Not the end of the road for a Bedouin diplomat's campaign

Infrastructure and conservation issues cited as the reasons for delays to the project, he said, could have been resolved at an earlier date.

July 30, 2019 18:42
3 minute read.
The access road to the Bedouin village of Khawaled

The access road to the Bedouin village of Khawaled. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Foreign Ministry official Ishmael Khaldi has battled BDS in London and built bridges in San Francisco, but the first Israeli Bedouin diplomat’s years-long campaign to improve access to his northern village is still incomplete.

Recognized as a permanent settlement by the Zevulun Regional Council in 1993, Khawaled is home to approximately 700 residents, including Khaldi’s extended family.

Despite his role as a civil servant representing Israel abroad, Khaldi has received special dispensation from the Foreign Ministry to represent and argue on behalf of northern Israel’s Bedouin community.

The symbol of the diplomat’s efforts since 2013 soon became the campaign to pave a short but critical access road leading from Khawaled to nearby kibbutzim and then to the closest city, Kiryat Ata. The existing dirt road – full of potholes and especially difficult to navigate in the wet winter months – made access to employment, medical care and school prohibitively difficult.

“After a long battle and lots of lobbying, the village successfully secured money from the Transportation Ministry to pave the road,” Khaldi told The Jerusalem Post. “The money was transferred to Zevulun Council at the start of 2018.”

Eighteen months later, at the beginning of July, the council paved half of the access road to Khawaled. While progress was welcomed by the villagers, Khaldi says they were left frustrated by the council’s failure to complete the job.

“An access road helps the village’s inhabitants get jobs and access their places of work,” he explained. “They might not be hi-tech engineers, but they work in the Haifa industrial area and the nearby kibbutzim. We want the women to be part of the workforce, students to easily travel to college and to work with local authorities to develop incoming rural tourism. The road will help people come and visit Khawaled.”

Infrastructure and conservation issues that were cited as reasons for delays to the project, he said, could have been resolved at an earlier date. Despite reassurances made by the regional council that the work will be completed before long, some villagers remain skeptical.

The spokesperson for the Zevulun Regional Council told the Post that paving the second half of the road should be completed within a few weeks.

Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi walks on the access road to the Bedouin village of Khawaled (Courtesy)

“A delay was caused by the council’s demand to the contractor to carry out the work according to its standards,” the council said.

“Completing the paving of the road will bring a complex project to its conclusion, including the regulation of water infrastructure, electricity and tree conservation. The project was planned, managed and executed by the Zevulun Regional Council.”

For Khaldi, who has been subject to vicious online attacks as a result of his efforts, the completion of the paved access road will certainly represent a victory for the people of Khawaled, but his efforts are intended to transcend the borders of his small village.

“I’m trying to take Khawaled and make it a role model for a successful Bedouin community, and a case study of successful state policy for dealing with Bedouins,” he said.

The main threat to preserving the community’s heritage, many village inhabitants said, is the marketing of state land adjacent to Bedouin villages to the general public rather than to the local population.

“There are 13 small Bedouin communities in northern Israel, including Khawaled, who belong to regional councils and all of them face the same issues,” Khaldi said. “The most crucial issue facing us today is preserving our Bedouin heritage and character. We want the communities to remain Bedouin.”

Looking toward the future, Khaldi has ambitious plans for the village and the wider region.

He hopes to build an information hub for Bedouin heritage in the village and even establish a Bedouin research center at Tel Hai College in the Upper Galilee.

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