2023 Featured Activists: MARWAN ABU FRIEH

(Part One)

Meet Marwan Abu Frieh, Naqab Office Coordinator and Field Researcher at Adalah

Tell us about your personal background: where were you born and what was your life like growing up?

My name is Marwan Abu Frieh and I am from the city of Rahat in the Negev (also known as al-Naqab, in Arabic). I was born into a family that sees education as a way of life and routine. I have a bachelor’s degree in law from the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan, I am a law fellow at the Emile Zola Chair for Human Rights, and a graduate of business administration and completed a course in law and international leadership and legal empowerment.

I grew up between the city of Rahat and an unrecognized Bedouin village, and I was exposed at a young age to the conflict over the lands of the Negev, and the consequences for the future of the Bedouin Arab population in the Negev. This exposure led me to write a research paper on the land conflict between the Bedouins and the State of Israel when I was only in the twelfth grade. It was then, for the first time, that I began to answer many questions that had been in my head for years. This research ultimately won the Ministry of Education’s award for a young researcher.

This path led me to delve deeper into issues concerning the Negev, and my desire grew to discover the reality of life in the unrecognized villages there. First, I visited the villages, got to know the community, and heard the stories of the residents. For years I moved from village to village until one day in 2013, I told myself that I wanted the whole world to see the reality I was seeing in these villages. From here began the first tour I led to the unrecognized villages, something I continue to do to this day. 

I have led hundreds of tours for diplomatic delegations and students from universities around the world, and other foreign delegations that came to the Negev and were interested in the socioeconomic situation. These educational tours gave birth to the idea of “Women Cooking Food and a Story,” a program held in Bedouin villages where participants can hear original stories from Bedouin women and also get to taste a traditional meal cooked by these women. 

In 2010, I established a coffee shop and bookstore, the first Arab cultural café in the Negev, to encourage reading and to create a dialogue among the young men and women in the Negev. I served as editor-in-chief of “Arab News,” a central Arab-language weekly newspaper in the Negev, and published a weekly column on social and political issues.

What was your “ahah” moment that made you want to get involved in civil society and human rights work? 

My “ahah” moment was in 2010 when the Prawer Plan was proposed. This governmental plan aimed to forcibly evacuate tens of thousands of Bedouins from unrecognized villages to permanent settlements in order to solve “the Bedouin problem”. I fought against the Plan together with my friends from the Negev. I remember we made many visits to the villages in order to explain the dangers of the plan to the residents and to hear their opinion. During these visits, the importance of awareness raising and education became clear to me, but I also saw the importance of building trust with the residents.

I will never forget the words that Um Ibrahaim, an elderly woman from the village of Umm al-Hiran, said to me: “If we are blind because we do not know, we are in your hands, we believe in you who knows. And if you who knows sees but are silent, the blind will lead the way.” These words were said on the day we came to rebuild her house and the homes of her children and grandchildren, which had been destroyed by bulldozers a few days before.

Tell us about your professional background. What led you to your work at Adalah? What do you find most meaningful about the work you’re doing?

My professional path started when I decided to take action in response to the violence around me by writing a research paper in high school on land conflict and established the Municipal Student and Youth Council in Rahat.  When, later, I chose to study law, it was to continue what I had already started: to focus on the relationship between the land and the people in the unrecognized Bedouin villages, with a desire to see change, and especially justice, and the promotion of human rights.

This is how I ended up at Adalah, during the first year of my bachelor’s degree, and I became the Negev office coordinator. I knew Adalah well from the days of the protests against the Prawer Plan. When I heard Adalah was looking for employees in the Negev, it was clear to me that this was the job for me. I later graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law and today I continue the journey to a doctorate in law.

As part of my work with Adalah, I connect with the people and with the land. Working with Adalah closes a circle for me personally: an organization through which I can promote the rights of the residents of the unrecognized villages. In my position, I guide and accompany the residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages in various legal cases and promote their rights with legal tools.

The prominent issues I’ve worked on include the accessibility of the education system in Bedouin villages, including the demand for the establishment of kindergartens and schools in unrecognized villages; the demand for the establishment of employment offices; the accessibility of water, including connecting the residents to water supply in their homes, and decreasing water prices; and land issues and forced evacuation.

Here’s a sad example: A widowed woman turns to you and asks you to help her so that the bulldozers will not destroy her home and leave her children homeless, but it is already too late as the bulldozers are standing outside her house. In this moment I have no words. How can you explain to her that the law is designed to prevent the intervention of the courts?

But I also see happy examples: I see justice and success after long and hard fights. It gave me joy to wait in the early morning hours with a group of 3–5-year-old children for a shuttle bus that, for the first time, will come to pick them up from their unrecognized village to take them to their kindergarten.

The reality in the Negev is very complex, but one thing I know for sure: I must remain optimistic, because pessimism is the enemy of justice. Through Adalah, I learned that hope allows us to persist and stand when politics tells us to sit still and be silent, and that we cannot change the world with just ideas in our heads. To lead change, we need faith in our hearts.

In the path I chose, I have connected with the land, the people, the unrecognized villages, and above all, justice and human rights. In this way I strive for justice: for a society that preserves human rights and respects equality. As a father, I do not wish for a child to remain without education. As a husband, I do not wish for a woman to walk a long distance to receive medical treatment. As a Bedouin, I do not want to receive a message from a neighbour that his house was destroyed by bulldozers in front of his family members who were left without a roof over their heads.

Get updates in your inbox

Sign up for our email newsletter and receive the latest news, invitations to events, and progress updates.