Can Bedouin spirits sway Israel’s election?

There are 146,000 eligible Bedouin voters, enough to swing a national election in Israel’s razor-thin coalition math, depending on voter turnout.

 Former MK Said al-Harumi (photo credit: Sami Abed Elhamed/Wikipedia)
Former MK Said al-Harumi
(photo credit: Sami Abed Elhamed/Wikipedia)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The vast Negev desert can be both punishing and beautiful, partly dependent on whether you have access to water and electricity. A son of the Negev, Said al-Harumi’s shadow in the bright early mornings cast a long and outsized figure wherever he walked, especially amid the 35 unrecognized Bedouin villages – home to 90,000 people – that remain unconnected to power and water.

Yet the man’s shadow stretches not only at sunrise, but especially at the end of the day, when the golden light surrounds an increasingly growing profile as the sun sinks in the sky and darkness ultimately prevails.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, famously said that the future of Israel and humanity will be determined in the Negev. That prophetic vision was aimed at blooming the desert with agriculture, water and solar power. As Israel enters yet another election season, the future of the Zionist enterprise is likely to be determined in the Negev, by the Bedouin, and especially by the long shadow that Said al-Harumi casts over his loyal, yet now unsettled supporters.

Israel’s November 1 election is haunted, and its result will likely be determined by several Bedouin spirits – especially that of al-Harumi, who died suddenly at 49 of a heart attack a year ago, one month after he assumed the position of chairman of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee on behalf of the Islamic United Arab List (Ra’am).

In 2021, 167,064 citizens voted for the party, which cleared the 3.25% electoral threshold by half a percentage point and thus changed the Israeli political map forever: finally breaking Israel’s longest-running political taboo by including an Arab party in a ruling coalition.

 Dr. Mansour Abbas and Dr. Mohammed al-Nabari outside the tent of mourning for al-Harumi at Segev Shalom. ‘Now that Said is gone, it is your responsibility to work twice as hard to realize his solar vision,’ the Ra’am chairman tells the author. (credit: MICHA PRICE) Dr. Mansour Abbas and Dr. Mohammed al-Nabari outside the tent of mourning for al-Harumi at Segev Shalom. ‘Now that Said is gone, it is your responsibility to work twice as hard to realize his solar vision,’ the Ra’am chairman tells the author. (credit: MICHA PRICE)

“Most Bedouin didn’t vote for Ra’am but for Said.”

Mansour Abbas senior adviser

“Most Bedouin didn’t vote for Ra’am but for Said,” says a senior advisor to Dr. Mansour Abbas, chairman of Ra’am. “That is how Mansour Abbas was able to break away from the Arab Joint List, which sees its primary role in the opposition, and enter the Knesset as an independent Islamic list and then complete an unlikely eight-party broad coalition that replaced Benjamin Netanyahu. Mansour wouldn’t have cleared the electoral threshold if it wasn’t for Said and his voters.”

There are 146,000 eligible Bedouin voters, enough to swing a national election in Israel’s razor-thin coalition math, depending on voter turnout. Weekly national polling reports a swing between 59 and 61 seats for either the Netanyahu-led block or the coalition of change, which can’t form a parliamentary majority without Ra’am.

The State of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Arab society into it,” Mansour Abbas told a Globes business conference last December. “We are at the beginning of the partnership, but I believe in it. You can’t wait for change without creating a new reality. We always demanded change without moving forward. Instead of waiting for it to happen before there was a partnership, Ra’am came along and said ‘Let’s form a partnership that will bring the change.’”

The question is now that Harumi is not on the ballot, what percentage of Bedouin still believe in Abbas’s vision of an Arab-Jewish partnership and will come out to vote? And for whom?

 Israel’s first Bedouin solar field at Tarabin: the author with Raed al-Kinnan and Micha Price, co-director of the Said al-Harumi Initiative. (credit: MICHA PRICE) Israel’s first Bedouin solar field at Tarabin: the author with Raed al-Kinnan and Micha Price, co-director of the Said al-Harumi Initiative. (credit: MICHA PRICE)

The spirit of Said al-Harumi continues to fight for Bedouin rights

Al-Harumi may be gone, yet from the grave, his spirit continues to fight for Bedouin rights across the Negev, and, by extension, for Ra’am to squeak past the electoral threshold.

