Friday, December 9, 2011

Right to Life, by Esther Zandberg, in Haaretz

The final thesis submitted last year by Noa Tal as part of her major in landscape architecture at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology was supposed to be about landscape planning in the Yatir Forest, in the southern Hebron hills. When she first paid a visit to the area, however, she saw a multitude of Bedouin settlements scattered about there and decided to switch thesis subjects. The paper she eventually submitted dealt with the settlements of the so-called Bedouin diaspora, and included a proposal for what she called "definition and reorganization of the Yatir region, and the creation of a settlement alternative for the Bedouin living there."

Tal is a former Jewish Agency emissary in Capetown, South Africa, who worked as a volunteer in a black township. In the course of her visits to the unrecognized Bedouin settlements in the Yatir area, she says she was astounded to see "that the same situation exists here, as well."

Tal arrived in the Bedouin community without any prior knowledge or conceptions. In a preliminary study, she was astonished to learn that the unrecognized settlements do not appear anywhere in official plans, and on regional maps are defined as empty territory - whereas "In fact, it is full of life," she asserts. Scattered throughout the area are homemade road signs resembling those posted by the Jewish Agency, Tal says, adding that they are also graced with a logo of a bulldozer demolishing buildings, a hint of black humor.

Tal's thesis puts the unrecognized Bedouin settlements on the map, not as the target for demolition and uprooting, but as communities indeed deserving of "a full life." The thrust of her thesis is that a "softer" approach to the region must be taken: namely, one of "defining and reorganizing," not of "planning."

While it is true that Tal's final project does not offer a miraculous solution to generations of discriminatory planning policies, it seems to be saying that things could move in a different direction.

Tal's project was recently presented at the ninth annual conference of the Association of Landscape Architects in Israel, which took place in Herzliya. Evidently, it is the first project presented before this distinguished professional forum to touch on social and political issues. Conferences of the association, like its members, usually suffer from a lack of awareness of the greater contexts of its work, even while dealing directly with the manner in which land resources are distributed and created. Tal's thesis refutes with data and photographs the national phobia whereby Bedouin settlement in the Negev is seen as an existential, environmental and aesthetic threat. The ecological footprint of Bedouin settlement is a mere fraction of that of Jewish settlement, no matter what form or variety the latter takes. The area in which the Bedouin reside is only 3 percent of the Negev, whereas they constitute about one-third of its population. As for aesthetics, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.

Coerced urbanism

The site Tal selected for her project is an area along Route 316 that leads to Hebron, which includes four unrecognized settlements. A pressing reason for choosing this site was the recent approval of a government plan to establish the Jewish communal settlements of Yatir and Hiran there, in total disregard for the existing Bedouin settlements. The unrecognized settlements are adjacent to the recognized town of Hura, one of the seven towns in the Negev established by the state for Bedouin. They are, in large part, evidence of a tremendous planning failure and the total incompatibility of these communities to the population for which they were meant. In comparison to the plethora of residential options available to the general (Jewish) population in Israel - city, village, suburb, one-family dwellings - urbanization is the sole form of settlement available to Bedouin citizens of Israel, the majority of whom earn their living from agriculture. In the face of this coerced urbanization, the product of a government policy to restrict the subsistence zones of the Bedouin population and force it to relinquish its traditional lifestyle, culture and economy; in the face of the intention to uproot tens of thousands of residents of this diaspora (according to the Goldberg Committee report ); in the face of the bulldozers that sow destruction and have become part of the landscape - Noa Tal's theoretical project takes a strong stand. It relates seriously to social structure, construction in existing settlements and the need to strengthen their rural character through the allocation of land for agriculture. Among the settlements in the region, Tal selected Abu al-Qian , where her dialogue with residents was most productive, as a test case. While this and other unrecognized Bedouin settlements seem to be a haphazard collection of structures thrown into the desert, in actuality, they precisely reflect the population's social structure and its conditions of subsistence. The road system may be "informal," but it outlines boundaries between family, clan and tribe, and underscores inter-tribal relations. The location of the settlements within this expanse is consistent with the geographical lay of the land and its network of streambeds.

It is thus not coincidental that Tal suggests that the main public structure of her project - the local educational center - should be located at a point that connects the roads and belongs to all of the clans in the tribe. The basic assumption is that investment in education in this sector would be a decisive factor in determining the future of the society, and that the location of the center would be a significant element in its functionality.

Female space

A key focus of the project involves "creation of a physical place for the woman in a society that is undergoing processes of modernization." Paradoxically, those processes have, in fact, stymied woman's advancement in Bedouin society, notes Tal. In the era of nomadic life, women herded the sheep and could freely move about in the space outside the tent. With the transition to permanent settlements, the area in which they are allowed to move about without an escort was reduced to their immediate home environment. The project proposes to redefine the so-called female space to include vegetable and other gardens, and playgrounds. The public buildings of the settlement, Tal suggests, could offer a partition between this realm and the male realm.

"My personal hope," concludes Tal, "is that one day there will not be a need for partition, and the [women's] territories will be the open territories of the settlement at large." If this hope is realized, and given the rapid departure of Jewish women from the public expanse in Israel, the day might come when the Bedouin settlement will be the only place in Israel in which a woman will be able to appear in public undisturbed .

In the meantime, at the conference at which Tal's thesis was presented, where "the changing functions of landscape architecture" were discussed - not a single woman or man from the Bedouin sector, to which the project relates, was present. Similarly, there weren't any professionals from the Arab sector present, even though the injustices related to landscape planning and the division of land resources are more relevant to them than to their Jewish counterparts. On second thought, perhaps members of these sectors were in fact invited to the conference and meant to attend, but were not allowed to come because they did not properly meet the loyalty tests, or they were confused by the words of the national anthem, or they answered incorrectly the questions about the Zionist heritage and its division of land and other resources.


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