The path less taken

Residents of a Galilee Beduin village fight for a 2-kilometer access road.

January 26, 2017 13:13

The Beduin village of Khawaled in the North. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Mhimad Khaldi leaves his expansive four-story home in the Galilee village of Khawaled and sidles into his once fashionable Toyota Corolla sedan.

The still-spry 76-year-old Beduin’s destination is the Zvulun Regional Council property tax payment office in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi, located in the valley where he has spent his entire life.

The only direct road from Khawaled to Kfar Hamaccabi and its neighboring kibbutzim, Ramat Yohanan and Usha, isn’t really a road at all. It’s more like one of those winding, rugged unpaved paths that one finds leading to many of the country’s nature and historical sites.

Full of deep rivulets, crazy-ass potholes and winter-generated mud, the 1.8 km. road – built during the era of Ottoman rule in Palestine – requires some heavyduty maneuvering, and can’t be good for any normal car’s chassis.

But the alternative route for Khawaled’s 650 or so residents to get to the kibbutzim and on to the closest city, Kiryat Ata – where many of them work and shop and make use of daily services – is just as unappealing for a different reason. While certainly less treacherous, it adds some 15 kilometers to the journey.

That’s why the residents of Khawaled have been campaigning for years to have the Ottoman trail they refer to as the “Kibbutzim Road” paved.

It sounds like a pretty straightforward request, but anyone who has encountered Israeli bureaucracy for issues much less costly than paving a road (around NIS 2 million) know that there’s not going to be overnight action.

But according to the villager spearheading the effort, Khaldi’s son Ishmael, the foot-dragging has been exacerbated by an overall lack of understanding by the regional council about the needs of the Beduin community, and a still-noticeable bias against the Beduin of the Zvulun valley. That combination, Khaldi claims, has mired the project in slowmoving quicksand as hard to shake off as the mud on the road.

“WE ARE part of the country, we don’t want to live on the fringes,” says the wiry, bearded Ishmael Khaldi, standing on the top-floor porch of his father’s home boasting a panoramic view of the pastoral valley, with the looming cities of Haifa and Kiryat Ata a few kilometers away off in the distance.

“All we are asking is for the road to be paved and give us easy access to go see the doctor, to go to work and to let us integrate into Israeli society.”

The 46-year-old Khaldi, a Foreign Ministry official who became the first Beduin diplomat sent to represent Israel abroad (with stints in both San Francisco and London), has been cajoling, nudging and petitioning the regional council and all the relevant ministries and offices connected to the road for more than half a decade.

Adept in social media, he’s made the issue a public one, and regularly posts updates that have gained the plight of Khawaled widespread exposure.

He’s also put his foot in his mouth more than once. Last year, he was called in by then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold for an incendiary Facebook post following the release of US spy Jonathan Pollard that said: “This is what is really important? A Jewish spy is more important than a Beduin village that does not have an access road? Or are they second class?” Despite such outbursts, which he chalked up to accumulated frustration, Khaldi has generally worked within the system to gain a groundswell of support. He even claims to have funding for the road set up by contributions from the Jewish National Fund through connections in London.

But even with that public backing, and networking with high-placed officials in ministries and political parties from his years in service of the country, the path to pavement has been fraught with obstacles.

According to Zvulun Regional Council Adviser Shlomo Kfir, who has been involved with the request to pave the Ottoman road since day one, the obstacles and delays have nothing to do with a lack of goodwill or opposition to the road, but to its special status as an historical landmark.

“To go to the Transportation Ministry with the official request to pave the road, a number of offices and ministries need to sign off on it first,” said Kfir, listing Bezeq, the Mekorot national water company, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Electric Corporation as among the bodies with a say in the matter.

“Our engineer sent requests more than six months ago, but it’s not a matter where you’re going to get an answer in a short time.”

Kfir, who was raised on Kfar Hamaccabi, said he has had a close relationship with the people of Khawaled his whole life.

“The Jews and Beduin in this region live in a situation that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he says.

“I remember back in the early 1970s, when Khawaled didn’t have any running water, Kfar Hamaccabi put in a pipe from the kibbutz at its own cost.

“I understand the impatience of Ishmael and the residents of Khawaled. As a council, we’re interested in getting the road paved too. The kibbutzim use it and suffer the same way. A paved road can only help the connection and day-to-day interaction between Khawaled and its neighbors.”