SAID WAS running late one day, which is the norm for members of Knesset. An apologetic Knesset aide sits with Micha Price and me in his parliamentary office, checking his phone for updates.

“It is done!” the aide informs us of the formal handing over to Harumi of the chairmanship of the key Knesset committee that oversees both police and solar energy – key issues for the Bedouin community.

Al-Harumi rushes in with a megawatt smile, reminiscent of that of former finance minister Moshe Kahlon, and also of Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Celebratory hugs, handshakes and “mabruk” (congratulations) fill the room. “Yosef, take out all those plans for solar energy for the Bedouin and let’s get to work!”

When our family moved from Newton, Massachusetts to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava at the end of August 2006, I knew little about solar energy or the condition of the Bedouin, Israel’s poorest community. I had been involved in the US with social and political issues, had the privilege of working with Coretta Scott King, and also led the anti-apartheid movement at Boston University. So I made aliyah with the value of equality in my DNA, which is a vision also enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a copy of which hung in my Boston childhood home.

When my partners and I launched the first solar field in the Middle East in 2011 at Kibbutz Ketura, Faiz Abu Sahiben, mayor of the Bedouin city Rahat, and also Hajj Moussa Tarabin, spoke at the news conference. Construction on Tarabin’s solar field was expected to begin within a year as our second field, which was supposed to launch an era of social and economic development in the Negev through impact solar investments. These solar fields would have also incentivized win-win compromises between the State of Israel and the Bedouin, who have filed 25,000 land claims. Solar energy was about to become the economic engine of the Negev – for the kibbutzim, moshavim, and especially for the Bedouin.

It didn’t play out that way. The kibbutzim and moshavim won all the solar licenses and bids, and thus enjoyed all the upside, and also blocked the ability of potential Bedouin fields to be connected to the grid. I had a front-row seat to see the systematic discrimination and humiliation against fellow Israeli citizens, and the disadvantages they endured compared with Jewish landowners.

My trusted guides in the Bedouin community were Raed Al-Kinnan, an educational and community activist who met his wife, Mariam, through al-Harumi, her teacher; and Abed el-Said, a well-connected leader of the recognized village bearing his name. Together they shepherded me to meet hundreds of Bedouin families, drank a lot of strong coffee and sweet tea, celebrated the Muslim holidays, attended court hearings, shared their frustrations at government meetings, peered over dozens of maps, and walked dusty disputed lands for hours.

The Public Utilities Authority, the electricity regulator, threw out Moussa Tarabin’s license request at the last minute in 2012, on dubious grounds that were clearly discriminatory. A staff member at the regulator, who supported the license application, whispered to us to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Tarabin’s 10MW solar field was finally built in 2018, losing out on the better economics that the kibbutzim and moshavim received through early higher tariffs, and nine years after the process began – meaning that the entrepreneurs lost millions of shekels.

When the door slammed on Tarabin’s solar field in 2012 – even after appeals to the Prime Minister’s Office and other officials – I took the model of economic and social development for vulnerable populations through green energy investments to Africa. While the State of Israel actively undermined the opportunity in the Negev, the White House was receptive, and the first solar success for the Obama-Biden administration in sub-Sahara Africa took place in Rwanda.

In 2014, Chaim Motzen and I connected a $24 million solar field at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village that provides income for the village, good employment, women’s empowerment and covered the health costs for 500 orphans in the village for 25 years. This field became the poster child worldwide for economic and social development through solar investment, and even Bono from U2 – an anti-poverty activist – came to marvel. “Gigawatt Global has created a crazy, futuristic solar field that’s boosted Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6% and has basically blown my circuits with its possibilities,” wrote Bono following his visit.

