‘Discriminatory’ housing policy raises ire in Rahat

"You don’t have to be Einstein to understand the problem," says activist.

AN UNEXPECTEDLY LARGE crowd of Rahat residents waits in Beersheba to apply to purchase housing plots. (photo credit: MOSAWA CENTER)
AN UNEXPECTEDLY LARGE crowd of Rahat residents waits in Beersheba to apply to purchase housing plots.
(photo credit: MOSAWA CENTER)
An incident this week that illustrated the inability of the authorities to organize the marketing of housing plots in Rahat has heightened anger among Beduin residents there who have long felt they are the victims of discrimination by the state.
Against the backdrop of what residents and mayor Talal al-Krenawi consider to be a severe housing shortage, the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Beduin in the Negev, which is part of the Agriculture Ministry, was supposed to take applications on Tuesday from Rahat residents for 900 plots being made available for purchase.
Thousands turned up at the offices of the authority in Beersheba, severely crowding the area near the building.
“Because of the pressure of people they had to stop the marketing. The police stopped it for reasons of public safety,” Krenawi said. A police spokeswoman declined to comment, while Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet also reported that the event was canceled at police behest due to the crowding.
The experience of being crowded together and not being able to register struck a raw nerve among Rahat residents. “This expressed the tough circumstances in which we live,” said Ibrahim Hasanat, a Beduin rights activist in Rahat. “From the point of view of people’s dignity they shouldn’t be treated this way. People lost a day of work and felt psychological distress.
Why not treat us as people? How can it be that they don’t know how to plan the marketing of plots?” Yossi Maimon, assistant to the director of the authority, said it would decide in the coming days how to proceed with the marketing of the plots. “We knew it would be complicated and problematic and therefore we took into account that we might have to transfer it to another location,” he said.
Maimon said the problem was not the crowded conditions, but rather that there were members of different families that are in dispute with one another there, and this could have created a volatile situation.
For Rahat residents, rights groups and Krenawi, the large turnout and fact that it greatly exceeded the number of available plots is clear proof of what they consider to be an obvious fact of life: that there is an acute housing shortage.
But there is a huge perceptual gap and divergent narratives between the authorities and those under their purview.
Maimon disputes that there is any housing problem in Rahat, even after Tuesday’s fiasco.
For Hasanat, crowding and a shortage of housing fuels crime, violence and other social ills. “You don’t have to be Freud or Einstein to understand the problem. There is a huge growth in population on the one hand and on the other they don’t provide municipalities with the areas they need or market housing.” He likens the living conditions of some Rahat residents “to a jail cell, to Guantanamo.”
Rahat’s population has grown from 53,000 in 2010 to about 70,000 today. Krenawi said a thousand new housing units are needed each year to keep up with demand. At present “young couples have no place to live and what they are marketing is barely enough for 20% of those without housing.”
Authorities “don’t plan and don’t market,” he said. “I am always protesting, but they have done nothing.”
Sanaa Ibn Bari, responsible for Beduin rights at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said Rahat is the victim of discriminatory policies going back decades. “When the government designed those townships, the planning aspect was lacking. It was done not according to the needs of the communities, but to concentrate population. The population is growing and its needs are growing, but nothing has changed. Rahat is failing because there is no strategic way of looking at the future and how it will accommodate all those people. This is the direct result of poor planning that started in the 1970s and ’80s, but we can see the results today.”
Maimon dismisses the criticisms. “There is no distress. Talk of a housing shortage is cheap demagoguery.” He said that 5,000 units have been marketed in recent years and that there are hundreds of unused plots that could accommodate thousands of housing units.
Plans call for the marketing of an additional 5,000 housing units in the southern part of Rahat near where the 900 plots are being marketed, he said. Three other neighborhoods will be opened up, he added. “From the point of view of solutions for those in need, there shouldn’t be any problem. The problem is there are battles between clans over who holds more land. We are trying to prevent a situation in which the rich families hold all the land and to make it possible for less well off families to buy plots.”
Kernawi, asked about the difference between his own and Maimon’s depiction of the situation, said: “For 10 years these people are giving a wrong message. They aren’t here on the ground.”