House of Wheels: Helping those with impaired mobility integrate

With her black skin; jeans and T-shirt; and long, wiry, black hair not covered by a hijab, it was hard to tell that Shariyan Alkmlat, 22, is Bedouin, unlike the staffers around her clad in Bedouin robes. She later admitted she is often mistaken for an Ethiopian Israeli, but it became clear, as she handed out pictures of traditional Bedouin dress to Jews and Bedouins sitting in wheelchairs in the activity room of the House of Wheels (Beit HaGalgalim), that she is a proud member of the Bedouin community. 

“Today, we’re much more modern,” the resident of the Bedouin city of Rahat told the group, going on to explain how Bedouin weddings follow traditional customs, but also take advantage of modern flourishes such as DJs and social media. 

Alkmlat’s turn for show-and-tell came after a young Jewish woman cheerfully led a re-enactment of the ancient Israelite musical matchmaking custom that inspired the Jewish Valentine’s Day, Tu b’Av. In their wheelchairs, Bedouin youth happily banged on tambourines and drums to connect to Jewish tradition.

It was a special day at the Bedouin House, the fifth branch of House of Wheels, an organization dedicated to providing pathways toward social integration, personal fulfillment and independence for children, teenagers and young adults with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other diseases that impair mobility. The Herzliya branch had asked to visit for a summer field trip, and both branches seized the opportunity to deepen their coexistence.

The Bedouin House is a bridge not only between Bedouin and mainstream Israeli society, but also between disabled Bedouins and their own communities.

According to Yosef Alamor, founding director of the Bedouin branch, no activities and services were available, in an organized fashion, for physically disabled Bedouins until it opened its doors in 2008 as an offshoot of the Beersheeba branch to serve some 210,000 Bedouins who live in the Negev.

“My specialty is special education, and I saw the suffering of these kids, the lack of frameworks they have — informal education, services, how to integrate. It pushed me in this direction,” Alamor told the Journal, speaking in Hebrew from his office at the 1-year-old dedicated campus. 

House of Wheels first opened in 1979, the brainchild of a school teacher who noticed that children with special needs lacked extracurricular activities. The program started with weekend sleepovers and expanded to a full array of after-school activities, run mostly by volunteers. 

The House of Hope, as it is called in Arabic, is a revolutionary idea for the Bedouin community, which is behind the curve when it comes to services for the disabled. Having children with disabilities is often seen as a stigma, even while Bedouins have a higher rate of genetic disease than do other sectors, in part because of sanctioned intermarriage among cousins. Raising a special-needs child is an enormous expense for low-income families. A large portion of the nonprofit’s $2.6 million annual budget goes toward handicap-accessible shuttles to and from the houses.

The Bedouin House, Alamor observed, uplifts the entire Bedouin family. Often, siblings join members for workshops that offer what are luxuries to some Bedouin households — photography, computers, art and music. Five-day summer camps take kids rappelling, kayaking and hiking. The disabled emerge as inspirations, not social outcasts. 

Although most of the special-needs participants are high-functioning, their speech is often impaired, as reflected in interviews with the participants. When we met, Walla Abubadir, 20, from Lakia, couldn’t stop smiling, even as she struggled to speak because of her cerebral palsy and the fact that Hebrew is her second language. Clad in a traditional Bedouin dress as part of the day’s show-and-tell, she said her favorite program is Rolling Forward, which empowers members toward independent living, including integration into the job market. She finished her matriculation exams last year and hopes to study psychology. 

“I get out of the house, a new atmosphere,” she said, via Alamor’s translation. “I see new people; I learn from the volunteers.”

Najwa Abosbetin, 18, comes from a family of 22 in the village of Tel Sheva — her father has two wives, as polygamy is still common among the Bedouin. Suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spinal cord, she counts a very tangible achievement from her eight years at the house: She can now insert a catheter independently, enabling her to use a bathroom on her own and hence travel more freely. With increased self-confidence, she hopes to become a secretary. 

“I learned things I didn’t know about,” she said via translation. 

House of Wheels has been transformative for volunteers, too. Alkmlat never encountered disabled children prior to volunteering, and today the Bedouin House is like her second home.  

“Beit HaGalgalim changed me completely,” she said. “I’m not she same Shariyan that came at age 17. My thoughts completely changed, my personality too, my self-confidence, and I see that I do give and I want to continue.” Talks like the one she gave that day have cured her stage fright, preparing her for her new job as a guide at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

“We want to show that the Bedouin community can take care of itself,”Alamor said. “Give them an opportunity, and they can manage on their own.” 

Umm al-Hiran, racism and the confounding of Zionism

The Israeli government is set to destroy Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in the Negev, to build a Jewish town in its place, which will be called Hiran. No matter what anyone tells you about unrecognized Bedouin villages, no matter what Israel’s Supreme Court or Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked say, this is the expression of a racist policy.

I grew up marching for Israel every year. In response to the U.N.’s infamous 1975 “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, we marched under the banner “Zionism is not racism” — and I still believe in that. What do we say then about a government that seizes land through twisted legal reasoning, and what do we say about tearing down this village of Israeli citizens? 

Interestingly, Hiran means nothing particular in Hebrew. The name of this new town will forever be a reminder that it was first the home of Arab residents. The Jews who will live there can remember that forever. That’s better than what happened to the land the Bedouins living in Umm al-Hiran were forced off of in the 1950s. That land became Kibbutz Shoval; the memory of their past was erased for all but the most tenacious students of history — except for the Bedouin clan of Abu Alkian, who still remember that it was once their land.

The land present-day Umm al-Hiran sits on was granted to the Abu Alkian tribe more than six decades ago by Israel’s government — granted but not deeded. The plan to destroy Umm al-Hiran has been around since 2003. In 2007, I started a campaign called Save the Negev. The goal was to stop the Jewish National Fund (JNF) from pouring its money into building Jewish Hiran and dispossessing the Bedouins, and instead ask the JNF to make a significant investment in Bedouin communities. Although the JNF eventually shifted its resources, that didn’t stop the Israeli government in its long pursuit of the opposite of peace. But only in May did the supreme court rule that this demolition was completely legal, giving its blessing for the permanent conversion of Bedouin Umm al-Hiran to Jewish Hiran. As a fig leaf, the court required Jewish Hiran not to bar Arabs from applying to live there.

Meanwhile, the group Garin Hiran, the work of T’nuat Or — the so-called “Movement of Light” that deems itself the “new Zionism” — lives in nearby caravans, ready to take over the land after the village is razed. How can it be that these human beings who call themselves Jews will not be ashamed to live in this place called Hiran built over the crushed remains of Umm al-Hiran? Who are these people who see themselves as the real Zionists, who belie everything we were once (naively) taught Zionism stood for?

The Negev is a big place — big enough for an Arabic Bedouin town called Umm al-Hiran and a Jewish town — let’s imagine it as a sister city — called Hiran. Big enough that the one does not need to be utterly destroyed in order to give birth to the other. Even if that were not the case, even if there were room for only one Hiran, it would still be a kind of racist fratricide to tear down Umm al-Hiran.

But there is room, which only makes it crystal clear, painfully, ruinously clear, that this is a policy of racism, or what people actually call, without shame, a plan to “Judaize” the Negev. 

The difference between Umm al-Hiran and Hiran — I mean the names themselves — is that the word “mother,” Umm, has been erased. The land, our real mother, is also being erased, its face defaced, by the violent actions of the state.

Hiran is an Arabic word that has other echoes. Hiran can mean confounding, confusion, perplexity. For those of us who once were taught about the beauty of Zionism, this indeed should be a watershed moment of perplexity.

The supreme court has given its final word on this long-standing, confusing conflict. Umm al-Hiran must die so that Jewish Hiran will live. Let the new Hiran become a monument and memorial to what we all should feel — perplexed and confounded about what Zionism has become. 

Last week’s Torah portion read: “Do not twist judgment! … Justice, pursue justice — so that you will live to inherit the land …” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). Isn’t the whole contradiction of Zionism all bound up in these two verses? But the Torah is clear: If you want to live, justice comes first, before possession.

What could save us now? Maybe Kibbutz Shoval, in a gesture of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, could invite the dispossessed Bedouin families to come back to their land, to dwell together as brothers and sisters, or at least as cousins. Short of such extraordinary measures, however, we are left with nothing but audacity, the audacity of a brand of Zionism shot through with racism, running amok.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator and director of and author of “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He lives in western Massachusetts, where he runs the Prayground Minyan

Two Israelis missing in the Gaza Strip, Israel says it holds Hamas responsible

This story was provided by The Media Line.

Avraham Mengistu, 29, an Ethiopian-Israeli who reportedly suffers from mental illness, has been missing in the Gaza Strip for ten months, it was revealed following the lifting of a gag order. An Israeli government spokesman said that Mangisto left his home in the southern city of Ashkelon early in the morning on September 8, 2014 and never returned after he crossed the border into the Gaza Strip.

Israeli defense officials said they believe he was originally arrested by Hamas, apparently after he met a group of Palestinian fishermen in Gaza. There is no current information about his fate, raising the possibility that he may no longer be alive or that he is being held by a more radical organization in Gaza or in the Sinai, where Islamic State-linked gunmen have been battling Egyptian soldiers.

A second Israeli citizen, a Bedouin resident of the south, has also been reported missing, but his name has not been given. Israel Radio said he had visited Gaza several times in the past.

Most of the attention in Israel focused on Mangisto, as it reminded Israelis of the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, on the border with Gaza, in 2006. He was released five years later in exchange for more than 1000 members of Hamas who had been held in Israeli jails. In recent months, Israel has rearrested dozens of those who had been freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit. But the fact that Mengistu crossed into Gaza of his own free will makes Israel far less likely to make serious concessions to Hamas in exchange for him. 

The information about Mengistu came as Israel was holding indirect talks with Hamas to receive the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas. More than 2200 Palestinians were killed as well as 73 Israelis in the fighting that began exactly a year ago.

