The Israeli government has long been challenged with how to integrate the country’s Bedouin population. Some IDF veterans are forging a new path. Photos: Aviram Valdman
Only the sounds of gunshots and the orders of military commanders break the silence of the Negev desert near Israel’s border with Egypt. Under a blue summer sky and a seemingly endless expanse of sand, recently drafted soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces carry out training drills, practicing shooting, running, and navigating. The olive-green uniforms of the Givati brigade match the scrubby bushes underfoot, the only vegetation that survives under the desert sun.
Basic training at facilities like this is a rite of passage for most Israeli teenagers. Young men serve three years in the IDF and women two. Exemptions are given to those who study in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, the country’s Arab citizens, and young women who opt for civilian national service. But aside from these groups, most healthy Israeli citizens, whether they like it or not, serve in the IDF in some capacity.
But one of the units running drills today, the 585th or Desert Reconnaissance Battalion, has a different story. It is an infantry unit made up mainly of Bedouins, a semi-nomadic Muslim minority that makes up about 2 percent of Israel’s population. Bedouins are not required to serve in the army, but many have chosen to do so for decades.
“It’s my state, so I am serving,” says Hakim al-Huzail, a 20-year-old from Rahat, a predominantly Bedouin city just north of Beersheva. Like most Bedouins who join the army, he is following a family tradition. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, there have always been certain Bedouin tribes and villages known for their military service. Over the years, 170 Muslim soldiers, including many Bedouin, have been killed in action.
But al-Huzail is only one of two graduates from his class at an all-Bedouin high school who have joined the army. And this is not for lack of trying on Israel’s part. As is standard across the country, an IDF recruiter visited the school to explain the draft process and the opportunities offered by army service, including job skills and university scholarships. The problem is that there is waning interest in volunteering for the IDF across the Bedouin sector in southern Israel.
“In recent years, we see fewer people from the south enlisting, as there is more pressure not to enlist,” says Col. Wajdi Sarhouan, who oversees minority soldiers in the IDF, including Bedouins, Christian Arabs, and Druze. Last year, 317 Bedouins enlisted in the army, but only about one-third were from the south. Most came from the north, where they are more integrated into Israeli society, Sarhouan says. Moreover, he explains, many of those who enlist from the south are dealing with increasing criticism and even threats of violence from other Bedouin, sometimes motivated by growing Islamic extremism. “They have lots of problems in their villages,” he says. “It’s not pleasant for them to volunteer. But the army and the state want them.”
The state’s relationship with the Bedouin has always been fraught with tension, from complicated, still-unresolved debates about land ownership to disputes over the amount of resources invested in the community. But Bedouin service in the IDF has always been a bright spot, a symbol of hope for coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Now many are worried that this hope is fading, and believe that recruiting more Negev Bedouin into the army—and offering them more benefits in return—is key to both lifting the sector out of poverty and isolation, and preventing further political and religious radicalization. Some policymakers point to Egypt, where terrorist organizations have made strong inroads among the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, and say Israel must take action to make sure the same trend doesn’t take root in the Jewish state.
“There is a great contest over the Bedouin, if we don’t win that contest then al-Qaeda, Hamas, and ISIS will,” says Michael Oren, a Knesset member in the centrist Kulanu party and former Israeli ambassador the United States. Oren is pushing to recruit more Negev Bedouin and grant more benefits to those who serve. He has introduced legislation to expand the army’s definition of a “lone soldier,” which is now mainly confined to those who immigrate to Israel alone in order to serve in the army, like Oren did back in 1979. He wants the definition to include Bedouin soldiers. This would make more benefits available to Bedouin, including better transportation between army bases and their villages, which are often ill-served by buses and trains. It would also include financial assistance so that Bedouin soldiers can rent apartments during their service and not have to return to their home villages, where they may face hostility for joining the army. And it would give them more scholarships and job placement assistance once their army service is completed. Such changes would encourage more Bedouin youth to enlist, Oren said, and help reduce poverty, crime, and unemployment in the sector, as well as integrating Bedouin into Israeli society.
