Skip to main content

Library on wheels: Delivering literacy to Israel's unrecognised villages

MEE rides along in a mobile children’s library aimed at filling the Israeli state's educational gaps in Bedouin towns it deems illegal
Children in the unrecognised Bedouin village of Owajan sit in the back of the mobile library before the start of reading activities (MEE/Dave Leins)

LAKIYA, Israel - It is a Friday afternoon in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Lakiya, and many of its residents are sitting inside, shielding themselves from the desert heat.

The town, made up of simple one-story buildings and narrow dusty streets, is located in the heart of Israel's southern Negev region, with sand and brown grass stretching out as far as the eye can see. As the neighbourhood mosque broadcasts the call to prayer, volunteers at a local community centre prepare to make their regular rounds through nearby villages to deliver an otherwise unavailable resource: children’s books.

Three times a week, volunteers working with the local Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status load up a cargo truck with books in Arabic, Hebrew and English. The “mobile library” is then driven out of Lakiya to residential areas that lack basic infrastructure and educational facilities because they are deemed illegal by the state. Established by the Association in 2000, the library makes stops in the unrecognised villages of Abu Kef, Owajan and Alatresh, serving around 1,750 children.

After finishing afternoon prayers, driver Yousef al-Saane climbs into the truck, starts it up and begins the short journey to the unrecognised village of Owajan. Two volunteers from the association follow close behind in a small sedan that looks unfit for the rocky pathway ahead. 

“At the end of the street, this is the end of Lakiya,” Yousef tells Middle East Eye. “There are no services provided after this point.”

Lakiya is one of eight Palestinian Bedouin villages seen as legitimate by the state of Israel. Dozens of other villages in the Negev are considered illegal, and though their residents are Israeli citizens, they are not provided with running water, electricity or medical centres. On top of that, there are no schools or libraries in villages like Owajan.

Passing into “unrecognised” territory, Yousef stretches out his arm to indicate the filth accumulating on the right side of the road.

“Look at this - sewage,” he says. “There’s no sewage system here, or trash collection.”

Vast chunks of land here have been declared army land, making it even harder to move around and build, Yousef explains.

“There’s so much open land there, but we are forbidden to build,” he says, adding that Israel has often used bulldozers to demolish buildings constructed illegally in the unrecognised villages. Everything from houses to health clinics has been levelled, he adds.  

Driver Yousef al-Saane walks in front of his daughter in the unrecognised village of Owajan (MEE/Dave Leins)

Arriving in Owajan, a group of children immediately gather around and help the volunteers unload the cargo truck and set up a canopy for the day’s activities.

The houses here are basic, but many families have installed solar panels to provide off-the-grid electricity.

Soon, the reading session is under way. More than a dozen Bedouin kids, most of them girls, sit in the shade underneath the canopy as a volunteer selects one of them to read aloud a children’s book about the merits of assisting one’s elders.

A number of boys nearby seem curious about the activities, but cautiously watch from afar and do not participate. They stand some 50 metres away and hide inside the shell of a white van that lies next to a broken down bus which still bears the marking of Egged, the largest transit bus company in Israel, but has been left to rust uselessly as if in a junkyard.

Bedouin women and education

But while the boys here seem less than enthusiastic about the library and its activities, they are the ones who will have wider, although still minimal, access to educational opportunities.

Many of them will finish high school, but the same cannot be said for the girls.

“Women here - the majority of them - don’t study in school,” Yousef says. “These people have different views. For them, girls finish eighth grade and mostly don’t continue on after that.”

These views have been slowly changing in Lakiya, in part because of the association, he says. “But not in the unrecognised villages.” 

It is common for Bedouin families to discourage young women from travelling long distances for school. The state has built few high schools in the Bedouin villages - even some “recognised” villages are totally without high schools. Students therefore must travel long distances, often on foot, just to make it. This leads to an inflated dropout rate - widely reported to be over 50 percent - in Palestinian Bedouin communities. The problem is especially high among women.

Palestinian Bedouin girls react during a reading activity in the unrecognised village of Owajan (MEE/Dave Leins)

Ala, a nine-year-old girl from Owajan, seems to be the most excited about today's reading activities.

“The mobile library gives us the power to grow and read and understand as well,” she says.

One of the primary goals of the mobile library and the association in general is to provide greater educational opportunities for women of all ages throughout the Bedouin villages in the Negev.

Lena al-Saane was a regular participant in the mobile library’s activities as a kid, and today she is a student at Ben Gurion University and a devoted volunteer at the association.

She tells MEE she always encourages young women to make the bold decision to continue in their studies.

The girls she works with often tell her: “‘Maybe I won’t keep studying. Maybe I’ll just be like my mother and not study in university.’

“So I keep telling [them], no, you can keep studying, you can advance, you can study at university,” Lena says. She hopes she can be an example for the young Bedouin women she works with.

Reading activities continue next to the mobile library in Owajan (MEE/Dave Leins)

State-imposed challenges

To break boundaries, however, Lena says that she will have to fight on two fronts. A part of her struggle is directed at acknowledging societal barriers that women face at the local level, but she stresses that Israeli policy towards Palestinian Bedouin as a whole is an even greater obstacle.

“How is a student supposed to get home from university [to study] and there’s no electricity or water? These things are a real barrier.”

Basic physical needs aside, Bedouin students must also overcome the disadvantage of not being native Hebrew speakers. Fluency is required at Israeli universities but with few educational resources available to Bedouin, their chances of success are slim, she says.

After about an hour, the volunteers pack up the canopy and children make their final reading selections from the library. Climbing into the truck, Yousef waves goodbye.

The next stop on the route is another area still considered to be within Owajan, a slow 10-minute drive from the first stop on the unpaved desert roads.

Yousef says that the people in this part of Owajan do not like to be photographed. Once a group of foreigners came and took pictures of the houses in the village, and within several days the state sent in bulldozers to conduct demolitions.

As Yousef climbs down from the truck, some 40 children gather around, many of them looking unwashed and ragged. A boy skids by on a bicycle, and another shows off an underfed dog that he has on a short leash. Only two or three kids seem interested in checking out books. Activities will have to wait for another day, Yousef tells the children. It will be getting dark soon. He needs to drive back to Lakiya but says that he will make another quick stop to distribute books before calling it a day.

Volunteer Lena al-Saane speaks to MEE at the Association for the Improvement of Women's Status in Lakiya (MEE/Dave Leins)

Policy changes in sight?

Lena does not have much hope that the state will take action to change the status quo in the Bedouin villages any time soon. In fact, their suggestions for reform would actually make things worse, she tells MEE.

In December 2013, the Prawer Bill - a plan to destroy dozens of unrecognised villages and urbanise their residents - was defeated in the Knesset following local and international protests.

“It's true that the [Prawer] law didn't pass in the Knesset, but there are other laws that they are working on, so we have to stay aware of the situation,” she adds. 

Bedouin and other Palestinian citizens of Israel have continued to rally for recognition of all Negev villages, to little avail.

But with continued community efforts, Lena still has hope for the educational future of Bedouin children.

“Just like there was hope for me, I have hope for them,” she says. “The government has put many obstacles in place, but we are stronger ... We can overcome them.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.