Hamas this week held a military parade in which they showed a large model of three Israeli ID tags, one with the name of Oron Shaul, one of the missing Israeli soldiers. The other two tags had question marks on them. Israeli analysts said one apparently referred to Hadar Goldin, another soldier who is held by Hamas, and the third apparently referred to Mengistu.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel is doing everything possible for his return.

“We are working to return the two Israelis who crossed the fence into Gaza,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We hold Hamas responsible for their welfare. I have appointed a representative to coordinate all activity on the issue and to be in contact with the families. Yesterday I spoke with the parents and siblings of Avraham Mengistu and I told them that from as soon as the incident became known we have spared no effort to return him to Israel. We agreed to meet soon. I expect the international community, which expresses its concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call for these citizens to be released and to see to their return.”

A spokesman for the Islamist Hamas movement said the group is not holding Mengistu, and it had no information as to his fate. Palestinian sources said he was originally held by Hamas, which released him after they realized he was not a soldier. They said he then used an underground tunnel from Gaza into Egypt and he was no longer in Egypt.

His family appealed to the Israeli government to do more to find him. 

“My brother apparently crossed the Gaza border and there's been no trace of him since then,” his brother Ilan told reporters. I ask the Israeli government to do everything to return my brother home safely. I ask the international community to do everything to help.”

Rahat’s week from Hell

Mayor Talal Al Krenawi was tired. He’d been in and out of media interviews, meetings, mourning circles and angry phone calls for days. His limbs hurt; his lungs hurt. “I’m still feeling the effects of the gas,” he said, speaking from behind his desk in a worn municipal building at the heart of Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city.

Four days earlier, on the evening of Jan. 18, the mayor said, he was placing a municipal flower wreath on the grave of Bedouin 20-year-old Sami Al Ja’ar — shot dead Jan. 14 outside his home in a drug bust gone awry — when police lights flashed near the cemetery gates and the pop-pop of weapons interrupted burial prayers.

The mayor himself was knocked halfway unconscious by a tear gas canister, then set on fire and nearly trampled by funeral attendees.

 “The amount of tear gas shot in two minutes on the people, I’ve never seen it before,” said Rahat resident and Bedouin activist Fadi Masamra, another witness. “It was a massacre. There was no more surrealistic picture than hiding behind graves to keep from being shot.”

The majority of the 10,000 to 20,000 people estimated to have turned out for Al Ja’ar’s funeral had no idea what had triggered the rain of crowd-control weapons. They would later learn that an armored police truck had unexpectedly entered the outskirts of the procession — and that when it did, hundreds of Rahat residents and out-of-towners, angry about Al-Ja’ar’s officer-involved shooting, had surrounded the vehicle and pelted it with stones. Some of the stones were more like “boulders,”  police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, and included an 8-by-12-inch cement block.  

“People were so stressed and so angry in this time,” Masamra said. “In a moment, everything became chaos.”

The five officers inside the police truck told their commanders later they thought they would die that night. “Every Jewish person, if he’s religious or not, when he feels this will be the end of his life, the last words he will say is ‘Shema Yisrael.’ All five officers said these two words,” said Yoram Halevi, commander of the Israel Police’s southern district.

Added his Arab affairs adviser, Shalom Ben Salmon: “When a Jew says ‘Shema Yisrael,’ he understands it’s the last second of his life.”

Backup arrived minutes later, and for the next half-hour, Rahat’s cemetery turned into a battleground. Flying stones, stun grenades, tear gas and live bullets were lit from behind by stadium and helicopter lights, tinting the scene a hazy, apocalyptic blue. Ben Salmon described it as “World War III.” Rahat resident Khaled Al Ja’ar, who had come to the cemetery that night to bury his son, said that when “the gas grenades came right up to the grave,” he and others “crawled” blindly between the tombstones, trying to find a way out. “Everybody was confused — police were confused, people were confused,” Masamra said. “No one knew what happened.”

By the time the gas cloud had dissipated, one more villager was dead.

According to Israeli officials, Sami Ziyadne, 43, died from a heart attack amid the chaos — making it the most deadly week of police-civilian clashes in the history of Rahat.

Such clashes have never been a hallmark of Rahat, the only Bedouin city to be officially recognized by Israel. Rahat was founded in 1972 and recognized as a township in 1994 — a sort of pilot for resettling the nomadic Bedouins in Western-style townships. It has since become one of the poorest municipalities in the nation, an underserviced ghetto of 70,000 whose average monthly income is below $300. Still, its leaders have never given up on the dream of integrating into Israeli society.

The lobby of Rahat City Hall is lined with framed photos of a younger Al Krenawi shaking hands with Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. An Israeli flag hangs from a pole near his desk. 

“When Rabin was prime minister, that’s when the industrial zone was created,” Al Krenawi said, pointing to a dirt plot at the southeast corner of Rahat on a jumbo map behind his desk. But construction in the zone has been snail-paced — often standstill. In the meantime, Rahat’s unemployment rate is surging at nearly 40 percent. Eighty percent of residents live below the poverty line, and less than half graduate high school.

Talal Al Krenawi has been mayor of Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin city, on and off for two decades. “We demand investigations,” he said of two recent killings in Rahat, “and the people demand that the people responsible for this be held accountable.” Photo by Simone Wilson

For opponents of Israel’s plan to consolidate spread-out Bedouin tribes into structured villages — the Prawer Plan — Rahat has become a case study for what not to do. In a 2013 op-ed for Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the head of a local coexistence nongovernmental organization called towns like Rahat “magnets for crime and poverty because the Bedouins living in them have been torn from their agricultural sources of income and their culture.” 

Al Krenawi said that although he has tried for decades to collaborate with Israeli officials, his town has never enjoyed equal treatment from the federal government.

“We’re discriminated against. We have no funding, no recognition,” Al Krenawi said. And now, after this week, he said, “We have no trust in the police.”

Ben Salmon, who advises the Israel Police’s southern district commander on Arab affairs, agreed that socioeconomic inequality partly is  fueling tensions between police and residents. “The Bedouin section needs investment from the government,” he said. “When you have a special situation that channels your anger, you will channel your anger to whoever is in front of you. And the police are always in front.”

On his office map of Rahat, the mayor retraced the Al Ja’ar funeral procession route that he had meticulously planned with local law enforcement. “Police were supposed to block this road,” he said, pointing to Highway 264, which cuts across the desert plains on Rahat’s western edge, dividing the town from its cemetery.

“In order to keep the peace, because we were expecting a lot of people, we made an agreement with the police not to come in,” he said. “We made an agreement — I was there in their offices!”

Halevi confirmed: “We talked with the mayor. There was some kind of agreement. We said police would not go inside, would not be involved, would not be there.”

However, one police vehicle did breach the no-go zone: a truck full of officers from a special branch of the Israel Police with separate headquarters. It’s known as the Yoav Unit, and it was set up in 2012 as the enforcement arm of the Prawer Plan to demolish Bedouin homes and resettle residents in planned towns.

According to Masamra, who serves as general director of the Bedouin Council of Unrecognized Villages, the Yoav Unit is perceived by locals to be more of a “militia” than a civil police force. “When we see such a car, we know there’s a demolition,” he said. “So, them being there that night doesn’t mean anything except provoking the people — they are saying, ‘We are the bosses of the place.’ ”

Police from the Yoav Unit claimed in an interview with Israeli news site Ynet that they were unaware of Rahat’s arrangement that night with local police.

According to Halevi, when the Yoav driver “arrived to the police checkpoint” blocking off Highway 264, the two officers from different departments made eye contact — but the Yoav driver didn’t stop. “He was not part of the operation,” Halevi said, “and he thought he could cross the highway. He didn’t know that there was something on the road.”

Halevi declined to give further details of the encounter, as it is now undergoing an internal investigation.

However, the commander stressed, “It doesn’t matter whether he stopped or not. It was a human mistake. The car should not have been there. But in the moment that the commander saw or understood the mistake, it was too late.”

Video footage taken from a police helicopter — dispatched by Israel Police southern district officials before the funeral began — shows the Yoav truck ramming into cars parked at the funeral as it apparently tries to flee the area. Young men can be seen hurling stones in the truck’s direction.

“They were lucky to get out of there alive,” police spokesman Rosenfeld said.

Rahat’s mayor said that once he had personally escaped the besieged cemetery, he called the police, screaming. “I said, ‘You abused us — and you almost killed thousands of civilians!’ ” he said. “They told me, ‘We apologize. A police car just ran through the checkpoint.’ ”

The mayor rested his forehead in his hands, the picture of a man torn between his obligations to his government and to his people.

“We could have buried tens of bodies,” he said. “What would I tell the widows?”

Across town, in a mourner’s tent pitched adjacent to the Al Ja’ar family home, Khaled, 44, lay despondent on a floor mat. His left arm was wrapped in a cast, a wound he said he sustained in police custody, and his head was crowned in a loose red keffiyeh. As he spoke of his son, tears welled silently under his eyes.

“His employers loved him,” Khaled said. “I loved him. He was like a friend to me, not a son. We’d laugh together. He wanted a field bike, but I didn’t want to give it to him, and I’m sorry about it today. I thought it would end his life. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken that from him.”

He added: “It’s true that people always talk well of the dead … but Sami was a great person.”

Sami Al Ja’ar, a handsome young man whose smile now lights up banners and protest leaflets across Rahat, came home early Jan. 14 from his job at a factory near Beer Sheva. His mother, Hadassa, remembered serving him his last meal: “Kebap,” she said. “Meat is always the favorite here.”

Police allege that later in the evening, when they showed up to the high school across from Al Ja’ar’s house, they found him taking part in a marijuana deal inside a car parked in the school lot.

What happened next is murky. Neighbors told the Journal that police got aggressive with the drug suspects, at which point Khaled ran over to intervene. Police claim that Khaled attacked the officers with a metal rod, and that dozens of locals began throwing stones at them. Police also say they heard gunshots nearby — prompting them to spray their own live fire into the sky as a warning.

