Prior to my work as Deputy Director General for International Affairs at the Israeli Federation of Local Governments, I had little idea of the complexity and depth of the Bedouin society in the North of Israel, comprising eight towns throughout the Galilee.

The small, picturesque towns of Shibli and Um-El-Ghanem were indeed names I had heard of before, but not much more than that… Shibli is the gateway to one of Israel’s most beautiful and significant tourist attractions- Mount Tavor. The latter is home to several astounding and world renowned churches: one- Greek Orthodox, closed to all but Greek Orthodox Pilgrims, and the other- Catholic, and open to the general public.

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The surrounding view is nothing short of breathtaking. The Mayor of Shibli, Naeem, is a phenomenon in his own right. Married to Salaam and father to six girls, he is first and foremost a shepherd, as he himself defines his calling. Waking up every morning before dawn to feed his sheep, he then spends at least two hours at the local gym and continues his day within the official capacity of Shibli’s elected and forward-looking mayor.

His aim is to create sustainable sources of income for the town, via the development of its natural asset- tourism. His “out-of-the-box” approach comprises choosing a Christian, young woman as his advisor on touristic and economic development , encouraging young men to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and providing a sound framework for young Bedouin women to engage in the official Israeli civil service. The latter is quite a challenge and involves overcoming not only deeply ingrained cultural disdain vis-à-vis allowing women to leave the vicinity of the village, but also the Arab-Jewish divide which paints Israeli Arabs who serve in the army as traitors to their own people.

Indeed, the Bedouin society differs inherently from other Arab Israeli communities throughout the country and the Northern Bedouin society differs from that in the South. Yet in order to comprehend the complexity, one needs only glance at the majority of Bedouins in the South of the country to note that those who do serve in the Israeli military need to strip off their uniforms prior to entering their villages when returning from duty, given the antagonism against the Israeli authorities in general and the military in particular. Peoplehood is complex by nature and is rarely painted in colors of black and white.

There are many fascinating shades in between… Naeem Shibli is an extraordinary example of those shades. Heir to a proud ancestry of Bedouin mediators who are often invited by Arabs in general and Bedouin Arabs in particular throughout Israel, to decide upon matters which at times pertain to life and death, he is simultaneously a mayor, a mediator, a negotiator and a mentor. Family feuds too often end in revenge and/or honor killings.

The unofficial Bedouin judicial system is an open secret, a parallel judiciary to the Israeli civil one and it remedies such disputes, borne of cultural sensitivities, which a regular judiciary simply would not know how to grapple with. Mayors, in general, are potentially so much more than the executive managers of the different systems which provide services for their inhabitants- housing, water, garbage disposal and so on.

Often, and at times inevitably, they are potential role models for their constituencies, for better or for worse… Particularly in small towns, and moreover in the Arab society in Israel, they play a significant role in maintaining stability during trying and challenging political upheavals.

The State of Israel has embraced the Bedouin society in the North of the country to a significant degree, and yet it could do more and adopt a lesson or two from the ancient Bedouin way of “sulkha” and honor those communities in a manner which would turn them into role models for emulation for the entire country.
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