Fayez Abu Shaiban, mayor of Rahat, Israel, and a Bedouin leader, at the construction… (Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles…)
RAHAT, Israel — On a patch of agricultural land outside Israel's only officially recognized Bedouin city, workers are laying concrete for what the government says will be a cornerstone of its policy to lure impoverished Arabs from barren Negev desert terrain to approved Israeli towns.
Upon completion, Idan Hanegev is designed to be Israel's largest industrial park, an 860-acre site with 130 factories employing thousands of Bedouins, a once-nomadic people who have lived in the Negev and other parts of the region since long before the nation of Israel was established.
"Everyone is waiting for this project," said Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Shaiban, a Bedouin leader, as he watched tractors plow at the construction site recently. He predicted that the government-sponsored park will transform life in his overcrowded city, where the unemployment rate is 30% and incomes are half the national average.
With 55,000 residents, Rahat ranks only 1 on a scale of 10 in the government's national socioeconomic indicator of income, education and other factors. Abu Shaiban says jobs are desperately needed.
But like other aspects of Israel's complicated relationship with its Bedouin citizens, the long-anticipated project has its skeptics, who question whether it will adequately help the people it was meant to serve.
Other Bedouin community leaders say government-subsidized investment perks mostly benefit large Jewish-owned companies that are under no obligation to hire Bedouins.
They add that though park managers say more than half of the tenants in the project's first phase are Arab, the figures include Bedouin families who traded desert land elsewhere to the government for investment plots in the new industrial park and may not be planning to open businesses or provide jobs.
"It's not answering the needs of the people," said Jihad Elubra, manager at Mati, a government-funded nonprofit group that assists Bedouin-owned businesses in southern Israel. "It's only helping big companies. If you really want to improve the economy in Rahat, we should be giving the opportunity to the people who live here to open small businesses so they can empower themselves."
The park has been in development since the 1990s, with an official inauguration in 2010. At that time, then-Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer called it part of a government effort to "to repay our debt" to a Bedouin community "wronged" by Israel.
An estimated 200,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, almost half in villages that Israel has never recognized or provided with such basic services as water and electricity. For decades, Israel has tried to move the Bedouin population, sometimes by demolishing the ramshackle towns, to established towns or land designated for their use. Many Bedouins have refused, claiming ownership of the land they have occupied for generations.
The Israeli Cabinet last month approved the latest proposal to resolve the dispute. It would award some Negev land to Bedouins in return for giving up rights to other plots for compensation. The proposal was immediately criticized both by Bedouins, who say it is not enough, and Jewish nationalist groups, who say it gave away too much.
National and local government planners hope to prod the resettlement process with economic development projects like Idan Hanegev, a joint venture among the city of Rahat, the neighboring upscale Jewish town of Lehavim and the regional authority of Bnei Shimon. In addition to factories, plans call for a medical center and a college.
The national government has invested more than $27 million in new roads and other infrastructure, and is offering steep discounts on land and development fees to companies that move there, said Moshe Paul, chief executive of the park.
He said the goal is to attract large low-tech factories and manufacturers that will create the highest number of jobs.
The biggest tenant so far is SodaStream, an Israeli-based manufacturer of at-home carbonated drink machines sold worldwide. The company said it expects to open five new plants and employ 1,000 workers, with the first site opening by the end of the year.
The mayor predicts 80% of the jobs at the park will be filled by Bedouin workers from Rahat. But only 60% of Rahat's residents graduated from high school and most workers are unskilled, so the city is sponsoring education and training programs to prepare them for jobs.
Critics say that's not enough. Elubra said his group asked for written assurances that at least 60% of the jobs will be given to Bedouins, but project managers refused.
"Employers can hire whomever they find the most suitable for the job," said Sigal Moran, director of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council, one of the park's co-owners. "We can't force them to hire this one or that one, or just Bedouin. That's discriminatory. The vision is to create job opportunity for everyone."