For Bedouin students, the coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of Israel's inequality

For Bedouin students, the coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of Israel's inequality
Bedouin students in the Negev have been left behind as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare the inequality in Israel's education system.
6 min read
08 May, 2020
Half of the roughly 102,000 students in the Negev do not have internet access. [Getty]
In Bedouin villages across the Negev desert in southern Israel, basic amenities are absent. There is no electricity, no internet connection, no traffic lights, no streets and no running water. 

So, when classes were pushed online in March because of the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of Bedouin students were left without the means to access their education. 

Ameer Abu Kaf lives in the Bedouin village of Umm Batin. But despite his village being recognised by the Israeli government, Umm Batin is still set up without infrastructure, making it difficult for Abu Kaf to participate in the full duration of a Zoom video call.  

The 21-year-old - along with other Bedouin students - sent a letter to his school, the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, demanding the institution find a solution for students in unrecognised villages who lack basic services, like a connection to the national electricity grid. 

In response, the university gave students modems so they could connect to the internet. However, Abu Kaf believes a more comprehensive solution is needed for students.  

"Each village has to be recognised perfectly [by the government]. We have to be citizens in this country," Abu Kaf said. "They left us behind over coronavirus."

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The gaps in Israel's education system

About 250,000 Bedouins live in Israel, with roughly a fifth of the country's Bedouin population concentrated in unrecognised villages. The Bedouin communities are the poorest group in Israel, with a poverty rate reaching 70 percent, and therefore lag behind their peers in educational achievement. 

While the rate of Bedouin students entering higher education has doubled in the last decade (from 520 in 2009-2010 academic year to 1,045 last year), the number is still drastically lower than their Jewish counterparts.

Only one third of Bedouin students satisfy the requirements to enter university compared to 68 percent of Israel's population, excluding Bedouins and ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

Experts suggest that the low matriculation rate among Bedouins stems from the lack of infrastructure in these communities. According to data from the Abraham Initiatives, a not-for-profit that supports coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, half of the roughly 102,000 students in the Negev do not have internet access and 56,000 students live in areas without utilities. 

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Of the 30,000 students who live in neighbourhoods with utilities, the average family has eight children and only one computer in the home. Most recognised and unrecognised Bedouin villages are not connected to the electricity network and lack internet access. 

Due to these technological deficiencies, Bedouin students struggle to study at home, making remote learning nearly impossible. 

Bedouin communities are the poorest group in Israel, with a poverty rate reaching 70 percent, and therefore lag behind their peers in educational achievement

"These students were basically sitting at home doing nothing because they didn't have access to the internet," Sawsan Zaher, attorney and deputy general director of Adalah -The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told The New Arab, referring to the school closures. 

Adalah submitted a petition to the Supreme Court on 5 April demanding the Education Ministry connect Bedouin students to the internet or provide them with essential equipment - such as mobile routers and computers - to access distant learning services. 

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The state was supposed to respond by 26 April, but the court approved the state's request to delay responding until 5 May. 

"The mandatory education law from 1949 puts the responsibility on the Ministry of Education to provide compulsory and free education to everyone," Zaher explained. "So if you shut the schools, you must find alternatives."

Temporary solutions

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With the lack of infrastructure, the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, a group advocating on behalf of Bedouins in the Negev, has coordinated with schools to better assist students with distant learning.

Through the forum's outreach, some universities have provided students with cellular modems or computers. The organisation is now working to provide internet access to elementary, middle and high school students.

Beyond the infrastructural constraints, teachers and families were not prepared to handle distant learning. Fairouz Abu Hadoba, an English teacher in Rahat, the largest Bedouin locality in Israel, spends the majority of her day sitting on her couch conversing with students and parents. Despite being confined to her home, she feels she's lost a sense of privacy with her phone constantly ringing. 

"Sometimes my students don't know how to use the computer at all and how to access the school site. And the parents keep asking me how to upload the assignments and how to download and all these things put me under stress," Abu Hadoba said. "Even the parents, they are not prepared to do such a task with their children."

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Some of her students have to share a computer with six other siblings, for example. Others are helping their families with work because parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Abu Hadoba set up a WhatsApp group to communicate with her students regularly. She also uses email and Zoom, but these efforts are futile when electricity and internet remain scarce

"The problem with Zoom is that I don't have all my students when I do an online video [lesson]. I have just six or seven students out of 30 students," Abu Hadoba said. "They don't have computers. They don't have time. Maybe they're busy with their parents or maybe there's a power cut, I don't know. They have many reasons for not being with me online."

Half of the roughly 102,000 students in the Negev do not have internet access and 56,000 students live in areas without utilities

Teachers and parents aren't the only ones feeling defeated with the education barriers. Bedouin student Abu Kaf said his grades are lower this term because he wasn't able to watch all of the video lessons and has to climb a mountain in order to get a decent internet connection. 

"Most of the students don't feel like they are studying. They don't get high grades on their assignments," Abu Kaf said. "Most students aren't motivated to go back to university after this [shutdown]." Even Abu Kaf's brother, who attends Sapir College, recently decided to stop studying because he didn't submit all of his assignments.  

With pressure mounting on Israel's Education Ministry to better support Arab students, Minister of Education Rafi Peretz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government would allocate 50 million shekels ($14 million) to purchase 30,000 computers for families without such devices.  

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Yet Zaher doesn't think that number is nearly enough. "Nationwide, there are tens of thousands of children who don't have computers, not only in the Naqab [Negev], but also elsewhere." Zaher also remains sceptical about the government's promise because beyond statements, no further information has emerged about when that commitment might be implemented.

But the longer Bedouin students have to wait for equipment to continue their studies, the harder it becomes for them to succeed academically

"The fact that they don't have access to distance learning and they're losing education means that the gaps will continue to be wider and wider while the damage done might not be able to be cured," Zaher said. 

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