THE HISTORY between the Khawaled tribe and the Jewish Yishuv goes back way before the founding of the state.

The Zionists who founded the three kibbutzim in the area in the 1930s – when the tribe lived in tents on the hillsides of the valley – employed many of them in their apple orchards. Both Khaldis walked on the Ottoman road to and from the village as youngsters in different generations.

“We were very close with the halutzim [pioneers], and we’ve always had good relations with the Jewish communities around us,” says Ishmael, explaining that members of the tribe migrated to the valley and began building permanent homes throughout the 1950s and 60s, which eventually grew to extended family size like his father’s, as they began to work in the nearby factories and kibbutzim.

The Beduin began to live like Israelis, voting like the neighboring kibbutz members did for Labor, and serving in the IDF, often as trackers.

According to Gideon Kressel, a retired professor who focused on the Beduin in Israel for decades at Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the ‘70s and ‘80s were decades of transition for the 50,000 Beduin of the Galilee, with most villages still “unrecognized” and homes built in limbo and regularly demolished by the government.

It was only under the tenure of Shas and then-interior minister Arye Deri that Khawaled was officially recognized in 1993, and incorporated into the Zvulun Regional Council.

“Deri understood that minorities in Israel needed to be helped,” said Kressel, not discounting the possibility that the move was earmarked to woo the Beduin vote away from Labor.

The home demolitions stopped, internal roads were planned and paved, and in the 1990s Khawaled received village-wide electricity. Today most of the families have HOT cable, but according to Ishmael, many of the features of the village blueprints on file at the local council – a soccer field, a cemetery – have never seen the light of day.

“There was a lack of sensitivity about the planning of Khawaled,” he says.

“We’re a tribal society, and to help people like us settle down, you need to have an open mind. What are the best tools to help the community but also keep the best of a fine heritage? Everything was planned as if Khawaled was going to be an urban town, without any consultation with us. There was no land allocated for our farms and agriculture. We are not a yishuv kehilati [rural residential community], we need to be recognized as tribal community of rural agriculture, like a moshav.”

TO GET to Khawaled is like traveling through two worlds. Located off Road 70 north of Yokne’am, between the Yagur and Somech junctions, the village is currently accessed by a right turn onto an access road that parallels 70, being used by the Israel National Roads Company for the development of the northern extension of Road 6.

The high-speed four-lane Road 70 and the dusty two-lane job are like the Wizard of Oz in reverse – going from color to black and white. The access road was paved by the Transportation Ministry upon the request of the local council in 2010, but the entry to the road from 70 is going to be blocked once the Road 6 roadwork is completed. The only way out for residents of Khawaled – aside from the Ottoman road – will soon be the circumventing Road 7621 that snakes back almost to Yokne’am.

“We are not wealthy people, and for most us spending the extra gas is not an option, so we continue to drive on the Ottoman road, even though it is difficult to drive on. If we want to go out at night, we have to think twice, as it’s impossible to drive then,” says Ishmael, standing on the side of the Ottoman road.

According to Kfir, the situation would be much worse for Khawaled without the intervention of the local council, citing Road 7621 that was approved at their impetus that takes travelers to the nearby Tel Regev cemetery, and then continues on to the highway.

“At one stage, the Roads Authority closed Road 70 in both directions, and we pressed them and together came up with the 7621 alternative that would help Khawaled,” he says.

But for Ishmael, his father and the rest of Khawaled’s residents, that alternative is not acceptable, and they feel that a Jewish community facing a similar problem would not be facing such an uphill battle.

“A lot of it is bureaucracy, but some of it is discrimination,” says Ishmael. “This is alienating us to the margins of society.

We’ve grown up with the kibbutzim here since the ’30s and ’40s, but the leaders today aren’t the same as they used to be… they’ve lost their vision.

“The road exists; we are not asking to build anything. There is such great potential, we can develop tourism here on this historic road. We can make this area a Beduin jewel in the Zvulun Valley and go around the world and show them that Israel may not be a perfect place, but look what we’ve done here.

“I spoke with an adviser of Deri and said, ‘come and let’s close the circle that he started. You recognized us, come and complete it. What you didn’t do 23 years ago, let’s do today.’” He wipes the mud off his shoes as much as he can, and climbs back into the car and continues on the road less traveled.

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