What’s clear is that 20-year-old Sami Al Ja’ar was killed amid the chaos. Multiple witnesses said he was standing in his own driveway, located directly across the street from the police operation, when he took a fatal bullet to his abdomen.

His father remembered: “He came back to me, and he said, ‘Dad, they shot me.’ And I saw the gunshot wound.”

Khaled served for years as an Israeli border police officer, as well as a tour guide for Birthright students at the Bedouin tents in Kfar Hanokdim, located between the Dead Sea and Masada. “No one should ever have to experience something like this, no matter what his religion is, no matter what his origins are,” he said from his mourning tent. “I hope the last one to be killed will be the last one to be killed — that people will know no sorrow and that they won’t feel the pain I’m feeling now.”

Al Krenawi, Rahat’s mayor, said there can be no trust between the Bedouin community and police until the state completes a thorough and transparent investigation into both deaths.

After the funeral, President Reuven Rivlin called Rahat City Hall to promise as much. “I know that the police commissioner will do everything in his power to restore peace and security in the region,” Rivlin said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We all have an obligation to treat the wounds of the Bedouin community, and it is important that we do it together.”

Al Krenawi said he told Rivlin: “You’re treating us worse than you treat Jabalia and Gaza. Even in the West Bank, they don’t shoot that amount of ammunition.”

Nightly riots since the funeral have died down, in part thanks to efforts by the southern district police to respond with minimal force. Local Bedouin leaders are back in delicate talks with police officials on how to regain trust in the community. The Ministry of Justice has launched an investigation into Sami Al Ja’ar’s killing. 

But Al Ja’ar family members and neighbors told the Journal they won’t soon forget this week of pain — and that they won’t believe Israel values its citizens equally until Sami’s killers are brought to justice.

“The Bedouin community in the south is a very patient people, but for a long time now we’re suffering this unfair, systematic policy against the community,” Masamra said. “There is a new generation of highly educated people who are taking charge and … not accepting these policies. It’s a turning point in Rahat between the Arab community and the state.”

As rockets fly, poor towns in southern Israel cry out for better protection

Fares Alhozael doesn’t want much from the Israeli government.

The roads in his neighborhood aren’t paved, and earlier this year Israel destroyed his cousin’s house for having been built illegally.

Slumped on a faded bed in the bare, beige, tin-roofed house he shares with his six children and their families, Alhozael, 55, hasn’t worked in more than two decades, since he injured his leg in a produce factory.

But he doesn’t seem to mind. Indeed, he sings the government’s praises and waves off criticism of Israel’s current military operation in Gaza, saying “we need to destroy the entire Islamist movement, whoever raises his head.”

All he wants, he says, is a bomb shelter.

When a rocket is fired from Gaza, Alhozael has just 45 seconds until impact to find shelter, but the nearest one is four minutes away.

“The state must answer us — just a shelter,” Alhozael said. “We asked for one from the politicians, from everyone. They said OK and didn’t do anything. There are 500 people here. Where will they go?”

Alhozael is among thousands of southern Israelis who lack access to a bomb shelter. Two weeks into the latest outbreak of fighting in Gaza, in which a barrage of Hamas missiles has rained down on Israeli cities, many southern Israelis say they hold slim hope for protection during this go-round. They only hope the state answers their requests before the next battle starts.

“The situation is intolerable,” said Hassan Alhozael, Fares’ cousin and the local public school vice principal. “There’s trauma for the Bedouin children. The siren sounds and they have no place to hide. The state turns its back. The government needs to do well by us.”

Security isn’t much better in Rahat’s city center, which features a drab city hall, a modern community center and a traditional open market where merchants sell food, clothes and housewares piled on the ground.

Some of the newer buildings have protected rooms, but only three small mobile shelters serve the market’s customers. One of them stands in the middle of a parking lot surrounded by trash and flies, its entrance blocked by bags of garbage. Inside, the shelter is filled with torn-up cardboard boxes and an intolerable stench.

A shelter in the center of Rahat in southern Israel is filled with trash.

Only about half of the houses in Rahat have protected rooms. For the rest of the city’s 60,000 residents, there are only 33 shelters, almost all of them in local schools. If schools weren’t closed for the summer, students would fill the shelters and leave no space for other residents, according to Ahmad Alhozael, head of the city’s security and emergency division and another cousin of Fares and Hassan Alhozael.

“I complain all day and they don’t answer,” said Ahmed Alhozael, pulling up a record of emails that he has sent daily to Israel’s Home Front Command requesting 15 shelters. He hasn’t received a response.

The lack of shelters in Bedouin communities has already led to tragedy. One Bedouin man — Ouda Lafi al-Waj, 32 — was killed and four of his family members were injured after a rocket struck their home in a Bedouin village on July 13. The village had no shelters.

Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel requesting shelters for exposed Bedouin neighborhoods. The judges wrote that the state has limited means of defending its citizens and that the choice to leave certain communities exposed was not a result of ethnic discrimination.

“We trust and are certain that if circumstances change in a way that would justify moving shelters from their present location” to the Bedouin neighborhoods, the government would do so, the judges wrote.

Southwest of Rahat, residents of the Jewish town of Ofakim also say the state has let them down. Ofakim has four times as many shelters as Rahat for half the population, but the owners of shops on the ground floor of city hall say they have nowhere to run. In the early days of the conflict, a shelter was available, but they say it has since been moved.

Now when a siren sounds, the shopkeepers stay inside. Employees of a barbershop said they lie on the floor during rocket fire. Municipal employees, meanwhile, have relocated to a protected complex in another neighborhood.

“If the government wants us to be protected it should help us be protected,” said Margo Kadosh, who owns a clothing shop below city hall with her husband, David. “There are shelters, but you can’t get there in time.”

At 6 p.m. Sunday, a brick-paved plaza surrounded by stores and restaurants in central Ofakim was nearly empty. Shuki Matok, a local florist, said business has suffered because people are afraid to venture out.

Ofakim spokesman Maor Zabari acknowledged that the city does not have enough protection and said more shelters had been requested from Jerusalem. But Zabari said that “outdoor shelters are not the issue,” and that in advance of future conflicts the city should focus on long-term investments like outfitting buildings and houses with protected rooms.

Like Fares Alhozael, Ofakim residents remain supportive of the government. But Bedouin youth say they feel disconnected from a country that doesn’t serve them.

Loai Alhozael, 17, Fares’ grandnephew, doesn’t plan on joining the Israeli army after graduating high school like many Israeli Bedouin. Instead, he wants to become a lawyer so he can advocate in court for his family and neighbors.

“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We don’t belong at all [to Israel]. Why should I help a state like this?”

Rocket from Syria lands in Golan, Bedouin sisters injured near Beersheba

A rocket fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights, and a rocket near Beersheba injured two Bedouin sisters.

The rocket that landed near Kibbutz El Rom in the Golan Heights on Monday evening started a fire. The Israel Defense Forces reportedly believes it was launched at Israel deliberately and not as part of the fallout from Syria’s three-year civil war. A separate rocket was fired early Monday morning from Lebanon.

The two Bedouin sisters, ages 11 and 13, were injured Monday evening by a rocket that landed in Lakiya, near Beersheba, according to the IDF. One is in serious condition and one is in moderate condition at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.

At least two rockets were shot down over the heavily populated Tel Aviv at the start of the Monday evening rush hour and one reportedly landed in an open area. Sirens were heard in Tel Aviv as well as in the surrounding cities of Herzliya, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, Givatayim, Kfar Shmaryahu and Ramat Hasharon. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rockets fired toward Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, Gaza terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli tank near the border with the northern Gaza Strip. The anti-tank missile was deflected by the tank’s protection system, causing no injuries. Despite this, Hamas’ military wing announced that it had destroyed an Israeli tank with anti-tank missile fire.

Also Monday evening, Hamas sent a text message to hundreds of Israelis warning that it will continue to rain rockets down on Israel until Israel agrees to its terms for a ceasefire.

“The stupidity of your leaders has placed all of Israel under fire and forced all Israelis to enter shelters. We will continue to shoot at every place in Israel until all our legitimate demands are met fully,” reads the text.

The demands include lifting the blockade on Gaza, releasing Palestinian prisoners freed in the Shalit deal that were rearrested in recent weeks and opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Six Palestinians were killed Monday through the evening by Israeli airstrikes, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.

State Dept. Israel report focuses on Bedouin

A focus of this year’s U.S. State Department human rights report on Israel was Bedouin rights.

The report issued Thursday noted the Bedouin in its introduction, which it did not previously, and examined at length the demolition of Bedouin dwellings in 2013, a result of Israel’s relocation policies.

“While Arab communities in the country generally faced economic difficulties, the Bedouin segment of the Arab population continued to be the most disadvantaged,” the report said.

The report noted that the government demolished 413 buildings in Bedouin villages in the Negev and that another 449 homes were demolished by Bedouin seeking to avoid demolition costs levied by the government.

“Many Bedouins complained that moving to government-planned towns would require them to give up claims to land they had occupied for several generations and would separate them from their livelihood, while the government claimed it was difficult and inefficient to provide services to clusters of buildings throughout the Negev that ignored planning procedures,” the report said.

The report, as in previous years, ranked the “most significant” human rights issues facing Israel as: terrorist attacks against civilians; institutional and societal discrimination against Arabs; discrimination against women; and the treatment of asylum seekers.

The report noted an overall decline in terrorist attacks against Israelis said that Israel met international standards in areas such as prisons, arrest and detention and also that it maintained an independent judiciary and a free press.

It noted that “price tag” attacks by Jewish extremists against Arabs expanded beyond the West Bank into within Israel proper.

In its report on Palestinian-controlled areas, the State Department included reports of unlawful security service killings and torture and said detention conditions were “extremely bad.”

It also noted the discrepancy within Israel between prisons for Israelis and for West Bank Palestinians.

“IDF detention centers for security detainees were less likely than Israeli civilian prisons to meet international standards,” it said, and included reports of crowding and in some cases “extreme violence” against detainees.

The report included a section on anti-Semitism in Palestinian-controlled areas, citing expressions of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by officials and outlets of both the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip.

