I have traveled on three occasions this year to the Bedouin village of Zarzir in the Galilee to pay condolence calls on the families of soldiers who fell in the defense of Israel.
The first was Major Ashraf Mazarib, an officer in the Bedouin battalion stationed in the Gaza area, who fell with three of his soldiers - Sergeant Major Hanna Abu Ghanem, Sergeant Major Ibrahim Hamayda and Staff Sergeant Mofid Sawad, in a firefight with Palestinian terrorists. Next, it was police Staff Sergeant Major Ahmed Mazarib, a relative of Ashraf, who sacrificed his life foiling a Palestinian suicide bomber near Jerusalem. And again, a few weeks ago, it was Lieutenant Malek Grifat, cut down by Palestinian bullets as he was bringing supplies to his men in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian war of terror launched by Yasser Arafat has not spared Israel's Bedouin community. They have done their share of the fighting and have suffered heavy casualties. For the most part, the Bedouin battalion has been posted at the Termit outpost close to Rafah, an Israel Defense Forces outpost almost constantly under fire. For the Bedouin, it has been the continuation of a long tradition of volunteer service in the Israeli security forces.
In recent years, the number of Bedouin youngsters volunteering for service in the IDF, in the ranks of the Bedouin battalion stationed near Gaza, as soldiers in regular units of the IDF, or as trackers in the IDF ground forces, has increased. One such soldier, Omar Sawad of Wadi Salame, was among the three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah two years ago.
During my tenures as defense minister, when promoting the drive for volunteer service in the IDF by Bedouin youngsters, it had been my hope that it would be possible to gradually introduce compulsory military service for the Bedouin community. This would have given them the same status as the Druze and Circassian communities, thereby contributing to their integration into Israeli society. Unfortunately, with changes in the Defense Ministry in recent years, this policy did not receive the constant support that it deserved.
It cannot be said that successive Israeli governments rewarded the Bedouin community for its service to the state by addressing the multitude of severe problems from which the Bedouin suffer. The government is dealing with the Bedouin population through a number of uncoordinated government departments generally working at cross-purposes.
Of all of the segments of Israeli society, the Bedouin are the most disadvantaged: In the fields of education, economic conditions, housing, they are at the bottom of the list. Many of them live in "unrecognized" population clusters, while being denied the basic services due to all of the country's citizens. The Bedouin towns established in the Negev are little more than slums. In addition, their contested land claims with the government have remained unsettled for decades, engendering bitterness and frustration. And after completing their military service, Bedouin youngsters have difficulty finding employment.
All this is breeding a feeling of neglect and even outright discrimination among the Bedouin and creating fertile ground for the Islamic Movement to make inroads into a community that, for years, has kept its distance from these Islamic extremists.
The revelation that Lt. Col. Omar al-Hayb of Zarzir is being put on trial for treason has come like a bolt out of the blue for many. It's easy to imagine the sense of disbelief that greeted the news not only among his own family and the al-Hayb clan, who have a long and distinguished history of service in the IDF, but also among Israeli Bedouin everywhere. Omar al-Hayb is, of course, innocent until proved guilty. But his trial is being accompanied by a feeling of anxiety and injury by many in the Bedouin community.
This hour of crisis for Israel's Bedouin is a time for Israelis to express their support for the Bedouin community. It is a time for the government to intensify its efforts to deal with the many problems besetting the Bedouin. It is a time for the IDF to highlight its recognition of Bedouin service in the army. It is a time for solidarity with our Bedouin brothers.
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