More recently, Michael Fichtenberg and I, with our impact investment partners and professional team, have since also interconnected a 8.6MW solar field in Burundi, the world’s poorest country, which created hundreds of jobs and is supplying 10% of the country’s power, the first African solar win for the Biden-Harris White House.

BACK HOME in Israel, Raed al-Kinnan was understandably frustrated. He had used all his contacts and goodwill to bring reluctant Bedouin families to the table with Jewish investors to plan solar fields, and there was simply zero progress. When I would go with Raed to visit Moussa Tarabin year after year in front of an empty field to encourage him to keep the faith and stay in the deal, he would say, “To where have you disappeared? We need you here, not in Africa.”

But there was simply no one in the government to talk to. The regulator, largely controlled by the Finance Ministry, blindly refused – and still refuses – to make any special provisions to enable the Bedouin to take part in any of the solar programs, undermining their economic empowerment even further. Perhaps we should take them to court: how could it be that in the democratic State of Israel nearly all the solar fields are on Jewish land?

Raed realized that if his solar dreams are going to work in the Negev, there would need to be a government decision to establish a solar quota for minorities, affirmative action in zoning, a bonus tariff to account for extra costs and time, and priority interconnection to the electric grid. He rallied Bedouin mayors, including Faiz Abu Sahiben from Rahat and Dr. Mohammed al-Nabari from Hura, to sign a petition. We testified in the Knesset and went to endless meetings. Nothing.

So when al-Harumi sprang into his Knesset office on July 26, 2021, commanding us to get to work, the plan of action was ready from a decade ago.

He quickly outlined three steps: a regional consultation in the Negev on October 3 at Yanabia, an NGO headed by al-Nabari, to outline the plan and receive input from the Energy and Environmental ministries, Bedouin, private sector investors and key NGOs.

Al-Nabari is also chairman of Wadi Atir, an innovative Bedouin NGO combining traditional agricultural practices with new Israeli technologies established by a government decision, but also recently denied solar rights in a new pilot program that went only to Jewish-owned lands.

The former Hura mayor is leading several new initiatives. One is planning a second major Bedouin city. Another is women-led Bedouin agricultural cooperatives that would deploy agro-voltaics, which means installing panels above where they are growing lettuce and tomatoes to benefit from the shade with the solar income providing a secondary revenue stream to pay for higher education for the women.

The second step al-Harumi commanded was a hearing in his Knesset Interior and Environment Committee to present a draft government recommendation for a solar quota for minorities of 5,000MW through 2030, which would create 10,000 jobs and attract $5 billion in private sector investment. Since minorities will represent 25% of Israeli citizens by 2030, he reasoned, climate justice simply mandated that 25% of Israel’s power should be also be generated by them.

The third step was for Ra’am chief Abbas to bring the climate justice government decision to a vote in the cabinet.

The whole process was supposed to take three months, to be quarterbacked by Micha Price, a talented graduate of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The short-term initiative bearing al-Harumi’s name also benefited from a seed grant from the Merage Foundation, which promotes economic development in the Negev, and came under Life & Environment, the umbrella of the environmental movement in Israel. Speed of action was important because no one knew how long the government of change was going to last, and al-Harumi needed to deliver tangible benefits to his voters to justify the bold and controversial step of Ra’am joining a government.

We vigorously shook on the plan of action going forward. As I stood up at the end of the meeting, al-Harumi gently took my arm and pulled me aside. “Even while we are planning the government decision and the big projects, promise me you won’t forget the schools. I was a teacher. Many schools for Bedouin are running on diesel generators, which poison the kids. Promise me you will bring solar power to them.” I gave him my word. A month later, Said al-Harumi was dead.

Outside the tent of mourning in the village of Segev Shalom, Abbas is barefoot and leaning against an old water tank. He lifts one foot for washing, then the other. The Ra’am leader is flanked by al-Nabari and the two men are in somber, focused discussion. I sense that Mansour is asking him to consider taking al-Harumi’s place on the Ra’am list; it is only two months since the government was sworn in, and the representative of the Bedouin community, who brought in the key votes, is now gone.

Two hundred men sit on benches under the makeshift black tent, the pebbled ground crunching lightly as mourners stream in to join the greeting line.