Othman Abu Ajaj, a Bedouin IDF reserve officer, stands on a hilltop outside of Beersheva, looking down at two Bedouin villages, which are little more than collections of corrugated metal and concrete-block homes surrounded by camels, trash, and a few parked cars. The hill is also home to a reservoir of Mekorot, the national water company, but these villages do not have running water, or electricity other than that generated by their own solar panels, because they are not recognized by the government and therefore not provided with services. More than one-third of the Negev Bedouin population lives in areas without such services, according to a recent state comptroller’s report.
Abu Ajaj, 38, is also head of community affairs at the Bedouin Development Authority, a government division that deals with land-ownership issues. “Look at this,” he tells me. “It’s an embarrassment, people living like this in 2016. It’s a social crisis.” He goes on to cite the figures: More than 70 percent of Bedouin families live under the poverty line, unemployment in the sector is 27 percent, and only 28 percent of students pass high school certificate exams.
But even more frightening, Abu Ajaj says, is that places like this are prime recruiting grounds for criminals, not to mention political and religious extremist groups like ISIS. Last summer, four teachers from the region were charged with encouraging support for ISIS and planning to travel to Syria to fight for the terrorist group. The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, whose leader is currently in prison for incitement to violence, has also gained traction, opening mosques, summer camps, and other activities in the Negev’s Bedouin sector. “It’s a vacuum and lots of groups have entered to take advantage of that,” Abu Ajaj says. “This is an explosive situation.”
Abu Ajaj feels the growing disdain for the state and the army in his home village of Kuseife, where he says he has received death threats because he is a reserve officer in the IDF’s Home Front Command. His father and uncles, he says, would never have faced such hostility. He says he also encounters anger due to his role in developing the first national service program in the southern Bedouin sector, which has brought about 600 volunteers, mainly young women, to work in hospitals and other medical clinics.
“Even a few years ago, no one here spoke about ideology against the state, but now it’s a different place,” he says.
Abu Ajaj now carries a gun and sometimes travels home from his office in Beersheva with a police escort.
Other Bedouin IDF reservists echo Abu Ajaj’s concerns. In another Bedouin village outside of Beersheva, reached by a bumpy dirt road, a middle-aged IDF veteran served us tea and dried dates while lamenting what he sees as the waning popularity of army service. Because he is running for the regional council, he did not want him name used.
“If you come back after the election, I can tell you everything,” he says to me, “but until then I don’t want it widely known that I support the army.”
Anti-government sentiment among Bedouins has definitely increased in recent years, says Sarah Abu Kaf, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Israel’s first female Bedouin clinical psychologist. Bedouin have long been among the poorest communities in Israel, but were not this angry about it until recently. She attributes the changing attitude partly to advances in education in the Bedouin community, which leaves people hungry for a higher standard of living, and partly to modern technology like smartphones that are a window into the larger world.
“In the past, the Bedouin community had goodwill toward the state,” Abu Kaf says. “We were always the good kids. But I think people have become more aware of their surroundings. People are exposed to the whole world now, and they want more. They want to feel they are getting equal treatment as citizens.”
The Israeli government is aware of the problem, and has increased its investment in the Arab and Bedouin sectors in recent years, starting job training and placement programs across the Negev. Late last year, the government approved a $4 billion plan to improve infrastructure, housing, and education in the Arab sector.
But many of these resources are not available to the poorest and most vulnerable Bedouins, those who live in the so-called unrecognized villages. When Bedouin began to abandon their nomadic lifestyle in the early 20th century, they established a series of villages scattered across the Negev that expanded naturally as population grew. This setup became problematic when the State of Israel was established and the government wanted to place limits on where its citizens could settle. The government has implemented several resettlement plans over the years, including building cities like Rahat for Bedouin to live in organized, established residential zones. Other efforts have included offering to bring electricity and other services to communities if they agree to live within certain boundaries or relocate. Some tribes have negotiated, relocated, and signed agreements with the government. But others have not, and live without many government services. Even some of those who have reached agreements have yet to receive electricity.