Elsewhere in the annual human rights report, the State Department reported a decline in anti-Semitism in Ukraine in 2013, a period before the eruption of unrest in recent weeks.

In the introduction to its report on France, the State Department said, “The most significant human rights problems during the year included an increasing number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents.”

The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg

Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

Some Jewish questions for rabbis Jacobs and Rosove

Asking questions is a central aspect of Jewish tradition – indeed, formulating good questions is more important than trying to provide answers. Questions reflect the complexity of the human condition, as well as humility in acknowledging the inability to give ready answers in the face of this complexity

Unfortunately, in their attempts to respond to my article on misleading and immoral campaigns related to the complex issue of Israel’s Negev Bedouin citizens, Rabbis Jill Jacobs and John Rosove were quick to provide snarky “answers,” instead of posing good questions.

Before any exploration of this complexity, or acknowledging any possible errors by political advocacy groups such as T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights, North America), Jacobs launches into a harsh attack, claiming that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort “to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.” Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language. Surely, public debate and criticism in the Jewish tradition cannot be reduced to defamation.

In the Jewish prophetic tradition, moral values do not exist in an imagined ideal, entirely detached from the complexities of the real world, and designed to tell others how they should act. In contrast, Jacob’s response skips over the complexities (yes, that word again) in the Bedouin’s transition from nomadic to modern conditions, the rampant crime and social problems (including oppression of women) resulting from polygamy, carefully argued rulings of  the Israeli High Court, the false and politicized claim to be “indigenous” in the Negev , and other crucial facts. 

In many ways, Jacobs’ “response” is actually a non-response.  She skips over most of the substance that I provided in my article, and omits any mention of “Jewish Voices for Peace,” a million dollar organization funded anonymously whose main objective is “driving a wedge” in the Jewish community over Israel. The involvement of a group that is at best agnostic on a “two-state” framework, and that cannot be said to “love Israel,” should worry Jacobs.

The one question in Jacobs’ attack is rhetorical, followed immediately by a demeaning and snarky pseudo-answer: “Does [Steinberg] really believe that 800 rabbis …. oppose ‘Jewish self-determination and sovereignty’? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.” This is hardly consistent with “healthy debate” and “the best of our Jewish values.” I do, however, believe that 800 rabbis have been misled by a simplistic and detached narrative promoted by Truah and other political advocacy NGOs.   

In his post, Rabbi Rosove’s continues the abusive and insulting assault.  His recollection of a presentation I was asked to make before his synagogue group in Jerusalem could be politely termed “idiosyncratic.” He was “shocked and disappointed” that I spoke, as I do before dozens of groups every year, on the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.) Had he remembered, Rosove might have admitted that our group had an intense and high-level discussion, reflecting the complexities involved, with many good questions on all sides of these very important issues.

Rabbi Rosove is right that “it is contrary to Jewish tradition to withhold legitimate criticism.” The same should hold true for voicing criticism of powerful NGOs that exploit the language of human rights and of campaigns that contribute to abuse, not love, of Israel.

How to begin after Prawer-Begin

Now that the Prawer-Begin Plan is dead, it’s time to look at how we got here. Why are there so many unrecognized Bedouin villages? Did they spring up not only carelessly but nefariously, as many supporters of the Prawer-Begin Plan maintained?

Some of these unrecognized villages, like Al-Araqib, predate the state of Israel. No one outside of a bureaucrat or ideologue could maintain that these villages deserve to be demolished. Others, like Umm al-Hiran, sprang up in the Negev when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) moved all the Bedouin tribes living in the southern Negev to territory in the northern Negev in the 1950s, and created a closed military zone out of their ancestral lands. To most people, it would seem that the government of Israel implicitly accepted responsibility for helping the Bedouin create a new home by the very act of moving them. But since the Bedouin were not “our” people, not Jews (even if they were “our Arabs,” serving in the IDF), Israel has never recognized the Bedouin’s right to live in the very places that the IDF had moved them to.

As the government’s Goldberg Commission recognized, these two categories include most of the unrecognized villages. But because the Bedouin in these villages were deemed squatters, they were not given public services, or registered to vote, or protected by zoning laws. That’s over half a century without the institutions of medical care, without running water or electricity. That’s over half a century during which various heavy industries and toxic waste dumps were built in Ramat Hovav, close to the unrecognized village of Wadi el-Naam, because officially, the village wasn’t there, and unofficially, the government wanted to drive the Bedouin from the land and “concentrate” them in government-planned townships where they had no land claims.

The Prawer-Begin Plan was an attempt to make a law that would override any rights these villages might have to use the courts to prevent their demolition. The goal was to implement the government’s long-standing objectives: to turn the desert into an array of Jewish “pioneer” communities that would conquer the desert on behalf of the Jewish people. The complaint that the Bedouins take up too much space in the Negev (even though they only occupy about 5% of the land) is a direct consequence of an ideology that says the land of Israel is for the people Israel.

Why do the Bedouin “take up so much space,” to paraphrase the people who would anathematize and condemn their culture? Think a brief moment of the relationship between ecology and society: the less productive a land is, the more area each family and village must use to get its sustenance. That is the only way one can live within one’s means in the desert. What is not sustainable, and what does harm open space, permanently? The establishment of dozens of small suburban bedroom communities, served by parks with green lawns – the dream of state planners who really don’t care about desert ecology or the environment.

Bedouin sprawl is better than Jewish suburban sprawl for the desert and for human beings. Does that mean Bedouin culture is ecologically pure? Of course not. Bedouin culture is a mashup of ancient ways that once worked, with polluting technologies like diesel generators, and with enormous population growth (created in part by the good and holy impact of modern medicine). The unrecognized Bedouin communities are expanding without the benefit of zoning or planning – which is a direct consequence of the government’s refusal to recognize them.

In fact, the state of Israel, if it were to work with the Bedouin instead of against them, could help Bedouin culture make the full leap into modernity without destroying their way of life, and more importantly, it could learn from Bedouin culture about how to live in the desert. For example, set up the Bedouin villages—whether they are unrecognized or not—with solar panels so they won’t burn petroleum diesel, which actually is an environmental hazard. But as long as the policy of the government continues to be based on the wish that the Bedouin would not take up any space at all, that they simply would not exist, it will never be able to respond to these problems. And that is the worst of all possible worlds, for the Bedouin, for the desert, and for all of us.

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A response to Gerald Steinberg on the Prawer-Begin plan

In his recent column for the Jewish Journal, Gerald Steinberg of NGO monitor once again seeks to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition. He dismisses as anti-Semitic or misguided those of us—including 800 rabbis as well as the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements—who opposed an Israeli government plan that would have expelled some 30-40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev.

This characterization is insulting, dangerous, and wrong.

Steinberg attacks those of us concerned about the fate of the Bedouin as “present[ing] a highly complex issue in simplistic terms, rely[ing] on unreliable sources, distort[ing] data, and ignor[ing] historic facts.”

In fact, it is Steinberg who is guilty of these sins. He insinuates that the Bedouin lay claim to “half the country’s territory,” when, in fact, Bedouin land claims cover only five percent of the Negev. And he misleadingly criticizes Bedouin communities for “illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations” without bothering to mention that the Siyag, the area to which the Israeli government moved the Bedouin in the 1950s, was never zoned residential, nor were the villages added to official maps. Thus, the Bedouin find themselves caught in a tragic Catch-22, forced to live in a defined area, but told that any homes or stores they build there are illegal.

[Related: Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin]

The good news is that Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew the Prawer-Begin plan this week, in response to widespread objections from rabbis and other Jewish community members in

North America and elsewhere, including the 800 rabbis and cantors who signed a letter organized by T’ruah and Rabbis for Human Rights and the T’ruah rabbis who met with staff at the Israeli Embassy and with General Doron Almog, who is charged with executing the plan.

Steinberg and his organization have a history of stifling discussion within Israel and the

Jewish community by maligning Jewish human rights organizations without engaging the specifics of the debate. This tactic is again evident in his sloppy attempt to classify those who opposed the Prawer-Begin plan out of love and concern for the state of Israel as intent on wiping out the state altogether.

Does he really believe that 800 rabbis and three of the major denominations oppose “Jewish self-determination and sovereignty”? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.

The state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the dream of a state in which the Jewish people can be safe, and that exemplifies the best of our Jewish values.  These values include viewing every human being as a creation in the divine image; opposing injustice; and engaging in open and inquisitive debate. Steinberg instead proposes an Israel that ignores the voices of those most vulnerable, and that shuts down healthy debate.

That doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.

Opposing Bedouin resettlement

They can’t agree on the project’s goal. They can’t agree on who supports it. They can’t even agree on its name.

But when it comes to the Israeli government’s plan to relocate 30,000 Negev Bedouin, representatives and allies of the Bedouin community agree with the right wing on one thing: The Prawer Plan must be stopped.

At a meeting this week, leaders of an alliance between Negev Bedouin and several left-wing groups adopted a proposal to join with “right-wing opponents” of a bill that would relocate tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in unrecognized villages in southern Israel. The plan calls for moving the Bedouin into recognized towns nearby with modern services and amenities while providing them with partial compensation for their property.

“You need to have an elementary school, kindergarten and health care at the center of the modern community,” said Doron Almog, director of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin in the Prime Minister’s Office. “We’d like to replace poverty with modernity.”

The plan is alternatively referred to as Begin-Prawer or Prawer after its two authors — former Knesset member Benny Begin and Ehud Prawer, the director of planning in the Prime Minister’s Office. It would recognize some of the unrecognized villages while moving the inhabitants of others.

The government says the plan is a comprehensive land reform measure aimed at providing infrastructure, education and employment opportunities to the historically underserved Bedouin population in the South. But critics of the proposal point to the 30,000-40,000 Bedouin that would be uprooted in what they claim is just the latest move by the government to strip them of their land to create space for Jewish settlement.

“We want rights like everyone else,” said Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages. “The state doesn’t see that the Bedouin have problems. They see the Bedouin as the problem. The state can’t put people on trucks and spill them into towns.”

The fight over the plan has been contentious. Protests across Israel have left several Israeli police officers injured and led to dozens of arrests. Several human rights groups have blasted the plan. Last week, Arab lawmakers appealed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to block what they allege amounts to “ethnic cleansing” of the Bedouin.

It’s far from certain that the partnership proposal will come to fruition, but the effort represents a rare attempt at pragmatic compromise in a debate that has been dominated by dueling perceptions of reality.

At the meeting — representatives of the Arab-Jewish political party Hadash, the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality attended — Alasam and others sounded optimistic that they could find common ground with right-wing activists even though their ultimate objectives are almost certainly incompatible.

Alasam wants the government to allow the Bedouin to stay in the unrecognized villages. Right-wing activists believe the Bedouin have no right to stay where they are.

Moshe Feiglin, the head of the Jewish Leadership faction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, voted against the plan because it “hands the Negev over to the Arabs.” Zvulun Kalfa of the Jewish Home Party opposes the bill because it’s too vague.

Knesset member Miri Regev, who heads the committee debating the bill, criticized Almog for not presenting her committee with a proposed map of Negev towns.

“I think the time has come to organize Bedouin settlement,” Regev wrote on Facebook last week. “It’s unlikely that the Bedouin are taking over the Negev’s lands, and given that, the solution needs to be formulated deliberatively and in a way that’s transparent to all sides.” 

Israeli government shelves controversial Bedouin resettlement plan

The Israeli government is shelving a proposal to resettle tens of thousands of Bedouin residents of the Negev that had drawn fierce criticism.

One of the proposal’s main architects, Benny Begin, told reporters on Thursday that the so-called Prawer-Begin Plan would be revised. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approved delaying presentation of the plan to the Knesset.

The plan was billed as an effort to address the plight of Bedouin living in unrecognized villages without access to infrastructure and state services by resettling many of them in Bedouin towns. But it drew protests from many Bedouin and activists on the left who criticized it as an effort to grab Bedouin lands. The plan was criticized as well by some on the right who felt it gave too much to the Bedouin.

Begin said that action was still needed to improve the situation of the Bedouin.

“Since the bill reached the Knesset,” he said, “all sorts of interest groups have gotten involved trying to take advantage of the plight of the Negev Bedouin in order to achieve political gain.”

Opposition mounts to Israel’s Arab Bedouin transfer plan

Israel is promoting a plan to transfer some 40,000 Arab Bedouin citizens from traditional villages into towns despite opposition by activists and senior government officials that threatens to derail it.

Government supporters say the resettlement would encourage development, but that was repeatedly challenged by residents of the villages in Israel's southern Negev desert.

“It's a bad plan, nobody here was asked. It's racist, and means to evict people from their homes with no alternative,” said Huda Abu Ubayd, a local university student who startled government organizers of a tour for journalists by chanting slogans and passing out leaflets.

“We see the conditions of the towns. They're weak and poor,” she told reporters visiting the landscape of breeze block homes surrounded by heaps of trash and animal pens patched together with corrugated metal sheeting.

A bill which has passed a first reading in parliament would mandate that around 40,000 Bedouins from dozens of villages that are “unrecognized” by the Israeli state be forced to move into seven townships.

But criticism on the street and in parts of government may coalesce to scupper the proposed law, called the “Prawer Plan” after top Israeli planning official, Ehud Prawer.

Lawmaker Yariv Levin, the chairman of Israel's governing coalition said this week that there was “no chance of approving the second and third reading of the Prawer bill in its present form”, noting that its authors “did not receive (Bedouin) support”, the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper quoted him as saying.


Israel's far right also objects to the plan, saying its vision of compensating many of the Bedouin with a combination of land and cash justifies what they see as squatting.

“The Bedouin are interested in receiving not only the 'carrot' – compensation and other lands, but are … against the 'stick' – their duty to evacuate all the lands they have populated illegally,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page.

“Therefore, one should re-examine the plan and consider a far-reaching plan that would annul the benefits the Bedouin were to receive.”

However, Doron Almog, an official heading the Negev Bedouin file for the prime minister's office, denied the plan would be reworked, saying, “the plan is controversial, this is true”.

“You can still see why there's so much need for a compromise. There are people here living in the south of Israel, see the suffering, see the poverty. It's for the people, with the people here, the Bedouin,” he told Reuters.

Rare street protests spanning Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories over the issue last month deteriorated into clashes between Israeli forces and youths, including many young Arab citizens of Israel who increasingly identify with the Palestinian cause.

Activists say the plan is meant to change the demographic character of Israel's south and give Jews priority in planning and building homes – policies they link to housing and movement restrictions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Facing a housing crunch elsewhere in Israel, the government plans new Jewish communities in the Negev area and is in the process of moving several military bases there from the densely packed center where land prices are much higher.

The Negev Desert is already dotted with many military bases and some of it is used as military training areas and live firing zones. Hulking aircraft and helicopters frequently fly over the Bedouin areas.

In the “unrecognized” village of Bir Mshash, a gaggle of sheds and concrete hovels amid muddy gullies, Bedouin mother of seven Um Mohammed tended to a delicate garden of cactus, aloe and purple flowers by her home.

She too was unconvinced by the plan.

“They won't evict us. This our land and the land of our ancestors. There's no way we're leaving, that's that.”

Editing by Ori Lewis and Alison Williams

Exploiting Israel’s Negev Bedouin

While many believe that a successful peace process will end demonization of Israel based on incendiary terms such as “apartheid” and “racism,” and in accompanying boycott campaigns, the evidence suggests that this hatred goes far deeper. Indeed, the organizations that lead these campaigns are not focused on the post-1967 “occupation”, but rather target all of 1948 Israel, from Kiryat Shemona, along the border with Lebanon (and Hezbollah), to Eilat at the southern tip. For these groups, any form of Jewish self-determination and sovereignty equality, is, in their language, a form of racism, ethnic cleansing and apartheid. And Israeli Jews who live in the Negev or Tel Aviv are “settlers”.

For example, a number of political non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recently launched campaigns that exploit the complex issues surrounding land claims on behalf of Israel's Negev Bedouin population. The Negev, with the city of Beersheva, Ben Gurion University, and Soroka hospital, constitutes over half of the country's territory. As the Israeli Bedouin population grew significantly in recent decades, partly due to the practice of polygamy and very high birthrates, illegal building, without planning or environmental considerations, has expanded widely. As is true for any other competent government, the Israeli leadership has sought to change course, in form of assisting the Bedouin by creating new towns, with schools, clinics and other necessary facilities.

[Read a response to Gerald M. Steinberg]

In response, anti-Israel NGOs that cynically use the cover of human rights hit the road with global tours, including in the United States and Europe, attacking the plan, repeating labels such as “ethnic cleansing”, “racial discrimination,” and “human rights violations”. In slick publications, videos, and presentations before the UN and European parliamentary groups, NGOs have falsely referred to the Negev Bedouin as “Palestinian victims”, and Israeli Jewish residents in the Negev as “settlers”. The campaign erases 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva), thereby delegitimizing Israeli sovereignty. Noted Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini reviewed a slick propaganda video produced by Rabbis for Human Rights, portraying Israel “as the cruel anti-Semitic ruler, expelling and disinheriting and destroying and robbing…” (Funding for this video and for other campaigns of radical NGOs that exploit Bedouin issue is provided by groups such as the US-based New Israel Fund.)

Similarly, a radical organization calling itself “Jewish Voices for Peace”, which supports BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) has suddenly discovered the Bedouin Negev issue. Little is know about JVP’s membership or its sources of funding (over $1 million dollars annually), but its primary agenda is to promote anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda, in order to “drive a wedge” over support for Israel in the American Jewish community. In particular, JVP targeted participants in the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial conference, taking place in San Diego.

With little knowledge of the details, “progressive Jews” are deemed as likely to accept and sympathize with the campaign to “help the Negev Bedouin” stand up to the “powerful Israeli state which seeks to deprive them of their land”.

In contrast, American Jews are unlikely to hear the Bedouins themselves, unfiltered by officials of political NGOs, because their leaders lack the resources for these global tours and press campaigns. For example, Abed Tarabin, leader of one of central clans in the Negev, recently noted that “The opposition to the plan comes from belligerent politicians, making noise for their own purposes. It doesn’t come from real Bedouin leaders who are concerned with their people. There is plenty of room in the Negev for everybody, and it is good that the government is working to improve things and is investing money in us”.

These views rarely make it into many journalists writing about Israel simply repeat the unsupported NGO allegations, and exclude the Bedouins themselves. In a major article based on NGO claims, and accompanied by emotionally moving photos, the New York Times correspondent greatly exaggerated the number of individuals that would be affected by the Israeli plan. She also quoted radicals who again referred to “insidious racism, ethnic cleansing or even apartheid”, as well as “a land grab that ignores their culture and traditions.”

The prevalence of such campaigns regarding the Negev, within Israel’s 1948 “Green Line”, suggests that a peace agreement with the Palestinians will not end the demonization and boycotts. For Israelis and American Jews who support a two-state solution, the need to oppose such misleading and hate-based campaigns should be a major priority.

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is the president of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute and recipient of the 2013 Menachem Begin Prize.

Rabbis against balance

You can abuse people, and you can also abuse values. Take two great Jewish values: self-criticism and caring for the stranger. How would one abuse such values? By lifting them up at the expense of other great Jewish values — such as fairness and balance.

A striking example can be seen in a Jewish activist video so one-sided that it makes Israel look like, well, an evil empire.

Produced by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and starring Theodore Bikel, the video compares Israel’s Prawer Plan to address Bedouin settlement in the Negev to the forced expulsion of Jews by the anti-Semitic tsarist regime in Russia. (See the video at the bottom of this page)

Just as the nasty Russians told the Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “You have three days to leave,” Bikel suggests that Israel is inflicting the same injustice on 40,000 Bedouins. A melodramatic score, weeping Bedouins and shots of Israeli army helicopters punctuate the drama.