I wear the lone kippah. And Raed arranges for me to speak.

“I am here on behalf of the environmental movement to say that our hearts are broken with yours,” I said, in the only Hebrew eulogy of the day. “How is it possible that God has taken Said from us at the very moment that he was going to bring climate justice to the Bedouin? Mansour, we are here to say you are not alone, and we are here to be your partners to realize Said’s dream.”

In front of the kaffiyeh-capped crowd, Mansour beckons me to sit next to him for the remainder of the eulogies. I feel al-Harumi’s presence; a light electric charge is in the air. Then Abbas and al-Nabari stand outside the tent, and indicate that I should approach.

“You gave your Bedouin word to Said and only he can absolve you of that,” says the head of Israel’s Islamic party. “It is your responsibility to now work twice as hard to realize his vision. I will help you.”

 Raed al-Kinnan and Hajj Moussa Tarabin discuss the need for a government decision to advance more solar projects. Tarabin is the pioneer of solar in the Bedouin sector, with a 10MW solar field that was nixed by Israel’s regulator but eventually was built in 2018. (credit: MICHA PRICE) Raed al-Kinnan and Hajj Moussa Tarabin discuss the need for a government decision to advance more solar projects. Tarabin is the pioneer of solar in the Bedouin sector, with a 10MW solar field that was nixed by Israel’s regulator but eventually was built in 2018. (credit: MICHA PRICE)

Within two months, Abbas and I pen a joint article in Haaretz titled, “Israel can help its poorest citizens – and the planet – with green energy,” and he had me appear in front of his Knesset committee on Arab affairs to present al-Harumi’s vision.

Al-Harumi – via a representative of the council of unrecognized villages – sends me and Micha out on a long bumpy path to a government-run cluster of four kindergartens in the unrecognized village of Elrara. The smell of diesel is in the air, and the loud generator drowns out normal conversation.

The municipality of Al-Kassoum spends 180,000 shekels a year of Israeli tax dollars on the diesel, which is often stolen and the kids sit in darkness for weeks at a time. There is also no running water. Kids regularly cross the path from the school to go to the tiny infirmary to use the ventilator or get referred to Soroka Hospital for breathing problems. “This is our Africa,” I say to Micha. “An hour and a half from Tel Aviv.”

We go to the director of education of the Al-Kassoum municipality to seek his support. It is a hot Ramadan day, and he is running late. As we are about to reschedule with his staff, Omar Abu Asq comes in, obviously tired from the heat and the fast. He sits behind his desk, looks me over, pauses, and says, “Are you Said?”

The electricity from the mourning tent is back in the air; his spirit is hovering. And I am stunned when I answer in the affirmative.

The director was asking in shorthand if we are representing the Said al-Harumi Initiative, but the phrasing of it took me by surprise.

“OK,” said Abu Asq. “Whatever Said needs, I will approve.”

The plan was to raise money to build the first solar school pilot and then catalyze government funds for the other 23 diesel powered schools. Over the course of the next six months, three American Jewish philanthropies – the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Lucius Littauer Foundation and James Sternlicht’s Peace Department – stepped up to support the initiative and the pilot.

President Isaac Herzog’s Climate Forum, under the leadership of Dov Khenin and Dr. Zohar Berman, have also endorsed the initiative and are working to ensure its full implementation.

Meanwhile, Raed brought our previous Bedouin solar land deals to fellow impact investor Yoav Moaz, of the Marom solar company, and they are about to launch Israel’s second Bedouin solar field, a process that took six years, yet the electric company still refuses to hook it up until January 2024. We appealed this delay to the Energy Ministry and are still waiting for its resolution.

I later corner Energy Minister Karin Elharar when she sat with Abbas at a recent Arab solar conference, and she pledged – and actually transferred! – NIS 15 million to swap out many of the diesel generators for solar plus storage at the schools. While some challenges remain with building permits, which will be solved, al-Harumi, from the grave, will be delivering this coming year on his promise to the 10,000 Bedouin kids affected. But not before the election.

