Life Off the Map

BY SAWSAN ZAHER, 2013 Yale World Fellow and director of social economic rights unit at Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Photography by Adalah.


In June 2013, the Israeli Supreme court ruled to dismiss a multilateral petition to cancel a health access-limiting provision of the National Insurance Law. This petition was submitted by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights.  Adalah was founded in 1996 and seeks to promote equal human rights for Palestinians living in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory through legal interventions, coalition with international organizations, literature on legal issues, and media outreach.  Previously, the National Insurance Law, which governs the operations of the National Institute of Israel (NII), granted payment of a monthly child allowance to any family in Israel with children under the age of 18. In 2009, however, the law was amended to condition eligibility for allowances granted to children under the age of five on receipt of a vaccination issued by the Ministry of Health. Though these changes and similar welfare policies are seemingly innocuous, they, in reality, align with other policies intended to expel the Palestinian-Bedouins from Israeli land.

According to the Ministry, the new provision was implemented to illustrate the importance of vaccinations to both the health of the children and the public; the requisite vaccination, they claimed, was meant to prompt reluctant parents to see their children vaccinated at an early age. And certainly, similar welfare payment and school enrollment restrictions, labeled by some as “sanctions,” in other countries like the United States have indeed been legitimate and strengthened the quality of public and child health. However a closer look at the situation in Israel lends an entirely different perspective on these instated provisions and their underlying motivations. For the Palestinian-Bedouin citizens of Israel living in the Naqab, the southern area of Israel, also known as “Negev,” the provision has had punitive effects.

In Israel today, around 100,000 Bedouins live in what are called “unrecognized villages.” These 36 villages, not recognized by Israel, do not exist on official maps and are consequently not entitled to water, electricity, or other essential services like health and education. Vaccinations can be obtained in some of these regions at mother and child centers, but these centers, which have been established only after persistent demands from villagers and human rights organizations, are limited in capacity and can provide only partial services.

The Health Insurance Law of 1995 stipulates that health centers are to be provided by the Ministry of Health in an equal and accessible manner to all residents. Yet, existing in only 8 of the 36 villages, mother and child centers are operated only once a week, by one doctor and one accompanying nurse. In addition to this, their operations have historically been short-lived; in 2009 alone, the Minister of Health ordered the closure of three Mother and Child clinics in three different unrecognized villages, under the allegation that nurses and doctors were unwilling to serve unrecognized villages. These clinics had served 18,000 altogether and were only re-opened after Adalah’s petitioning of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Due to the lack of health services in the Naqab, the health status of Bedouin children in particular is a plight. For example, according to Physicians for Human Rights—Israel, 80% of the children in the Ber Sheva hospital are Bedouin children. Infant mortality rates as reported by the Ministry of Health have reached 14.7/1000 among the Bedouin children while a significantly smaller rate of 3.9/1000 is seen among the Jewish children. Bedouin children comprise the highest percentage of children not receiving vaccinations, reaching about 20%; the malnutrition rate of Bedouin children in unrecognized villages reaches 10%, surpassing the national rate of 8%.

As the State clinics in the unrecognized Bedouin villages continue to fail, the refusal of essential services in these regions has served to pressure villagers to leave. Such deprivation of essential services and rights has reached an extreme extent despite petitions, common cases include that of an 8 year-old Bedouin girl who, suffering from cancer, has been deprived of the electricity necessary to refrigerate her medicine; in a similar vein, six unrecognized villages have been refused connectivity to water.

In each case, the Supreme Court has accepted the State’s arguments that refusal to provide these rights and services is legitimate and appropriate as a tool for pressuring the villagers to evacuate the land they live on; the court has consequently dismissed each petition. The legal obligation set on the State by law to provide equal and accessible health, education, and welfare services have thus been suspended, creating a legal situation where rule of law does not apply in reference to the rights of the Palestinian-Bedouins in the unrecognized villages.

The State’s policy of evacuating the villagers comes with long-standing efforts to force evictions and home demolitions for the establishment of new Jewish settlements on the land that is being evacuated. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, Bedouins have struggled to keep their land and continue living with dignity, though they are neither trespassers nor foreigners to the land in the Naqab. They have lived and known it for centuries, even prior to Israel’s establishment.

In the present-day, the Prawer Bill, a plan of best practices for evacuating Bedouins from unrecognized villages, is at the foreground of political discussion in the Israeli Parliament. Approved in a first reading by the Parliament and scheduled for second and third readings next month, the bill, if enforced, would leave around 40,000 Bedouins roofless.

In light of a situation in which health care services are not being provided due to political motivations foreign and irrelevant to the State’s obligation to fulfill the citizens rights based on the law, it can only be concluded that establishing the conditional eligibility for child allowance was yet another punitive step set by the State to intensify its pressure in evacuating the Bedouins.

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