Few Friends in the Negev: In 1993, Dvorah Brous Was a Nice Jewish Girl from New Jersey Who Went to Israel to Discover Her Cultural Traditions. Today She's the Champion of the Disenfranchised Bedouin Arabs of the Negev Desert

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OVER THE 14 years, since she first arrived in Israel, Brous has learned to speak Hebrew and Arabic, earned two master s degrees and founded Bustan ("orchard" in Arabic), a grassroots organisation that assists Bedouins and brings their plight to the awareness of Westerners.

Brous doesn't idealise Bedouins, they are no better nor worse than any other group of people, she says. "But I wish affluent consumer cultures would stop long enough to examine how traditional people interact with the land and enrich it," Brous commented during a visit to Los Angeles. "The Bedouins know how to grow wheat, barley and lentils without water, fertiliser or pesticides. They are stewards of the land who can teach us how to connect with our environment."

Brous founded Bustan in 1999. "There are no overheads because we don't have an office," she says proudly. "We don't want to profit from Bedouin suffering." An e-mail newsletter is transmitted regularly from her Jerusalem apartment to more than 30,000 people worldwide. Some 30 Israeli, European and Bedouin volunteers work on carrying out Bustan projects.

Speaking to a largely Jewish audience in the Los Angeles home of a Bustan supporter, Brous recalled how she first became intrigued by the desert dwellers. She eschewed the black tents where Bedouin crafts were sold to tourists and approached the cement block houses in which the Bedouins of the coastal region make their homes. The American sat beside Bedouin women as they went about their daily chores such as preparing food for the family; friendships were established with communication largely conducted through sign language.

Travelling home from the Sinai through the Negev, Brous noticed shacks in areas devoid of so much as tumbleweed. She asked about the shanties and was told dismissively they were unrecognised Bedouin villages. Wanting to know more she began to visit the communities that reminded her of photos of American Indian reservations.

Her interactions with these outcasts produced an unexpected linguistic bonus. Today a fluent Arabic speaker whose accomplishment nonplussed Southern California Arabs who met her, Brous explains: "Slowly, slowly they taught me Arabic as we brewed tea, baked bread or went about the chores of communal life."

In her talk, Brous uses several maps to help her convey statistics. She explains that the Negev comprises 60% of Israel's land but only 2.5% has been made available to the Bedouins who once grazed their animals throughout the Negev, as well as the Sinai and Jordan.

The estimated 190,000 Bedouins of the Negev make up 27% of the population but they have been forced to live within the small area called the siyag ("fence"), a confined space containing the infamous Dimona nuclear plant and reactor, 19 agro and petrochemical factories, a toxic waste incinerator, an electric power plant, a prison, quarries, industrial and military zones and a military airport.

Raw sewage and toxic waste are dumped into the Hebron and Dimona rivers, the chief source of water for the Bedouins' sheep and goats. Meat and cheese from these flocks are regularly contaminated. Tin shack encampments are often in close proximity to incinerators burning toxic waste. Cancer risks for the inhabitants run as high as 65%.

An estimated 84,000 Bedouins have been resettled by the Israelis into seven government-planned townships.

"These impoverished townships have electricity, water and basic schools, but there are no libraries, post offices, recreation areas or trash pick-up facilities," Brous confirms, "and there's no space to grow crops or livestock. The inevitable outcome is high unemployment, drug use and crime. …