Israeli women join hands across an ethnic divide.
Israeli women join hands across an ethnic divide to fight for Bedouin villagers.
As the last Bedouin villages of the Naqab Desert face destruction, two dedicated women have joined hands to tell the world of their ordeal, bringing to light a heartbreaking story of abuse and injustice.
Lubna Masarwa and Michal Zak guide delegations visiting the most vulnerable citizens of Israel, the remnants of Bedouin communities who were tending their flocks and olive groves in the desert long before the state of Israel came into being. The women accompany visitors to sites such as Al Araqib, once a village of 300, now bulldozed into barren ground. They take them to Wadi al Na’am, home to 8,000 who live in the shadow of contaminating industrial plants, and they visit other Palestinian communities “unrecognized” by Israel and denied water, transportation, electricity and services readily available to Jewish settlements.
They also escort delegations to the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, where newcomers learn that Israel is drafting a law to force the Bedouin off their ancestral lands and into townships blighted by unemployment and poverty. As Israel destroys the “unrecognized” villages, the Jewish National Fund moves in to uproot their trees and plant forests under the pretext of reclaiming the desert. Israeli media meanwhile vilify the Bedouin and say they are “invaders” on their own land.
Lubna and Michal, like the Naqab Bedouin themselves, are both citizens of Israel, but they have come together across an ethnic divide that separates the privileged Jewish “nationals” of the state from Palestinian Israelis, the descendants of those who remained after the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Lubna knows from experience what it means to be a second class citizen in Israel, living in a densely crowded community, attending underfunded schools, facing flagrant discrimination in housing and employment, and undergoing demeaning searches when she travels abroad.
Michal was raised on values of equality and respect for Arabs, but she only learned of their suffering under Israeli racism when she met Palestinians in college. After that, she said, “Nothing was the same again.” She went on to join a bi-national community called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam that includes both Arabs and Jews.
For 20 years Michal worked as a political educator, facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and when Lubna attended one of her workshops six years ago, the two women met for the first time. But both of them became disillusioned with dialogue that fails to challenge injustice, and they chose instead to work for fundamental political change.
Lubna tries to highlight the Israeli policy of dividing Palestinians into separate groups and enclaves, and she works with those in the Diaspora, within the state of Israel, and under occupation. She has joined with the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and villagers in the occupied West Bank who are fighting Israeli confiscation of their land, water and homes. She took part in four attempts to break the siege of Gaza by sea and succeeded in entering the strip twice, and she spent six months in Belgium as an advocate for Palestine at the European parliament. At the invitation of Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, Lubna also attended a forum on nonviolent strategy held in Hawaii.
Two years ago, Michal joined the staff of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages that advocates for the 90,000 threatened Bedouin of the Negev/Naqab. She coordinates outreach to Jewish groups and human rights organizations and helps the council tell the story of the persecuted Palestinian Bedouin.
She recounts their stories of dispossession, going back to the early days of Israel, when the tribes were driven off their original land to make way for Jewish settlements and their remnants were forced into a small corner of the desert. She also describes the current assault on their way of life, which threatens to demolish the last Bedouin communities in the name of an exclusive Jewish state.
“There is a plan to concentrate people,” she said, “to take their land and make everyone around, including the international community, think it is all in the name of progress.”
Michal has been called a traitor by some of her fellow Jews, but she finds fulfillment in her work. As a staff member of the regional council, she said, “I feel liberated.”
Lubna has faced harassment from Israeli security services. They call her to say that they are watching her. They have held her for hours of questioning and accused her of threatening the security of Israel, but she is willing to pay the price for her work. “It will not stop me from raising my voice,” Lubna said.
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