top of page

Refuting “making the desert bloom” and a few more lies | Odeliya Mattar

Coronavirus broke out and I found myself interning at an ecological farm at some esoteric leftwing college in the middle of Pennsylvania, wondering how to survive the “apocalypse”. Look, I’m already really good at planting seeds and separating out the compost pile from compost that would kill the chickens. Deep in my heart I made peace with the fact that everyone I know above the age of 70 will pass away from this world and that I have really exceptional tools to deal with the economic, agricultural and social crisis that will come upon us. I boarded a plane because it was more important for me to part from my parents (who survived Covid-19 despite my worries) than to grow lettuce for students in baseball caps. In a humble apartment in Be’er Sheva with a boyfriend we flattened piles of dust, planted tiny tomatoes and green onions and spoke with our friends about the land we would buy in Europe in order to live self-sufficiently with zero bureaucracy and in structures we would build for ourselves. We were clear that no matter what, the main thing is to leave the city.

A chair in Al-Zarnuq 2022, Photo by Odeliya Matter

In order to make money - because the economy did not yet completely collapse - I started to work as a Communication and Field Co-ordinator at the Negev Co-existence Forum, an organisation with an outdated name that does radical things like the uncompromising campaign for recognition of unrecognised villages in the Negev.

Part of my role was, together with a Palestinian partner, to wander around Bedouin villages that the state refuses to recognise and to map out the challenges that arise from the field and what could be done to help. We would arrive at a village, sit in one or two families’ Shig (Bedouin hospitality tent) each time, and hear about the daily problems in communities without basic infrastructure such as flowing water, electricity, sewage, garbage collection, or basic services like a school or medical clinic.

One of the moments that I will never forget was a meeting with an especially formidable woman from the village Rakhma, next to Yeruham: she told us that as a woman, when there’s open space around her she can go out on a long walk and remain alone the whole time, and when she grows food for herself in raised beds or sits with her daughters next to a fire under the stars - there she feels alive and free.

She added that inside a four-walled structure that exits onto a stairwell or a busy street, or working in a factory, a supermarket or an office in an urban town - there she experiences true suppression of her vibrant spirit.

The village Rakhma is one of some thirty five villages that have existed since before the establishment of the state, or that were transferred to their current territory by the army in the 50s and 60s. Today, the goal of the state and its institutions that work in the Negev - the JNF, the Israel Land Authority, and the Bedouin Authority which is made up of 180 staff members, amongst them 0 Bedouin - is to settle as many Arabs as possible on as little territory as possible.

M, a woman from Al-Zarnuq 2022, Photo by Odeliya Matter

How is this done? Through a process of enforced urbanisation, with sanctions such as home demolitions and monstrous fines for any person who refuses to move to one of the ghettos that were established especially for the Bedouin - Tel Sheva, Rahat, Ara’ara, Lakia, Segev Shalom, Hura, or Kuseife.

It sounds very simple because it is very simple. In order to impose “Jewish sovereignty”, that is to say Jewish control, over land and territory in the Negev, Bedouins do not have contiguous access to agricultural land in the Negev, and Jews do. Even camels, the same camels that for hundreds if not thousands of years belong to the Negev’s ecological environs, the camels that are the symbol of Ben Gurion University of the Negev and of every other event that takes place here, are not considered a branch of agriculture - but cows from Switzerland are.

I discovered that in all the Negev there are some 100,000 Arab Bedouin citizens like the woman I met in Rakhma, who refuse to move to towns, and who take part in a struggle that has been ongoing for more than 70 years and is called Sumud, which means resilience and staying on the land.

Their main demand is to remain in their place, and not to move to a town with no contiguous access to agricultural land and without any aspect of their rich and traditional way of life, which Bedouins have carried with them over hundreds of years of adapting to life in this desert which is called the Negev. The solution to their demands is as simple as the problem itself - to recognise the Bedouin villages where they are situated, where they are spread out on only 3.5% of the territory of the Negev, and include a total of 35 villages. Exactly like Ayelet Shaked and Ze’ev Elkin managed to promote the establishment of 14 new Jewish communities in the Negev, so it is also possible to connect these villages which have existed for generations upon generations to the infrastructure that they deserve by virtue of being human beings in a “so-called Democratic” state.

Land Day, 2022. Photo by Odeliya Matter

At one point I started to laugh at myself. I understood that the Jewish story of the previous century tells of antisemitism against urban Jews that came from jealousy and baseless hatred - we were so successful and wealthy and urban, and for this we were hated and depicted as those who are trying to take over the area.

Antisemitism is so stupid. But we have this kind of inclination, as humans, and maybe this is what Jews were really chosen for, to create a negative image of the oppression that we went through. Because what other reason could there be to prevent the people who live agricultural lives over wide expanses of the Negev - expenses that would be empty without them - if not baseless hatred, jealousy, and fabrications about the attempts of Bedouins to take over the area?

The values of settlement, pioneers, the New Jew, the farmer in lone farmsteads, or even the New Ecological Israeli who builds with mud and forages hubeiza (mallow) - are these not things that were already done here, by people who are a bit less white than me?

I understood that as long as this injustice continues to take place, it would be very strange to promote ecological lifestyles without relating to the 100,000 people who are yearning and struggling to do this exact thing, and probably much better than me. They don’t need to do a course in organic agriculture that proposes an array of methods for sustainable food growing in the desert, or to formulate a religious-nationalist identity and to read texts written by A. B. Gordon in order to feel a deep connection to the land and to work it honourably. They don’t need a youth movement to take them out for trips in nature, or a naked foraging weekend, in order to know what a medicinal herb is. The only thing that they have no choice but to do is to destroy a system that is so racist that it determines that they are criminals, intruders and infiltrators from the day they were born if they are Arabs who were born in a village in the Negev and not in a predetermined ghetto.

Photo by Odeliya Matter

I understood that alongside joining a stubborn, longlasting, collective and fundamentally environmental struggle for honourable and equitable life in the Negev, all that remained for me was to aspire to live this kind of communal and agricultural life - simply, with the desert providing for all of my needs. Where there is a community that supports you and is present in the meaningful events of your life. Where there is less consumption and great abundance. Where you can go out for a walk and remain alone for a long time, and then return to the tribe’s fire and drink herbal tea together. And if I will succeed in setting up this life and the place that I live in will want to destroy it all, all that will remain will be to learn from the Negev Bedouin what true resilience looks like.

One meeting with one woman succeeded in removing a huge stain which sat on the map of the Negev in my consciousness. Exactly because of the simplicity of shaking off blind patterns of thought that I previously held, I set up a political media organisation with that same Palestinian Bedouin partner, in order to address an Israeli, Palestinian and international audience, with powerful stories and advocacy about the Negev. We offer training in advocacy and media orientation for young Arab Bedouins, visits to unrecognised villages to any interested audience, lectures and digital content on these topics. The Negev is a lot more beautiful after refuting that which distanced between those who live here, and that’s a promise.

Negev media on social media:

Photo by Saliman Altihi

Odeliya Mattar

is a student of Journalism at Sapir College and Co-director of Negev Media. She grew up in Jerusalem and continues to grow in Be’er Sheva. She registered for a Talmud course this week because the watercolour painting course was finished.


bottom of page