What makes the analogy to tsarist Russia even more problematic is how RHR tries to downplay the comparison with this fine-print disclaimer on its Web site:

“NOTE: For the avoidance of misunderstandings, this video clip, does not, God forbid, intend to claim that the Bedouin suffer from pogroms or to compare Israel to Czarist Russia. The comparison is between two types of policy: expulsion of Jewish villages and towns from vast areas of Russia to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, compared to the planned expulsion of Bedouin villages to an area called the Siyag region. We find significant similarity between these two policies, and would be happy to find out and admit that we were wrong if we are shown meaningful differences in fact. Thus far, no visitor has successfully done so.”

Besides the obvious problem that the great majority of viewers will never see this disclaimer (it’s neither on the video nor on YouTube), there’s another problem: It’s disingenuous. The fine print can claim that “God forbid we should ever compare Israel to Czarist Russia,” but that’s exactly what the video does. 

As Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel writes, “Theodore Bikel … explained to viewers that the Prawer Plan is morally identical to one of the great acts of ethnic cleansing in history, the forced expulsion of Jews to the Pale of Settlement by the Russian czar.”

What’s worse, Gur adds, is when Bikel asks in the video — in the name of the oppressed Jews of tsarist Russia who are his stand-ins for the Bedouins — what will happen if they refuse to leave.

“We know the consequences of refusal …” Bikel answers in an ominous tone.

Well, “In 19th-century Russia,” Gur reminds us, “the consequences were state-sanctioned incitement and widespread killing and rape. The film leaves unstated what the consequences might be in Israel.”

Clearly, the powers that be at RHR knew they were treading on very delicate ground with this analogy, which may be why they try to divert attention in their disclaimer to something more innocent, as in, “Really, we’re only comparing policies.” 

The sad result of the extreme and offensive rhetoric of the Bikel video is that it throws a bomb but doesn’t enlighten.

As Gur writes, for example, “One cannot discover from the Rabbis for Human Rights video that almost half of the Bedouin being moved — roughly 15,000 — actually asked to be moved, even appealing to courts to get the state to grant them a new planned town in a separate location because the site where they had encamped was too close to the chemical works of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility.”

Even sadder, the overwrought rhetoric draws attention away from some genuine concerns with the Prawer Plan, and there are plenty. Israel has neglected the problem for far too long and is now trying, however clumsily, to make the best of a tough situation. 

As Shlomi Eldar outlines in an oped (p. 10), Israel has undermined its case with its patronizing attitude toward its Bedouin citizens, which has only served to taint the atmosphere.

RHR could have brought up its concerns in a reasoned and balanced way. Instead, it chose the tactics of the extremists it often rails against: It threw a bomb and got plenty of attention.

A “reasoned and balanced” video would surely have lacked the drama of the tsarist comparison, but Israel shouldn’t pay the price for that. When the reputation of a country is at stake — a country already under attack by a mostly biased and hypocritical world — accuracy and balance should trump drama.

By oversimplifying a complex problem and making incendiary comparisons, a well-meaning Jewish activist group has fueled the anti-Israel fire and undermined its own credibility and its own good works.

If the hearts of the Rabbis for Human Rights are in the right place, and I have no doubt that they are, then their mouths need to catch up.

Yes, criticism and justice are great human rights and great Jewish values — but so are fairness and balance.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Israel should freeze Bedouin relocation bill

The writing was on the wall. The Prawer bill to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev will not go through quietly. Not because it is a really bad bill, and not because it fails to provide a critical and necessary solution for the regulation of unrecognized Bedouin localities, but mainly because of the attitude and approach taken by its authors and the Israeli establishment toward the Bedouin population.

The Israeli plan to relocate Bedouins cannot be properly discussed before a series of actions to mend the rift between them and Israeli authorities rebuild trust.

This past Saturday, Nov. 30, even before bulldozers fanned out to demolish unrecognized Bedouin localities and Israeli border and municipal police were called in to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Bedouin residents from their homes, the anger and fury had already erupted. 

In a series of demonstrations in various locations throughout Israel, dozens of police officers were injured in arresting scores of Bedouin protesters, who view Israel today as having set itself a goal of forcibly robbing their land.

In an interview I conducted for Al-Monitor on Nov. 26, Atia al-Asam, chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages, explained that the neglect and discrimination of the Bedouin population are preventing the Bedouins from accepting the principle of regulation put forward by the Prawer bill’s authors and planners. He maintains that the Bedouins have been methodically shunted to the sidelines of Israel, with no distinction made between their recognized and unrecognized localities.

But the rift between Israeli society and the Bedouins is not only the result of neglect and discrimination. Most of the Bedouin population in the Negev does not believe that Israel is truly seeking an appropriate settlement solution because of the daily war of attrition that has been taking place for years in their villages with members of the Green Patrol, Border Police and Israel Police, who arrive to demolish illegal homes. Thus, whole Bedouin clans, whose fathers served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in patrol units and were skilled military trackers, view the Israeli establishment as ungrateful for their service.

Those sent to demolish the illegal homes the Bedouins have built — because Israel for years has put off finding a proper solution, from their perspective — wore official uniforms. The demolitions are called “operations,” during which police and border police suddenly arrive on the scene to carry out their work and clash with local residents, who witness their homes being demolished before their very eyes. Bedouin children and youngsters watch from the sidelines, perceiving the enforcers of law, representatives of the Israeli establishment, as the enemy. They will not be enlisting in the IDF as their fathers or older brothers had. The friendship that had existed since the establishment of the state has turned into hostility. The rift has become a regrettable fact.

On the Israeli side, the dominant terminology is military, concerning the struggle over land. It was in this spirit that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted the following on his Facebook page, on Nov. 30: “We are not dealing with a social problem or housing crisis,” the minister declared, “but a struggle over the land, as it was even back in the 19th century upon the establishment of the first [Jewish] communities. … We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people, and there are those who are working intently to rob us of them and take control of them by force.”

Lieberman is not alone. Israeli discourse on Bedouin lands in recent years has revolved around “occupation,” “overtaking” and “losing the Negev.” Without official settlement solutions, however, and given the natural growth of the Bedouin population, the Bedouins have been left with no other choice than to build illegally and significantly expand unrecognized settlements.

The unexplained deferral in finding settlement solutions for the Bedouins, who were left outside the seven municipalities built in the 1970s, has created a deep rift with that population as a whole. During the demonstrations last week, protesters shouted, “Settler state,” referring to the attitude shown by the Israeli establishment toward the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and consideration for natural population growth in them, contrasting sharply with its dismissiveness toward the natural growth of the Bedouin population in the southern region of the Negev over the past 20 years.

Thus, social anxiety, a desire to preserve culture and tradition and differences of opinion over compensation and ownership of land have slowly grown into a battle over land — a battle between Bedouin land and Jewish land. The tension and bad blood are turning any solution, no matter how fair, into yet another maneuver in the war of attrition being waged over territory. Given this sentiment, there is no chance that the Prawer bill will pass without incident. Suspicion and hostility have overshadowed all else.

Therefore, before blood is spilled and the rift between the Bedouins and Israeli society becomes a terrible tragedy, everything must be put on hold and reconsidered together with the representatives of the Bedouins. There is no reason to insist on promoting the bill no matter what.

The Prawer Plan is not a bad plan. It may be lacking, because it does not take into account that Bedouins living in unrecognized villages do not believe the government is proposing a plan based on a sincere desire to ease their anguish and improve their future. At the foundation of the plan’s outline, however, some unrecognized villages were supposed to become permanent, recognized settlements that will receive development and infrastructure resources.

To get to the point of voluntary, unforced settlement, the parties need to rebuild trust in one another. This can be done in several ways: freeze promotion of the bill in its second or third reading; stop talking in terms of war over the land and start speaking in terms of peace; include Bedouin representatives — the heads of the councils and villages — in the talks on the details of the law; rezone the land to allow construction of permanent localities; and build trust between the Bedouin population and the Israeli establishment and society as a whole.

The Bedouins’ representatives, without exception, agree that solutions must be found to regulate Bedouin settlement of the Negev and admit that the current situation needs to be changed and addressed. Much work needs to be done, however, even before maps are drawn and compensation payments are calculated.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse (, where a version of this originally appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for his work. Reprinted with permission.

Knesset panel advances plan regulating Bedouin settlements

A Knesset committee advanced a plan that would require the resettlement of some 30,000 Bedouin.

The draft ratified Monday by the Ministerial Legislation Committee regulates Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert. Along with requiring the resettlement of the Bedouin, the Law of Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev — also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan — would resolve some 12,000 land claims, Army Radio reported.

In a news release criticizing the plan, The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it would “cause the displacement and forced eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents, dispossessing them of their property and historical rights to their lands, destroying the social fabric of their communities, and sealing the fate of thousands of families into poverty and unemployment. All of this while the government simultaneously promotes the establishment of new Jewish communities, some of which are even planned to be built on the fresh ruins of Bedouin villages.”

Egyptian captors release Israeli man

An Arab-Israeli man from Nazareth who was kidnapped by Bedouin in Egypt was released.

Amir Omar Hassan arrived in Israel on Tuesday after being released by his captors. A Norwegian woman abducted at the same time also was released.

Hassan, a student at Ben Gurion University, told Israeli media that he and Ingvild Selvik were physically assaulted and threatened.

Their captors wanted Egyptian authorities to release two of their relatives, who are being held in a prison in northeastern Egypt on drug charges, according to Haaretz.

Security in the Sinai has deteriorated since the 2011 coup in Egypt that deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

Knesset approves plan to recognize Bedouin settlement

Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to formalize the status of Bedouin settlement in the Negev.

The plan recommended by outgoing Likud Minister Benny Begin would officially recognize most Bedouin settlements in southern Israel and offer compensation to those Bedouin required to move off state-owned land. Compensation will be given in full either in land or money, according to the Prime Minister's Office.

Bedouin being required to move have five years to accept the compensation.