Abu Kaf and another Bedouin researcher, Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, who co-directs the Arab-Jewish Relations Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, say that ongoing land disputes are at the core of conflict between Bedouin society and the state.
“Without fixing this land problem, it’s impossible to work together on other things, like education and development,” Hadad Haj-Yahya says. Abu Kaf sees a connection between the ongoing land debate and waning interest in army service. “The feeling among young people is that you are like a sucker, you are doing army service but not receiving anything,” she asserts.
A recent state comptroller’s report said the government should be doing more to improve infrastructure in recognized Bedouin communities and also speed up attempts to arrive at a settlement with the remaining unrecognized villages. But the report also said more cooperation was needed from the Bedouin community.
As the land debate drags on in the background, Abu Ajaj and others continue to believe that army service is key to a better quality of life for the Bedouin population. It prevents people from falling into crime or extremism, but also offers opportunities to learn job skills and receive university scholarships.
“It’s a way for Bedouins to be part of the state,” Abu Ajaj says. “It helps them develop self-confidence. Those who enlist see their lives in a different, better shape.” He sees believes his government leadership role is a direct result of his army service, and he credits civilian national service for allowing two of his nephews to eventually join the Israeli police force.
It is this promise of social mobility and inclusion that has motivated many of the new enlistees stationed on the training grounds near the Egyptian border.
Twenty-year-old Ahmed Abulatif, for example, says he went against his family’s wishes in order to join the army. He is the first person from his family to serve.
“It’s a little bit hard,” Abulatif says during a break in training, his face painted in green and brown camouflage and his lean frame supporting a large backpack and assault rifle. “When I told my family I wanted to do the army, my father said, ‘Fine, do the army.’ But with my brothers it was harder. They were very opposed,” he explains.
One of 11 children born to a family in Rahat, Abulatif says he became interested in the army through a friend who planned to serve and whose family had a tradition of army service. He spent his last year of high school in a special program located on an IDF base that exposes students to army life and allows them to decide if they want to join.
“I wanted to see what it was all about,” he says. At the end of that year, he still wasn’t sure, so he spent the next 12 months working as a cleaner, picking up trash on the beach in Ashkelon. Eager for better job opportunities, he joined the army two months ago. Going back to his family and his neighborhood is still hard, and he fears what others will think of him. During his bi-weekly visits home, he calls one of his brothers to meet him when he arrives at the bus stop near the entrance to Rahat and bring him civilian clothing.
“I don’t go to my neighborhood in uniform,” Abulatif says. “My brothers are okay with my service now, but say don’t wear your uniform home.”
He says such friction is worth it, and he sees the army as a unique opportunity.
“I think everyone should enter the army and make peace with each other,” he says. “It is hard, but hard is good.”
While Abulatif’s story does offer hope, the fact that he is afraid to wear his uniform in his neighborhood shows how big the gap between Negev Bedouin and the State of Israel has become. In today’s interconnected world and an increasingly chaotic Middle East, where terrorist organizations are competing with states, it’s not just Abulatif who is in danger.
The southern Bedouin’s waning interest in army service—and the increasing disrespect for those who do serve—is just one of many symptoms of the hopelessness and anger felt in the Negev. As Abu Ajaj says, years of failed attempts to settle the land issue and bring government services to all Bedouin have created a vacuum filled with disappointment and hints of emerging radicalization, as shown by the school teachers recently charged with supporting ISIS.
While Bedouin rights have often been a cause embraced by the Israeli Left, more and more policymakers across the spectrum are realizing what is at stake and urging further government investment in solving land issues and bringing equal services to the Bedouin sector. The call for giving more support to those Bedouin who decide to join the army is part of this increased attention, and is a small step toward further integrating the Bedouin, both for their sake and the sake of the state’s security.
“It’s very simple,” says Oren. “The Bedouin of Israel are a challenge or an opportunity. We need to make it an opportunity.”
Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower