Bedouins, the weakest link in Israel’s war on Hamas

The current conflict has exacerbated the traditional institutional disregard of a community of more than 300,000 people who have few basic services and scarce protection against Hamas attacks

Residents of Al Bat, a Bedouin village not recognized by Israel, next to a concrete tube that serves as a bomb shelter installed after a Hamas rocket killed four children on the morning of October 7.
Residents of Al Bat, a Bedouin village not recognized by Israel, next to a concrete tube that serves as a bomb shelter installed after a Hamas rocket killed four children on the morning of October 7.Luis De Vega Hernández
Luis de Vega

It was dawn on Saturday, October 7, when a loud explosion sounded in Al Bat, a Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev desert that is not recognized by the authorities. Akel Kran, 46, says he went with other residents to check the sheep. Everything was in order. Since it was not the first time that rockets had been fired from Gaza, around 30 miles away, the inhabitants went about their business as usual. Nobody knew at that time that Hamas, in addition to launching missiles as it frequently does, was also carrying out a major ground attack on Israeli soil that left some 1,200 people dead and triggered the current war between the militia and the state of Israel.

Minutes after the impact, at around 7 a.m., another explosion rocked Al Bat, a village comprised of little more than a handful of houses and shacks scattered across rocky terrain that perfectly represents the harsh reality under which the Bedouins live in Israel. The second projectile hit the sheq, the meeting place for the men of the community. The prefabricated aluminum room blew apart, Kran explains in a subdued voice and quiet gestures. Inside were four children: brothers Jawad and Malik, aged 12 and 15; Amin, 10, and Mohammad, 15, along with an adult. Taleb, 37, Kran’s brother, was injured and was still in hospital more than three weeks later. All four children died. The two brothers were killed instantly and the other two died on their way to the hospital. Amin was one of Akel Kran’s nine children.

These children were part of a group of 18 Bedouins who were killed on October 7, seven by rocket fire and 11 during the incursion by Hamas militiamen. In addition, six of the group are among some 240 hostages being held in Gaza. The current conflict serves as a reminder of the traditional institutional neglect of the Bedouin community. “In these villages we are not protected by the Iron Dome [Israel’s air defense system] because it is an unrecognized area. Nor do we have ambulances, shelters, alarm systems...,” Kran explains while sipping a small cardboard cup of coffee. He attempts to describe the situation in which, 75 years after Israel came into existence, a large part of his community continues to live.

A resident of Al Bat next to a concrete pipe that has been supplied as a bomb shelter after a Hamas rocket killed four children in the village on October 7.
A resident of Al Bat next to a concrete pipe that has been supplied as a bomb shelter after a Hamas rocket killed four children in the village on October 7. Luis De Vega Hernández

During the first hours of October 7 alone, Hamas launched around 3,000 rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, according to data made public by the army last week. Most were intercepted. During the last Gaza war, in 2014, 4,000 rockets were fired over 50 days. Al Bat, which encompasses an area containing around 400 inhabitants, is one of 37 villages that the Israeli authorities consider illegal, which do not exist on the map and are therefore not equipped with the most basic necessities. There is not even a road leading to the village. All services — schools, healthcare centers, markets, places of work — lie beyond Al Bat and in times of war, unlike other Israelis, they have neither shelters to protect themselves from missiles nor safe rooms in their houses, if they can be described as such.

In Makhul, another village of shacks strung together from sheet metal, children play next to the heaped-up jumble of materials that made up one of the houses until it was destroyed by another shell fired from Gaza. At dusk, the muezzin’s call to prayer competes with the roar of fighter jets bombing the Gaza Strip, where more than 11,000 people have been killed since October 7.

The Adalah organization, which fights for the rights of the Israeli Arab community, on October 30 denounced the “systematic discrimination and negligence of the state” toward the majority of Bedouin villages — both recognized and unrecognized — due to the absence of bomb shelters or other protected areas. The complaint also highlights the thousands of children from the Bedouin community whose lives are “at risk” by having to attend classes without the protective measures that are in place in other areas of the country. “The Bedouin’s land is gold for Israel,” says Marwan Abu Frieh, coordinator of Adalah in the Negev, a vast desert covering roughly half of Israel’s total land area.

Frieh believes that Israel is not ignoring the Bedouins, but rather attempting to wipe out their way of life, their traditions, their culture, and the places where they have been settled for centuries. “The government insists on moving them, removing them from their land and resettling them and not offering them solutions, because that would signify that they accept, officially, that they could stay where they have been living all their lives. We have to constantly resort to the courts,” he says. According to Frieh, due to the lack of shelters, only seven of the 13 small health centers in the area are operational.

Together with other organizations, Adalah is trying to fill the security vacuum created by the war and are attempting to set up shelters in the villages. Khaled Eldada is one of the volunteers who helped to construct 100 of them during the second half of October. Two have arrived in Al Bat. A group of camels grazes around one of them. The shelter consists of a simple concrete pipe into which Adalah estimates about twenty people can fit.

Residents of Al Bat, an unrecognized Bedouin village located around 30 miles from the Gaza strip.
Residents of Al Bat, an unrecognized Bedouin village located around 30 miles from the Gaza strip. Luis De Vega Hernández

Half of the Israeli Bedouin population lives in these illegal villages with no right to build a house, no infrastructure, no running water, no electricity, no sewage system, no education or basic health services, says Yelaa Raanan of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Arab Villages in the Negev. They live under constant threat of their homes being demolished in areas where there is no transportation, she adds. Moreover, even though it is compulsory and they are Israeli citizens, there are around 5,000 children without access to kindergartens. “They are the poorest people,” Raanan concludes, pointing out that the 100 or so shelters that have been provided represent less than 10% of the number needed.

“It is very difficult to be a good student living in these conditions,” says Suleiman Kamalat, headmaster of the school in Rahat, the largest Bedouin town, where a fifth-grader named Jawad was killed by a Hamas rocket on October 7. On a screen, he shows the ranking of the best students, including his own. During a walk through the village, several youngsters from Al Bat show the reporter portraits of the four classmates they lost that day and photos of the collective burial on their cellphones.

The Bedouin population of Palestinian origin in the Israeli Negev today stands at around 310,000 people, descendants of those who inhabited the desert region when the state of Israel came into being in 1948. Of these, some 80,000 live in 37 settlements without official recognition; another 35,000 live in 11 localities that were recognized at the beginning of this century, but which remain without basic services. The remainder, some 195,000 people, are in seven municipalities created by the authorities between 1969 and 1989. Two-thirds of the Bedouin, who make up 20% of Israel’s Arab population, live below the poverty line in the Negev, a rate three times higher than the national average.

Several activists gather in a municipal building in Hura, a recognized Bedouin village. They are convinced the current war will prove disastrous for the community, and more so because they doubt the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do anything for them. One of those present is Ezry Keydar, director of the Israeli NGO Keshet, which has been fighting for years for the recognition of the Bedouins and for the preservation of their culture and ancestral way of life. When Frieh, a Bedouin, says his goodbyes and climbs into his four-wheeler, Keydar throws him a friendly barb while laughing, suggesting he no longer has the pedigree of a man of the desert: “Being Bedouin is not an origin, it is a way of life,” he says.

Children in the Bedouin village of Makhul, in southern Israel.
Children in the Bedouin village of Makhul, in southern Israel.Luis De Vega Hernández

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