As part of the plan, the government will invest some $322 million over the next five years to promote economic development and growth among Negev Bedouin, and to develop infrastructures in Bedouin communities.

“The goal of this historic decision is to put an end to the spread of illegal building by Negev Bedouin and lead to the better integration of the Bedouin into Israeli society,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.

Two toddlers die in accidental fire near Be’er Sheva

Two Israeli Bedouin children died in a fire which they apparently started inside a parking car.

The boys, ages three and four, may have been playing with matches, a police spokesperson told Israel's Army Radio. The parents of the toddlers left them unattended at an olive grove near Be’er Sheva and the boys entered the car without being noticed, the report said.

The mother reportedly told police she never saw the boys enter the car and that when she saw the vehicle it was already engulfed in flames. The parents, who live near Dudaim in Israel's Negev desert, were released after police questioning. Police have not decided whether to charge them with negligence, the report said. 

Last year, a 4-year-old Arab Israeli child was burned alive in a car near Karmiel, in Israel’s north. His parents left him to wait in the car as they were picking olives.

Israel must stop squatting Bedouin, lawmaker says

Israel must find a way to halt the illegal squatting of Israeli Bedouin, in order to help the Bedouin and to assert Israel's claim to the land, lawmaker Yuli Edelstein told a special forum.

The non-profit research institute Regavim conducted two events last week focusing on the sharp rise of squatting and illegal settling of vast tracts of land in the country’s Negev region.

Edelstein, minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, was the keynote speaker for an emergency public forum, called “Which Way for the Negev?,” at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Its panel of experts included Prof. Rafi Yisraeli and Dr. Seth Frantzman. The special presentation concentrated on spiraling illegal building by the Negev’s Bedouin inhabitants and challenges to Israeli rule of law as well as solutions to counter the mounting crisis.

“Regavim deals with very complicated issues of land rights, which have become increasingly urgent.  To reclaim the land and assert Israel’s sovereign control, the organization engages in ongoing research and legal action to succeed in this mission,” said Minister Edelstein. “We must break the merry-go-round cycle of lawful eviction of illegal settlements followed by the immediate return of illegal squatting if we truly care about ensuring Government plans for Israeli Bedouins, which will benefit the entire population of the Negev.”

The second part of the Regavim fact-finding event was a tour to the sites of illegal activities for over 150 participants in three full buses of English-speaking Israelis and tourists, each led by experts. One site visited was the village of Al-Zarnog which is built on private land and is currently the subject of a court case in which Regavim is assisting its legal landowners.

“Our intention is to conduct more of these events to educate the public about the true facts on the ground and to increase pressure on the government to effectively enforce Israel’s sovereignty in the country’s national lands, including the Negev,” said Briggs. “There has been much attention focused on settlements deemed ‘illegal’ in the West Bank, including forced evacuations. Far less in the public eye have been shocking illegal land grabs on this side of the Green Line, in the Negev.”

Out of Israel, back to Africa

African migrants chosen for deportation from Israel were nervously awaiting a knock on the door or a tap on the shoulder on Tuesday as immigration officials rounded up hundreds for departure flights due to begin at the weekend.

“The people are very tense. It’s pretty traumatic,” said Jacob Berri, a spokesman for the South Sudanese community of migrants, the first to be repatriated under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency plan.

“There are children here who only speak Hebrew. They won’t even know the language where they’re going,” Berri said.

Africans were being stopped on the street and issued deportation orders, he added. “About 100 more have been arrested this morning.”

Many of the migrants have been working in hotels and restaurants, while others have been holding down manual jobs or working as contracted day labor. All of them were technically working illegally.

Israeli opinion is divided over plans to eventually deport some 60,000 African migrants deemed a social irritant and a threat to the Jewish character of the state. A columnist in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth called it “hysteria”. Another in the same paper said the methods may be “needlessly brutal” but it was necessary.

The first deportation flight is expected to leave Israel on Sunday for Juba, the capital of South Sudan, as part of what Israel calls Operation Returning Home.

Detentions began on Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where Israeli television filmed weeping African women and men in handcuffs. Those detained were sent to the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev Desert, close to where they first entered Israel over the porous Sinai Desert border with Egypt.

The South Sudanese, whose country was established in 2011 after they fled civil war in Sudan five or six years ago, will be the first to be repatriated, under an agreement between South Sudan and Israel. They number only some 1,500.

“The next stage is the removal from Israel of all the infiltrators from Eritrea and Sudan, whose number comes close to 50,000 people,” said Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

It is legally questionable whether Israel can actually remove all of the migrants and some critics have said the government’s tough rhetoric is far removed from reality.

“At the moment, we are permitted only to deport from Israel the citizens of South Sudan and the Ivory Coast,” the minister was quoted as saying.

“I hear those who say these infiltrators cannot be sent back, but this is an important mission …saying “No” is tantamount to shelving the declaration of independence, the end of the Zionist dream,” said Yishai, who heads a religious party.


South Sudanese who agree to deportation within five days will receive a grant of 1,000 euros. Those who do not are interned until they can be forcibly repatriated.

“We have arrested about 140 infiltrators up until last night, a main portion of whom are South Sudanese,” senior immigration official Yossi Edelstein told Israel Radio.

“There is also an impressive movement in the South Sudanese community of people coming to us to leave on their own free will. About 100 people have come forward to register…”

Israel, a country of 7.8 million, has almost completed a high fence along the border to deter more would-be migrants who are brought to the frontier by Bedouin people-smugglers.

Newspaper reports said Netanyahu had asked officials to examine whether a fence should now also be built along the border with southern Jordan, in the event that migrants try to cross the narrow Gulf of Aqaba and enter Israel from the Arab kingdom.

An Eilat hotel director said the expulsions were “a terrible shame”. “Most of them are educated people who fled from a bloody war in their homeland. They speak a number of languages, most of them are Christian, and they did their job in the best way possible,” David Blum of Isrotel was quoted as saying.

Thousands of Palestinians used to come into Israel daily from the West Bank and Gaza to do mostly minimum-wage jobs. But tight security provisions to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants ended that mutually beneficial arrangement years ago.

Netanyahu says legislation to stop the illegal hiring of Africans would now be strictly enforced.

Despite claims of rampant crime in sections of south Tel Aviv where most Africans live, a senior police commander, David Gez, was quoted as saying the level of crime among the migrants was relatively low.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Edited by Andrew Osborn

Second suspect arrested in mosque arson

A second suspect was arrested in connection with the burning of a mosque in a Bedouin-Arab town in northern Israel.

Few details have been released about the second suspect, who reportedly is a resident of the West Bank. He was scheduled to appear Monday in a Tel Aviv court for a hearing on extending his remand.

An 18-year old Jewish man from northern Israel was arrested hours after the Oct. 2 torching of the main mosque of the Upper Galilee town of Tuba Zanghariya. He reportedly studied at a West Bank yeshiva.

Both suspects are suspected of “direct involvement” in the arson attack, Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told news agencies.

Dead Sea gunrunners busted

Israel caught two Palestinians who tried to smuggle in small arms across the Dead Sea.

The suspects, both Bedouin from the West Bank, were arrested Monday while sailing in from Jordan with 10 assault rifles and ammunition in their boat. Israeli police said they had been under surveillance for several months.

The incident was a rare departure from the calm that generally reigns in the Dead Sea area thanks to Israeli-Jordanian security coordination.

Israeli Bedouin arrested for rape by deception

An Israeli Bedouin was arrested on charges of rape and impersonating a Jewish pilot.

The man, 43, is an Israel Air Forces reserves officer from northern Israel who reportedly is married with children and comes from a prominent Bedouin family, Haaretz reported. A gag order issued Sunday by the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court prevents him from being identified.

Three women filed complaints against the man, who identified himself as Daniel Tamir and said he was an Israeli Air Force pilot on his profile for the dating service Love Me.

None of the women accused him of assaulting them. A fourth woman is due to be questioned by police, Haaretz reported.

He is being charged with rape based on a 2008 ruling by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein that rape can be charged in instances where a women had sex with a man due to misrepresentations he made about himself.

The man told police he never told the women he was Jewish or a pilot. He also said that the women misrepresented themselves; for example, one of the women, 59, said in her profile that she was 42.

Last July, a Jerusalem court sentenced Sabbar Kashur, 30, an Arab from Jerusalem, to 18 months in prison as part of a plea bargain for rape by deception. Kashur was accused of introducing himself as a Jewish bachelor seeking a serious relationship in order to have sex with a Jewish woman.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev reaches out to Bedouin women

Every morning, Hana’a Abokaf leaves her village on the slopes of the Negev Desert, where electricity is powered by a generator and camels and goats graze near cinderblock and tin houses.

Abokaf, 20, rides the bus to the university where she is a first-year medical student. Just by attending a university, Abokaf is part of a revolution of sorts in her deeply conservative Bedouin community: She is among about 250 Bedouin female students enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In recent years, the school has made attracting and retaining Bedouin students, many of them female, a top priority.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” a smiling Abokaf said, her lavender and black headscarf fastened tightly over her hair.

It’s a bold statement, because Bedouin women usually stay at home to raise children. They often are not encouraged to complete their schooling; more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate.

Growing up, Abokaf said, she noted the need for Bedouin doctors in her community when her grandmother became ill and found it difficult to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking doctors, who were from a different culture.

Other gaps, some striking, exist between the Bedouin and the rest of Israeli society. Bedouin families tend to be large — 10 children is not uncommon — and are among the country’s poorest and most-neglected populations. In their gradual transition from a nomadic to a more urban lifestyle, they have faced major challenges.

Bedouin communities have high rates of crime and unemployment. They have considerably worse health and education services than fellow Israelis, and their infrastructure can be appalling or even nonexistent, especially in “unrecognized villages,” such as the one in which Abokaf lives.

Unrecognized villages is the term used for Bedouin areas that Israeli authorities do not officially acknowledge. Israel does not provide these areas with basic services. Authorities hope the families in these communities will agree to move to one of the “recognized” Bedouin villages and towns in the Negev.

