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Weaving Economic Development Into a Bedouin Tradition

by Karen Lagerquist and James Richard

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It was outside a shepherd’s tent, near the sand and dust of the Negev desert, that God chose to establish a relationship with the people of earth. From this remote location, approximately 4,000 years ago, Abraham became the father of three faiths: Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

Under tents not so different from Abraham’s, in a place known as Laqiya, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine has been supporting a unique weaving project for Arab

Weaving has always been an essential element in the lives of Bedouin women, although in the past 40 years the practice had almost been abandoned. Today approximately 40 women from three tribes have sharpened their weaving skills and are involved in this economic development project that provides both income and personal satisfaction.

Since the time of Abraham, the Bedouin encountered relatively little change – for most of the past four millennia they tended their flocks and migrated according to need.

However toward the end of the 19th century, these nomadic tribes began to settle down voluntarily. They dug wells, built houses of mud, stone and tin and buried their dead in cemeteries on tribal lands. By the early 30s most of Palestine’s Bedouin were farmers who earned a living trading wheat, oats, olives, sheep and goats in the markets of Beersheva.

Israel’s war of independence in 1948 had a devastating effect on the development of Bedouin society. With the majority of its population expelled, the demographics, structure and socioeconomic stability of the Bedouin dramatically changed. While today their numbers match their prewar high of 85,000 (due to a high birthrate), the Israeli Lands Administration’s continuing policy of land confiscation has stripped the Bedouin of 90 percent or 900,000 acres of their traditional tribal lands.

Over half the current population live in 20 unrecognized villages that lack such services as electricity, running water, paved roads, adequate health care and educational facilities. The remaining half have relinquished claims to their ancestral lands and reside in townships designated by the Israeli government. Even in these townships the level of public services is far below that of Jewish communities of similar size.

These radical changes have severed the Bedouin from their traditional means of support. Most of the work force are unskilled laborers, but the unemployment rate is high. The average Bedouin’s income is less than half that of the Israeli. As a result the Bedouin’s ancient social fabric is quickly unraveling – drug use and crime never existed before.

Rosemary Willey-Al’ Sanah is the project coordinator for the Negev Association for Social Development. She first came to Israel 10 years ago as a nurse and soon became involved with the socioeconomic problems faced by the Bedouin community. She now resides in Laqiya with her husband Hassan and their three children.

When asked what aspect of the weaving project presented the largest difficulty, she quickly replied, “Marketing. We’ve been able to surmount the various technical production problems along the way, but if we can’t sell our rugs it will mean the end of this project. We need to make catalogues, we need people to go to America and knock on doors…to find out which doors to knock on.”

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Tags: Palestine Economic hardships Employment Bedouin Micro Credit Program