The third day in Israel brought a hands-on look at some of the largest barriers to good health outcomes among one of Israel’s minority populations.
After learning about the Bedouin population and the strong presence the Bedouin community has in the Negev region of southern Israel, we hoped to visit one of the nearby Bedouin settlements. We were fortunate that several of the Ben Gurion University faculty are currently working on research projects within the Bedouin population and that one researcher in particular has spent a lot of time speaking with members of the community.
Who are the Bedouins?
The Bedouins in Israel are a minority group within the Arab minority. At one time they were exclusively nomadic and they continue to be a semi-nomadic culture. The largest portion of the Bedouin population in Israel resides in the Negev.
Some background on significant health challenges in the Bedouin population (*all of the following information was noted during discussions with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University).
Bedouins, who are traditionally polygamous, have one of the highest birthrates in the world. The Bedouin population also has the highest rate of infant mortality in Israel. In addition, inbreeding is a deeply rooted cultural custom and about 60% of Bedouins are closely related to their spouses. Such inbreeding results in a high proportion of congenital anomalies and hereditary disease in Bedouin children. Finally, Arab men have persistent high rates of cigarette smoking (60%); even as rates of smoking among Israeli Jews have declined, rates of smoking among Israeli Arabs have remained the same or have increased.
Visit to the Settlement
We drove to the Bedouin village of Lakia with several faculty from Ben Gurion University as well as an Arab women who is involved in a non-governmental organization called AJEEC-NISPED, which works to promote an equal and shared society for Jews and Arabs.
In Lakia, we visited a facility that houses the Association for Improvement of Women’s Status. The Association centers on the embroidery of fabrics that can be sold for profit. The embroidery is rich in color, detail, and beauty. One of the leaders of the Association explained the origins of the initiative and how it has already improved the living conditions of Bedouin women within the community. The project has several goals:
Desert embroidery project goal—to provide income
Adult education goal—to increase literacy
Daycare facility goal—to support working women
Mobile library goal—to improve children’s education
The words of the Association leader were inspiring to hear amidst the numerous discussions of problems and disparities within the Bedouin community.
Unrecognized Bedouin Villages in Israel
Our final stop of the day was to a small Bedouin settlement. Once inside the settlement, we pulled our cars to the side of the road where a small bed of water ran through. One of our guides explained that the water housed there contained high levels of mercury, which can later be ingested by humans through the consumption of contaminated fish and water. The settlement’s residents have little knowledge of the dangers of using this water and little control over ameliorating the situation.
This particular settlement is considered a newly recognized Bedouin village, which means it is eligible for municipal services such as electricity, running water, and trash removal. However, as you can see from the pictures, the government has not yet fully instituted the settlement’s new recognition status. Many Bedouin villages remain unrecognized by the state and do not receive the same benefits as their recognized counterparts.
After seeing two Bedouin villages in person, the faculty was even more enthusiastic about potential research collaborations focused on the health of the Bedouin community. They were confident that U-M SPH students would be similarly interested in the unique potential for research within the Negev’s Bedouin population.