A friend of Abokaf, Siham Elmour, also is studying medicine. Elmour, 19, considers herself fortunate because her family has supported her decision, despite the years of training.

“My father knows my life will be one of study, but the family also knows it is something that will be helpful in the world,” said Elmour, one of 11 children.

Her family also hopes that she will close some of the gaps between Bedouin society and the rest of Israel. Elmour and three of her sisters — also students at Ben-Gurion — are among the new wave of confident and educated young Bedouin women.

Elmour said she believes that growing up under difficult circumstances may foster the urge to make a difference.

“We are going to try to solve the problems because we come from within the culture,” she said.

The Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion helps to coordinate the university experience for the Bedouin students. The center is charged with advancing higher education among the Bedouin and provides scholarships, counseling and special university preparation programs for high school students and graduates.

Established a decade ago with the help of Robert Arnow, a New York City real estate developer and former chairman of the university’s board, the center also aims to promote academic research about Bedouins.

“For an American Jew to be identified with Bedouins in the Negev is very important,” Arnow said at a ceremony this month marking the institute’s 10th birthday. “It has to do with values, Jewish values.”

The university has gone from having almost no Bedouin students two decades ago to 420 male and female Bedouin students today. Before 1990, there was only one female graduate student. Since 2000, many more have gone on to do graduate work.

The university is especially proud of its first female Bedouin student to graduate as a medical doctor. Dr. Rania al-Oqbi graduated last year and is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, hoping to increase the presence of Bedouin women in the health field.

Most female Bedouin students focus on the humanities and social sciences, though the school is trying to interest male and female students in studying science and technology.

As Bedouin society becomes more integrated into the modern Israeli market, more Bedouin students need to learn scientific fields, said Ismael Abu-Saad, director of the university’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. The center also strives to increase the number of Bedouin students preparing for such professions as nursing, physical therapy and social work, much-needed services in Bedouin communities.

Schools in Bedouin areas can be substandard, creating a challenge for students who seek university admission. To help such students, Ben-Gurion University has created yearlong preparatory programs in fields including medicine and social work.

Abokaf said of the preparatory program: “It helped us prove ourselves.”

She and many of her Bedouin peers are often found at the university’s main library using the books and computers — electricity can be scarce in their villages. Some students described having to study by candlelight at home and being asked to help with younger siblings instead of focusing on their studies.

Saffa Algaar, 23, is one of just two female Bedouin students in the geography department. Families have been reluctant to let their daughters major in the subject, because it involves field trips, some of them overnight, to various parts of the country. Algaar said family members have backed her academic choice, though when she travels they remind her that they are only as far as her cellular phone.

“They let me go, but they don’t stop calling, asking, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? When will you be coming home?'” she said.

Yet in talking about her family’s economic plight and the work her mother has done to help fund her studies, Algaar said, “When our economic situation improves, everything else will also improve.”


Suad Abu Siam turns sorrow into power

“I am a mother of five, and I am pregnant. I didn’t plan this pregnancy, and I am very tired,” Suad Abu Siam, a 35-year-old Bedouin told a group of American women last month. “It energizes me to get out of my reality.”

We’d come to Tel Aviv on a mission organized by the Jewish National Fund to learn about our counterparts in Israel — women of all backgrounds. We came to hear their stories and find out what we have in common. And what we don’t.

Sitting in a nondescript hotel conference room, Abu Siam and five others described challenges faced as Israeli women. Among them, no one seemed both more foreign and yet more immediate than Abu Siam, who appeared dressed in colorful Muslim garb sparkling with jewelry, covered from head to toe so that only her beautiful and expressive face was visible. She appeared alternately angry and sad, fierce and broken, and as we heard her story — translated from Hebrew by our group leader — the reasons for her emotions became both understandable and unfathomable.

Abu Siam was raised among 13 brothers and sisters. She said she’d learned from her father that she should not be limited by the difficulties of Bedouin life — the poverty and restrictions in education and freedom placed on women.

So despite being married at 16, she set out to be an emissary for women’s rights in her village of Lakiya in the Negev and to attempt to help empower other Bedouin women. Abu Siam said that despite her responsibilities as a mother, she had “aspirations” for her life and a desire to study and to “build myself.” She also said that she loves her husband and her family very much.

In response to Abu Siam’s work, her husband took a second wife.

Abu Siam is not divorced, and she is carrying her husband’s child. While polygamy is technically against the law in Israel, Muslim society allows up to four wives, and multiple marriages often exist within the Muslim community.

Her husband’s action was, she said, a “crisis” for her and her children, who were already challenged by learning disabilities and who felt ostracized and abandoned.

Yet Abu Siam said she has found solace through identifying with other women. She has taken it upon herself to organize forums for Bedouin women to continue to empower them.

“My children gave me power,” she said. “All of a sudden, I felt I am OK without him. My children are back on their way now, having success in school.”

Her voice low, her face determined, she spoke across what seemed like centuries of distance between her culture and ours. And yet her solution to her problems seemed both simple and hauntingly profound: “I would like to emphasize I teach my children to educate themselves. The reality speaks for itself; I don’t need to make an effort to teach them.”


Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens

At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It’s as if you’ve glimpsed something like it before in a TV docudrama, or on the glossy pages of National Geographic or as part of a news clip on CNN. It’s part Middle Eastern, part African. It’s part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there’s a gentle mood to the place, as if no one there is really complaining about their lot — almost as if they’ve picked it themselves.

And they have, in a way.

Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel’s Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin (“One Hill”) was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village’s status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.

Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens, comprising about 80,000 people in northern Israel and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population. They are entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews — that is if they could just stay put.

A nomadic people, “Bedouin” is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab. Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.

About 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they have one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century. With the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle and often an actual household.

That makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer department of social work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the statistics.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to walk with the wind,'” Al-Krenawi said. “Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind. They were working with the Bedouin, and they didn’t understand them. Slowly, they’ve started to change their thinking and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people.”

In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva, now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000 — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn’t want or ask for the homes. They simply weren’t interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; “it was a big mistake,” said Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.

Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, did start to move in to Tel Sheva and six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful.

The professor explained that there are crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents and caring for land and animals to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on “social security,” Israel’s name for welfare, which he said is hardly enough to support 12 children.

The Bedouin were “pushed to the margins of society; they were left out,” Al-Krenawi said. “Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It’s a big welfare population. It’s a disaster.”

The question, he continued, is one of the future: “Where are you taking this portion of society?”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

Critics say the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of Israel in 1948 and is only now starting to realize its potential. It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where they are buried. Ben-Gurion’s words sound surprisingly relevant these days: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning.”

Signs of Bedouin movement do exist. It is a population that votes. It’s one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It’s one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices and because the Bedouin were never really considered at all.

Nine more recognized villages are in the works at various levels and stages of development. A regional council for this area, the Abu Bazma Council led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy, has been set up and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) New schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.

Kolagy, who is of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, noted that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledged that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the start– “when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way” — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.

Bedouin life from a child’s eye view through a camera

A young Bedouin boy casually leans against a rough-hewn wooden table, his kaffiyeh blowing in the wind. Laid before him are some of the traditional tools of Bedouin coffee-making, essential to their culture of hospitality. A mortar and pestle for grinding the beans, a large cast-iron pan for roasting them, and a bacraj, or coffeepot.

Behind him is a section of a cinder-block wall, a sign of the permanent housing that is gradually replacing traditional Bedouin tents. English writing appears across the chest of the Western-style sweatshirt he wears beneath his jalabiyya jacket.

The photograph is part of an exhibition titled, “Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” which continues through Sept. 30 at the Venice Arts Gallery. According to Kim Frumin, the educator, artist and Fulbright Fellow who designed and implemented the project, this and other photos in the exhibition accurately show the fluidity between tradition and modernity at Abu Kaf. Frumin sees the boy’s relaxed pose, amid artifacts ancient and new, as epitomizing a “great harmony … between the past and the future” in the children’s lives.

The seeds of this project were sown in the summer of 2003, when Frumin visited Israel on a community service trip. Walking through the Bedouin village of Wadi El Na’am, Frumin felt like the “pied piper of 35 millimeter film.” Fascinated by the camera slung over her shoulder, the children followed her around, excitedly calling out in Hebrew: “Take my picture!”

Frumin was intrigued by the fact that “in a village without water or electricity … the children were so excited about the camera.” Concerned with escalating tensions between the Negev Bedouins and Israel over land disputes and access to basic services, she thought about ways she might help create bridges between the cultures.

“I realized that my experience and expertise lay in art education and in working with different cultures,” she said.

With the children’s excitement for photography fresh in her mind, Frumin decided to use art “as a tool for communication and expression.”

From December 2004 through April 2005, Frumin worked with 10 youths at a school in the recently recognized Bedouin village of Abu Kaf. The students practiced taking and developing pictures — none had ever used a camera before — and examined photographs taken by other children around the world.

Frumin and the children also “spent a lot of time with the idea … of how the camera gives you new eyes to see everyday things in new ways,” she said. “I hoped that spending time examining and reflecting on their community would foster a pride in their unique culture and a love for Israel.”

Though shy at first, the students quickly became eager to write and talk about their culture.

“The project tapped into a wellspring of thoughts [and] feelings about their community and their traditions,” Frumin said. They also “knew they had a unique perspective to share, the experience of being a Bedouin child,” a notion that was very “empowering” for the children.

In another photo, a young girl is counting on her fingers as she kneels for prayer. Frumin explained that “she is praising Allah the prescribed number of times and is showing how kids remember to count the correct number.”

The principal of the Bedouin school, Ali Abu Kaf, has been so impressed by the children’s “work, their ideas … and the power of their writing and photographs,” that he suggested Frumin undertake an expanded second round of the project. This time, however, he’d like the Bedouin children to partner with children from Jewish kibbutzim in the area.

As Frumin said, “the project would be a ‘living together’ — not just tolerating each other or existing together — project.” Frumin hopes to begin this second round in February or March and is “actively looking for sponsors.”

“Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” through Sept. 30. Venice Arts Gallery, 1809 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8533.