The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all communities in Israel, but it has hit some of them much harder than others. The plight of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) has been widely publicized, but the Bedouin of the Negev Desert are also being devastated by the pandemic and no one seems to care.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring, Israel managed comparatively well. It locked down earlier, and opened up earlier, than many other countries. It seemed like a model of success for handling the pandemic, with a significantly lower percentage of both infections and deaths when compared to countries like France, Spain, and the United States.

However, after July, the initial rosy reports have faded as a second wave of cases has surged through the country. It is now generally agreed that Israel opened up too fast. On a single day, July 13, almost 1,700 positive tests were recorded out of 27,514 administered and, two days later, the total number of infected reached 42,360. The number of affected towns jumped from 133 to 177.

Since July the situation has only gotten worse. As of Oct. 29, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has topped 312,000, while the death toll has neared 2,500. These are numbers that nobody imagined back in April when Israel was deemed a success story.

Left out of the equation

While in most Israeli communities government agencies have played a major role in containing the spread of the virus and helping people overcome daily hardships, the situation in the Bedouin community is totally different. Not only do the Bedouin lack support in terms of resisting the virus, but there are also dangerous shortages when it comes to essential basic services, such as clean water, sanitation materials, and health awareness education — services that people need, especially during a health crisis.      

Estimated at around 200,000-230,000 people or 3.5 percent of the country’s total population, the Bedouin community in the southern Negev Desert is part of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority. The community is split between those living in recognized villages (known as townships) and those living in 36 “unrecognized villages” that the state deems illegal. While the situation among the former is dire, that among the latter is simply unknown, and doubtless considerably worse. Nobody really knows the exact situation in the unrecognized villages — from how many individuals are infected, to how many are sick, or even how many have died or are likely to die in this pandemic, as the state refuses to include their numbers in the official statistics.

This is mainly due to the state’s policy of marginalization and non-recognition that denies the existence of the 36 inhabited villages where more than 100,000 Bedouin live, all of whom are Israeli citizens. Since the establishment of the state in 1948, they have largely been denied access to basic services like running water, electricity, medical care, education, and housing. As statistics and reports make clear, they are the poorest, most marginalized, and most discriminated against community in Israel. In these villages, there are no hospitals or health clinics, while access to high schools and health services in nearby towns is limited.
 

A picture of a Bedouin settlement in Israel's Negev Desert.
A Bedouin "unrecognized village" in Israel's Negev Desert.

 

A long-running stalemate

The state refuses to recognize these villages because it has been trying to force their inhabitants to move to “recognized villages,” but they have continually refused. To do so would mean giving up claims to their historical land, which was seized by the state in 1948 and has been the focus of a protracted legal dispute ever since. Human Rights Watch has condemned the situation as a violation of “land and housing rights.” The state is holding the villages’ inhabitants hostage, and the refusal to provide COVID-19 care or treatment is only the latest episode in a long-running stalemate.

Bedouin in the unrecognized villages are sometimes forced to live in tents and shacks, and are often forbidden from building modern houses. The Israeli government “encourages” the inhabitants to relocate through methods that are draconian, unfair, and inhuman, including demolishing their houses, withholding building permits, and blocking water supplies, electricity, and telecommuni­cation services. These policies have led to an overcrowding of housing stock, which dramatically increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Moreover, lack of water inhibits hand-washing and other essential sanitation procedures, and a shortage of medical facilities prevents the provision of health services to those in need.

In addition to inequities in the social determinants of health, including poverty and access to health care, Bedouin in the unrecognized villages have limited health literacy and access to information about the spread and containment of the coronavirus. This makes them much more susceptible to becoming infected with COVID-19.

Bedouin in the unrecognized villages are under-represented in the upper ranks in all social and economic indices, but they are very considerably over-represented in the Israeli population when it comes to comorbid health conditions such as high incidence of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and lung disease. This was already true before the pandemic, but the impact has been exacerbated by it, as these poor health conditions are linked to more severe COVID-19 infections and higher death rates.

Several local organizations, such as the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages, the New Israel Fund, and Alhuquq Center have been raising the alarm about this problem, but their help is woefully insufficient; government action is urgently needed. 

In the midst of this pandemic, people are suffering all over the world, but this is a case where a segment of the population is being willfully ignored by its own government — and the problem is only getting worse.

 

Dr. Morad Elsana is an expert in human rights law and Arab world studies, and teaches at the American University. He is a qualified Israeli lawyer originally from the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the Negev, and currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area.  He is the founder of Alhuquq Center for Human Rights and has recently finished a major book on the land rights of the Negev Bedouin. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Pictures provided by the author.