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A Tree Grows in Rahat

A Tree Grows in Rahat

July 31, 2009

Desert & Water Research, Negev Development & Community Programs, Social Sciences & Humanities

You may have heard about Rahat earlier this week, when a group of radical Jewish right-wingers came south to conduct a “protest” march against what they described as illegal construction in this Bedouin city some 20 kilometers from Beer-Sheva.

Although we had reason to doubt the sincerity of the intentions of those particular visitors, those of us who live and work here generally welcome the assistance of people from outside who want to help us improve conditions in Rahat.

Although the city is the Negev’s second-largest, with a population of some 48,000 (and another 10,000, who also use its services, living on its outskirts), Rahat was established only in 1972, with the aim of encouraging Bedouin to live in permanent, more densely populated settlements.

Rahat is distinguished in a number of ways: It is Israel’s poorest city, with nearly 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line; it has the highest unemployment in the country (about 12 percent); and some 60 percent of its inhabitants are under the age of 18. 

Unfortunately, physical conditions do not come close to answering the city’s substantial needs. Despite the large number of young people, we have only one sports field in Rahat, one very neglected park and not a single playground.

The streets are strewn with garbage, there are pirate gas stations, and our few, neglected, open green areas have for the most part evolved into dumps or have been taken over by residents for their personal use. For these and many other reasons, it can be said that environmental quality in the city is distinguished mainly by its absence.

I write not to complain, however, but to share news with you about what we are doing in Rahat to improve matters.

By 2003, a group of young people in Rahat – including myself (a native of the city, and a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev at the time), teachers, students and members of the general public – decided the time had come to take things in hand.

Thus we founded the Green Rahat Association, under whose auspices we have since conducted many clean-up campaigns. Trees were donated to us by the Jewish National Fund and planted around town, and an environmental workshop was established to empower young people to take a part in their city’s future.

The workshop’s most important achievement has been a community garden, Rahat’s first, built by local children.

The scope of the association’s activity is still limited, and it has not yet succeeded in transforming the entire city, but we have definitely succeeded in introducing the concept of environmental quality to local residents.

It also should be noted that there are greater environmental hazards facing Rahat, such as the Duda’im and Ramat Hovav dumps – the first for household refuse, the latter for industrial waste – located a short distance from the city, which can only be dealt with at the national level.

Nonetheless, public figures here have started talking about the environment. Some of the city’s 26 schools have initiated projects in that vein, in cooperation with green organizations, and five of them have requested to become “green” schools, a designation whose requirements are overseen by the Environment Ministry.

An environmental-quality committee has convened for the first time since Rahat’s establishment, and a steering committee has been set up to draft an environmental master plan. Our association is beginning to see its dream come true, and can foresee the day when Rahat will be Israel’s first green Bedouin city.

The latest development has been a collaborative effort between the Rahat municipality and Ben-Gurion University. Prof. Alon Tal, an environmental expert from the university’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, met with Rahat’s new mayor, Faiz Abu Sahiban, and representatives of Green Rahat.

They decided to involve university students in the greening of the city. Subsequently, the university devoted a special course to promoting a comprehensive environmental policy for Rahat.

Thirty students were taken around the city by municipal staff, and were given the opportunity to learn first-hand about local environmental needs.

Two weeks ago the students publicly presented the results of their labors at the Rahat Community Center, in the presence of representatives of City Hall, the university, the JNF and the Environmental Protection Ministry, as well as local residents.

The students presented recommendations concerning the green areas in the city; the rehabilitation of Nahal Garar (Wadi al-Hazan) – the riverbed located to the east of the city, which will separate a new residential neighborhood from the original part of town and is slated to become a large regional park; the promotion of environmental education; the development of a municipal environmental department; and recycling and waste management.

City Hall is convinced that the students’ draft conclusions and recommendations constitute the basis for building a comprehensive environmental quality plan for the city. The mayor has committed himself both to raising the money to underwrite the plan and to implementing it.

I feel that the day will come when all Israelis will be able to look south to Rahat and see a green city that is the pride of its inhabitants and the state.

When those of us who live here will be able to say ours is the cleanest city in the country – a town inspired by a green vision shared by all its citizens, with a playground and a park in each of its neighborhoods.

Perhaps this day is far away – but I am sure that it will come.