An estimated 80,000 Bedouins live in unrecognised villages in the Negev region without basic infrastructure or services.
A group of Palestinian Bedouin women have accused an Israeli movement of deceit and defamation after a local designer approached them for a partnership ahead of New York Fashion Week.
The women of Desert Embroidery, who work as seamstresses under the auspices of a local association for the empowerment of Bedouin women in the Negev, helped an Israeli designer with the creation of a dress in the traditional Palestinian embroidered style. The dress was showcased at a fundraiser event last week.
They say they were not informed of the real reasons behind the partnership initiated by designer Aviad Arik Herman, describing it as “deceiving and dishonest”.
Earlier this year, Herman made headlines when he designed a controversial gown depicting a “unified Jerusalem”, worn by far-right Israeli culture minister Miri Regev at an international film festival.
According to Asma al-Saneh, head of the Lakia-based Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status, Herman failed to mention that OR Movement, an Israeli organisation that works to promote the resettlement of Israeli Jews to the Negev and the Galilee, sponsored the partnership and the dress.
“We regularly receive such requests from various designers and retailers in Israel – so this was not a one-time occurrence, and we had no problem assisting him [the designer],” Saneh told Al Jazeera.
“But we would have never agreed to do this had we known from the start who he was and who had sent him,” she added. “We feel that our end product was misused.”
According to Herman and OR Movement’s CEO, Roni Flamer, the interaction from the beginning of the project was “authentic” and transparent, and both parties were aware of OR’s involvement.
But Saneh contends that after the completion of the dress, “we were surprised to see the designer arrive to collect the dress with a crew and cameramen … We were also surprised that he introduced us to a man who came with him, which is when we found out that he was from OR Movement and that they were involved.”
The fundraiser was co-hosted by OR Movement and Tahor Group, a New York-based agency that regularly promotes the work of Israeli designers.
The embroidered gown received significant backlash from various social media users, who dubbed the result as “cultural appropriation” due to the use of Palestinian embroidery on an Israeli design.
But according to Herman, it was meant to highlight the potential for coexistence in the Negev.
“I created a community artistry project, which gave artists from the Negev an opportunity to connect and collaborate together for this exclusive piece that was designed in honour of the Negev,” Herman told Al Jazeera.
“I am really proud that this dress implies all this diversity that we have in the Negev and it does not neglect any aspect of the society or culture. There is clearly no theft here; if anything, this is celebrating the culture.”
The dress was put up for auction at the end of the show. According to Saneh, the profits generated went towards OR Movement’s funds – but according to the movement’s CEO, profits were used to help organisers with the “expensive show”. OR Movement receives funding from private donors around the world, CEO Roni Flamer told Al Jazeera.
“We carry out activities to build different relationships with the different societies in Israel by together taking responsibility to build a shared future and vision … [The partnership] was just for awareness,” he said. “We decided in a last-moment decision that we were going to add another dress and dedicate it for the collaboration between the Bedouins and the Jews to show that in the Negev, there is a different language.”
This aspiration for the increase in the Jewish population in these regions works counter to the creation of a shared society and coexistence, especially when Jewish towns are established in place of existing Bedouin ones.
Established in 2002, OR Movement’s mission is to create Jewish towns in southern Israel’s Negev desert and Galilee regions. It has established nine new communities and resettled 33,000 people, according to the movement’s website.
But according to Haia Noach, director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, an Israeli NGO, the movement’s objectives are to build Jewish communities on top of existing Bedouin villages.
“The OR Movement categorically does not work for the promotion of coexistence in the Negev … It is an organisation that consistently works for the promotion of Jewish settlement in the Negev and the Galilee and expansion of the Jewish population in these areas,” Noach said.
“This aspiration for the increase in the Jewish population in these regions works counter to the creation of a shared society and coexistence, especially when Jewish towns are established in place of existing Bedouin ones.”
Although some Bedouins live in towns sponsored by OR Movement, Noach says these are only “token examples of coexistence and do not constitute real equality”.
The Bedouin community comprises some 200,000 people throughout Israel, centred mainly in the country’s south. Israeli authorities have regularly executed home demolition orders in the Negev, claiming that the villages lack necessary building permits – which residents say are impossible to obtain.
As a result, Jewish-only towns have been infringing on Palestinian lands, forcing families to transfer out of these areas. Many who remain have no access to basic infrastructure or development opportunities. Saneh noted that some 40 unrecognised Bedouin villages are under existential threat.
“The vast majority of the Bedouins only have the right to live in larger and urban villages or towns. In the Jewish villages where there is an ‘admittance committee’, it’s almost impossible for Bedouins to be accepted,” Noach explained.
According to Saneh, “we work very hard to empower women in our community … We would have never associated ourselves with a movement that promotes the building of settlements on top of unrecognised and even recognised villages in the Negev.”
Following the release of a local news article announcing the alleged partnership, the women’s association formally requested that its name be revoked from any advertising materials, social media pages and future media interviews, Saneh said.
“In media reports and social media posts, [OR Movement and the designer] did say that this partnership demonstrates peace and coexistence, but we were never consulted about what we perceived this to be. We feel that they assumed our thoughts on our behalf,” she said. “We feel that they used our association’s name to serve their personal interests, and we feel that our name has now been shaken.”
The association is now preparing for legal proceedings in an effort to draw attention to its objective as an independent entity dedicated to the social and economic empowerment of women in the Negev, Saneh said.
Meanwhile, she said, the association has refused to accept any payment for the partnership.
“How can we agree to be associated with organisations that help fulfil the [discriminatory] government’s objectives, and agree to lend my culture [embroidery] for a dress showcased at a fundraiser that helps the movement build settlements on my land?” she said.
“The state of Israel is a reality, and unlike most people around the world, we fully comprehend and acknowledge that, as its subjects. As subjects, we have to deal with them, which we are OK with – but we refuse to have our name there.”