole from which old automobile tyre "seats" were suspended by ropes.

Brous asked Israeli artists and professional clowns to donate whatever paints, toys, books and costumes they no longer used in an effort to provide materials Bedouin children could play with.

In 1999, Brous conducted a three-day workshop in which more than 500 people learned what it is like to live in a village that has no connections to a utilities grid.

Bedouin women demonstrated weaving, embroidery and cooking in solar-powered ovens installed by volunteer technicians.

Without any electrical hookup available in the villages, health emergencies, particularly where children are concerned, can too easily become fatalities. Bustan has installed solar energy panels in several isolated locations to help avert such problems by providing energy to operate oxygen and other emergency life preserving machinery.

Bustan has also built two solar-powered schools. Last December, after a futile nine years of court litigation, it opened a clinic in Jahalin. "If they destroy it," she says in answer to a query, "we will rebuild it again." Brous' organisation offers tours into unrecognised Bedouin villages for visits to women's projects including a small factory producing herbal soaps, shampoos and traditional medicinal treatments concocted of local herbs.

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Ron Lauder, a scion of the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire and president of the American Jewish National Fund, has unveiled the "Blueprint Negev" plan, designed to bring in half a million new settlers by 2016. The Israeli government promises to pave the way for this grand scheme with a final solution to the Bedouin question. But what that solution might be remains a matter for conjecture.
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Title Annotation:MOSAIC
Author:Twair, Pat McDonnell
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:1157
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