And then, working with Abbas and many others in civil society, the government passed a sweeping decision, #1279, covering all aspects of Bedouin life and allocating an additional NIS 5.5b. over five years.

However, all the al-Harumi-related changes we added in Section 11 for energy were removed at the last minute by the ministries of Finance, Energy and Justice, once again undermining solar-powered equitable land compromises and large-scale green energy investments in the Bedouin communities. And then the government fell on June 30, 10 months after al-Harumi’s death.

Abbas is committed to adding another senior Bedouin figure in the top four slots in the upcoming election, probably our friend Abu Sabihan, mayor of Rahat. And he is working to expand his Arab representation to include candidates from the Druze and Christian communities. (There are rumors of even having a Jewish representative on the Ra’am list, like the Joint List has MK Ofer Kassif, and Dov Khenin before him) A rival, more secular Bedouin party is working to join the Joint List, which may split the Bedouin vote and weaken Ra’am’s chances of entering the Knesset.

Netanyahu began the process of legitimizing Ra’am as a potential coalition partner, but when they joined the Bennett-Lapid government instead, he and other senior Likud officials call them “terrorism supporters.”

Likud led a walk-out from the Knesset plenary on January 5, with Mansour presiding in the speaker’s chair, which then passed an electricity law 61-0 supported by the Israel Electric Company to hook up unlicensed Arab homes to the national grid.

In Israel’s highly politicized political environment, for every action, there is a counterreaction. A week later, Likud provocatively planted trees with JNF-KKL on disputed Bedouin land in the Negev, knowing it would create a flash-point to rally their right-wing electoral base while trying to plant discord between Ra’am and the rest of the coalition. Perched on a hilltop above the fray, I watched in horror as Israel deployed a show of force against the Bedouin who had gathered in protest, and ran for cover when drones dropped smoke bombs and tear gas on us.

I caught a lift out of the fight with Raed’s father, and his uncle, who asked me to photograph the bruise he received from a rubber bullet on his back.

Yakub Abu al-Kiyan: The second Bedouin ghost in the Israeli election

While al-Harumi’s shadow is the largest one cast over the Bedouin sector, there is a second Bedouin ghost hovering over the election. His name is Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, another uncle of Raed’s and an educator who was killed by Israeli police in 2017 when they invaded Raed’s village to demolish homes. A police officer, Erez Levy, was also killed in the altercation. Initial reports called it an ISIS attack but the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) later retracted it, and three years later Netanyahu, in courting Ra’am to join his coalition, apologized for the incident.

Two nights after the killing, I and my oldest daughter, Aliza, then 24, snuck into al-Hiran village at 2 a.m. and slept on Raed and Mariam’s couch and floor. The next morning 7,000 Bedouin men gathered for a spirited prayer memorial rally at the foot of the village. We were the only Jews, and Aliza the only woman. “They killed Yakub twice,” said Raed from the stage over the diesel-powered sound system. “First with bullets and then his reputation.”

Repeated shouts of “Allahu Akbar” rang out in unison.

Anywhere else in the world, Aliza and I would have felt in danger. But not in Said al-Harumi’s Negev, and not in Raed’s unrecognized village. For most Bedouin leaders are possessed by the spirit of openness to cooperate with Jewish Israel at least through one more election.

What is unclear, however, is whether enough of their followers will take that sentiment to the ballot box on November 1, so that Ra’am can once again join the coalition and finally pass al-Harumi’s government decision on transformative social and economic development and win-win land deals through solar investments. At press time, Ra’am – and perhaps Said al-Harumi’s spirit – is hovering just above the electoral threshold.

Ra’am has to remain in the Knesset because they represent Jews and Arabs wanting to work together,” says a senior official in a Bedouin town. “I believe most believe in this path.” ■

Nominated by 12 African countries for the Nobel Peace Prize for his solar work, Yosef Israel Abramowitz is the co-founder of the Said Al-Harumi Initiative, serves on President Herzog’s Climate Forum, and is CEO of Energiya Global Capital, an impact investment platform. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine