Hope in Hura

Former scientist Dr. Mohammed Alnabari has managed to invigorate a failing Beduin town

Hura Mayor Mohammed Alnabari (center) shows the new Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel around the town’s recently inaugurated Wadi Attir sustainable eco-farm project. (photo credit: COURTESY HURA MUNICIPALITY)
Hura Mayor Mohammed Alnabari (center) shows the new Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel around the town’s recently inaugurated Wadi Attir sustainable eco-farm project.
THERE’S SOMETHING that catches the eye of a first-time visitor to the northern Negev Beduin township of Hura ‒ planted median strips and traffic circles, streets lined with well-tended trees and proper bus stops for public transportation, something one doesn’t see i n a ny other Beduin c ommunity.
Hura is the only Negev Beduin town with street names and proper addresses and one of the few with street lights.
These are not mundane details, but are symbolic of a civic turnaround in this town of 17,000 residents. Though the third-world reality typical of most Beduin settlements in the Negev is still evident around the edges, Hura is a comparatively tidy town. Even before the visitor reaches the impressive collection of public buildings at the center of town, there’s another unusual sight – closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras mounted throughout the town. Someone is watching.
As in other Beduin c ommunities in Israel, Hura has long suffered from poverty, unemployment, violence and crime. But, thanks to the leadership of its extraordinary mayor, Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, Hura is fast becoming a real success story and model for properly managed local government anywhere.
“There’s still much to do, but people have to believe there is hope,” the 45-yearold Alnabari, who holds a PhD in organic chemistry and left a prestigious R&D position at Perrigo Pharmaceuticals a decade ago to run for mayor, tells The Jerusalem Report. “As far as economic development goes, it’s not easy working with people if the management isn’t stable and keeps changing. We do a lot beyond what is expected of us.”
An estimated 220,000 Beduin reside in the area stretching from Kiryat Gat to Eilat, representing more than 30 percent of the total population. Half live in recognized towns and cities and the other half live “off the grid.”
Hura is one of seven townships the state created in the 1970s, in an attempt to concentrate the once nomadic Beduin into urban areas (an eighth town was established a few years ago). Half the Beduin population refused to move into the towns – living till today in the so-called unrecognized villages, most of which lack basic services.
Though the situation in some of the townships has improved somewhat in the last few years, most are still lacking industry and job opportunities, and remain at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure.
That is what makes the evident success of Hura, despite its disadvantages, so extraordinary.
Alnabari, with an endearing gap-toothed smile, radiates an easy, almost jolly, persona, frequently laughing at his own comments.
He studied chemistry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem ‒ at the time one of only eight Beduin students there. Those were formative years, immersed in a culture far from the Beduin communities. Later, Alnabari returned to the Negev to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “These days there are 500 Beduin students at BGU, but only 10 attend the Hebrew University,” he notes. “I’ve tried to persuade people to go to a different area for a while, but they don’t want to leave the Negev.”
Alnabari went to work at ChemAgis (today Perrigo), Israel’s second-largest pharmaceutical conglomerate, where he headed a research and development team.
His professional switch in 2004 to local politics was motivated, he says, by a sense of duty. “I wanted to do something for the community, for the town. I had never been involved in politics, nor did I represent any tribe or other interested parties. There were a lot of problems, and when people asked for my help, I agreed,” he states.
Those problems included inbred cronyism, serious tribal hostilities and a huge municipal debt; the water company was threatening to cut off water supplies because of the unpaid bill.
beginning of his first term, Alnabari fired several municipal department heads (including members of his own family) and began a campaign to collect municipal taxes – an idea considered nearly quixotic in the Beduin c ommunities. Today, according to the local council, some 93 percent of the town’s households pay municipal taxes. “We hired a company to do this,” he explains. “It’s a slow, educational process. We’ve done this in a fair way for the residents.”
This has meant being able to pay the city’s bills and dramatically raise the level of services. There’s a town website and a local hotline service center manned around the clock that replies to every complaint and request. “It wasn’t easy to get this moving, but no one can say there’s nobody here answering their concerns.”
The local CCTV system, he reports, has almost completely eliminated the level of violence in the schools and significantly lowered the crime rate. “No one wanted to do this for us, so we took it on ourselves.”
The electronic system, developed by local computer engineers, has now been purchased by other Arab communities in the Negev and the north of the country.
Hura, today, boasts several impressive, even revolutionary, achievements in both economic development and local services.
These include a Bezeq telephone call center, a joint project with a nearby kibbutz to produce high-value produce and an agreement with a major software company to set up a center in the town.
There also have been significant improvements in the school system under his leadership, including the first and only school for autistic Beduin children in the Negev and the highly competitive Ah’d High School for Scientific Excellence.
Both schools take children from throughout the Negev. Alnabari’s wife Basma is an educator in Hura; their six children are learning in various advanced courses.
Hura’s most successful project so far is the Women’s Catering Enterprise, a financially successful business that delivers 8,000 meals daily to Beduin schools throughout the Negev. The business, called Al-Sanabel, employs women who have long been out of work, including those whose husbands have taken additional wives and left them and their children without support.
The catering business leverages the cooking skills they already have.
The idea for the social enterprise catering project came from the Negev-based Arab-Jewish nonprofit organization AJEEC-NISPED as a way to take advantage of the Food Security Act of 2004, which guarantees a hot meal for young school children in poor communities.
Al-Sanabel is now the biggest business in Hura, with 21 Beduin women employees and annual revenue of $3 million.
“We went to all seven mayors of the Beduin townships with the idea,” Vivian Silver, former co-executive director of AJEEC-NISPED tells The Report. “But Mohammed Alnabari was the only one who saw it as an opportunity. It really is a reflection of his openness in cooperating with an NGO versus everyone else’s myopic vision. The others are kicking themselves now for not agreeing to the kitchen.”
So successful has the Hura catering business proven that the government has asked Al-Sanabel to help apply the concept in other towns, beginning this year in the Jewish town of Migdal Ha’emek in the lower Galilee. The women candidates from Migdal Ha’emek have already been coming to Hura for training.
“The image many people in the country have of Beduin i s one of thieves and drug dealers, but here you have a successful business conceived and carried out in a Beduin town that has become a role model for the whole country,” businessman and social entrepreneur Itzik Zivan, who has partnered with Alnabari on several projects on a voluntary basis, comments to The Report.
Zivan, who ran a very successful textile business in the UK, returned to Israel vowing to use his experience to make a positive impact on the country. “I believe social resilience must be tested at its weakest point,” he explains. “My background is in business and employment. I hadn’t known the Beduin at all, but because they are so deprived I decided to start there, in the Negev.”
Zivan, who helped make the Migdal Ha’emek connection, says “the government has realized that this for profit business benefits the community and empowers the employees. The children get well-balanced meals, the women are employed and all the profits are reinvested into the community.”
IF THE Migdal Ha’emek enterprise is successful, it will be copied next in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod. Al-Sanabel is using the catering model to diversify into other industries, starting with a new dressmaking enterprise in Hura for women’s jalabiyas – the traditional dress. Workers are already being trained in design and production in Hura’s sister city of Istanbul.
From the beginning of his tenure as local council head, Alnabari has pursued a rather unconventional path for a local Beduin m ayor. When he was just elected, he approached Pini Badash, the mayor of the nearby wealthy community of Omer, to ask for his help. Badash, a highly successful, long-term mayor, is well-known for his confrontational – even bitter – relations with many Beduin groups.
Badash agreed to mentor Alnabari, who shadowed him for three months, including visits to all the government offices. Alnabari began learning the ropes and the unlikely friendship that developed between the two remains strong today.
Alnabari also managed to enlist the help of a network of Hura businessmen and academics who formed an unofficial, voluntary forum to brainstorm and discuss ideas. “It’s important that the community is involved in decisions,” says Alnabari. “It’s not as if I got up one morning and decided to stage some ‘adventure’ in Hura; but I have a group of residents who can discuss the issues.”
The fact that Alnabari is a member of the Islamic Movement (he ran on their slate twice for the municipal elections) could be perceived as threatening by the Jewish establishment. But he’s managed to finesse internal Muslim politics, effecting a diplomatic dance of neither embracing nor rejecting the influence of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, the umbrella organization of Arab political parties in Israel.
“As the head of the local council, I am an independent professional,” he explains. “The Islamic Movement is a sort of community umbrella, a social body. They don’t intervene in running the town.”
Silver says that because he is local government, Alnabari doesn’t have to “play the political game” that demands boycotting Jewish and Israeli organizations, such as the JNF and the Jewish Agency.
“He has somehow found a way to maintain his political integrity and still benefit by cooperating with the state. He’s managed to go way beyond that and bring in money for the town.”
Indeed, fundraising for the various projects in Hura and beyond has become another of Alnabari’s cultivated accomplishments, working with more than 25 foundations, most of them Jewish organizations abroad. Alnabari jokes that he’s the Arab community’s biggest fundraiser.
He’s traveled to the US and England to raise funds, and hosts visitors from abroad in Hura, including delegations from countries in the developing world.
Though his English is not the best, his charm is undeniable.
“People like to listen to him as he is the ‘real thing’ and represents a very unique breed of leadership,” remarks Zivan.
Alnabari has also been involved in projects affecting the entire Negev, not just Hura. The recently inaugurated Wadi Attir project establishes the first sustainable eco-farm that combines Beduin traditional skills and experience with modern renewable energy technology and farming techniques.
innovative desert-farming operation involves the production of dairy and meat products from sheep and goats, growing medicinal plants and raising indigenous vegetables. It was initiated by Alnabari and Michael Ben-Eli of the New York-based Sustainability Laboratories, joined by researchers from BGU, and funded principally by the Arnow Foundation, JNF-US and the Israeli government, which recently agreed to provide 50 percent of the project’s budget.
Another Negev-wide project he’s involved in is Desert Stars – a year-long leadership and social entrepreneurship development p rogram f or B eduin h ighschool graduates that takes place at the boarding school in Nitzana.
For all the achievements under Alnabari’s leadership, his biggest challenge – one he has yet to overcome – is how to deal with inter-tribal violence in Hura, including murders motivated by blood feuds that have taken place in Hura and in the region.
Alnabari blames the fact that when the government started building towns for the Beduin , it acceded to their demands to be placed according to tribes.
“The result is a terrible polarization inside the towns,” he declares. “Tribal arrangements were fine for the desert, a stabilizing factor, but today they don’t work in a modern city. You can’t have it both ways ‒ use the tools of the government and still live like tribes. Along the way, t he B eduin l ost a l ot o f p ositive things, but hung on to some very negative traditions, like blood feuds and vendettas.
A fist fight between two school children in the morning can lead to 2,000 people brawling in the afternoon. How can you run a community like this? This is what happened in Hura.”
In an attempt to calm the explosive situation, Hura leaders drew up a tribal treaty – an idea they borrowed from the Palestinian city of Hebron. “We managed to get people to sign it and even involve the police.
This is a precedent.” When asked if he has a body guard, Alnabari just laughs.
Alnabari has no illusions regarding the difficulties in dealing with government agencies, but his approach is not to portray the Beduin as unfortunates asking for handouts, but rather to present a strategy and a list of needs to get things done.
“I have lots of complaints. It’s very easy to put the blame on others,” he told an interviewer last year. “But we need to take responsibility for ourselves and then fight for what we need from the state.”
Hura still has a serious problem of unemployment.
But, stresses Alnabari, he’s not giving up. “There are a lot of things opening up to the Beduin here in the Negev,” he tells The Report, “and, if we don’t jump on that train now, it will pass us by. We’re trying everything that comes our way.”