Feeling Betrayed by Israel, Bedouin Soldiers to Refuse to Report for Duty Over Community's Treatment

'From the standpoint of the Jews, we’re Arabs. From the standpoint of the Arabs, we’re traitors,' says one Bedouin reservist soldier.

Former Bedouin soldiers who are now opting out of their reserve duty.
Rami Shllush

A group of Israeli Bedouin soldiers announced Sunday they would no longer report for reserve duty over Israel's treatment of their brethren. The announcement by 25 reservists soldiers followings the demolition of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in southern Israel last month, where a policeman and a Bedouin teacher died during clashes in what officials said was an attempted attack, though recent reports claim otherwise.

The reservist soldiers, from the Galilee village of Bir al-Maksur, informed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of their decision to stop serving in the Israel Defense Forces in what is the most public act of defiance since tensions between Israel's Bedouin community and the state have boiled up.

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“For many years, we have done our part to contribute to the country. We have served in IDF combat units and have shed blood and tears protecting the borders of Israel and the safety of its residents. It is very unfortunate that at the end of our military service, we understood that we've been abandoned by the country that sent us to fight,” the Bedouin reservists wrote in their letter, which was sent last week.

“With the conclusion of our military service, all of us, residents of this village, hoped we would be able to start our lives and even dreamed about working and starting a family here in the Land of Israel,” they wrote.

“How great is the pain, how great was our disappointment and sense of betrayal when it became clear to us that the country we had fought for was now turning its back on us, causing us harm and preventing us from living as civilians.”

A Bedouin soldier examines the ground for markings at the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip May 19, 2014 in Nahal Oz.
Ilia Yefimovich, Getty Images

Unlike most other Israeli Arabs, Bedouin have a tradition of volunteering in the IDF. The letter from the Bedouin reservists comes against the backdrop of a confrontation last month in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, an unrecognized community that was settled without government approval. In the course of clashes with those opposed to the demolition of homes in the village, a Bedouin motorist, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan ran, struck and killed a police officer, Erez Levi, before being killed by police gunfire. Initially law enforcement officials and politicians deemed Erez the victim of a terrorist attack, but an investigation of the incident since then has so far suggested otherwise.

Public Security Minister Erdan, who has oversight responsibility for the police, has acknowledged that if the initial allegations, in which Abu al-Kiyan was labeled a terrorist, prove unfounded, the family is owed an apology.

In their letter, they also detailed the difficulties faced by Bedouin who enlist in the Israel Police. “All of this is in addition to the violence from branches of the police, headed by Gilad Erdan, toward the Bedouin population. And worse still, we have recently been witness to a slander campaign by the minister [Erdan] and Police Chief [Roni Alsheich] against the [Bedouin] population while taking the life of an educator [Abu al-Kiyan] who was called a ‘terrorist’ by the minister.”

The reservists also accused Erdan and Alsheich of “preferring to slander an entire population rather than admitting their embarrassing mistake and the unjustified taking of the life of an educator.”

One of the IDF veterans from Bir al-Maksur, Omar Harib, told Haaretz that his family has a long tradition of army service dating to the pre-state Palmach strike force of the Jewish Haganah underground army, adding that members of his family were killed defending the country. “We are volunteers,” he noted.

Like many Bedouin, he had to move to the south, because his wife, a teacher, was unable to find work in Bir al-Maksur, but found a teaching position in Rahat, near Be’er Sheva. He is currently working as a truck driver, he said, after failing to secure employment with the police.

“We’ve been in the south for four years now. My wife is suffering. My children are suffering,” he said. “From the moment that a Bedouin finishes his army service, he can’t find himself. He doesn’t fit in.” He called Erdan’s initial allegations against Abu al-Kiyan the last straw.

“From the standpoint of the Jews, we’re Arabs. From the standpoint of the Arabs, we’re traitors. We’re neither here nor there. There’s no one to represent us,” he said, claiming that Arab members of the Knesset show greater concern for the Palestinians.

Former Bedouin soldiers who are now opting out of their reserve duty.
Rami Shllush

A Bedouin veteran of the Border Police, Mohammed Harid, who is also working as a truck driver and whose father served in the IDF for years as a tracker in Lebanon, said he felt as if Erdan and Alsheich had labeled Bedouin as terrorists. “They don’t make a distinction between a Bedouin and a Palestinian today,” he said.

Harid, who did not finish high school, said if employers are considering job applicants who are Jewish, Druze and Bedouin, they will hire the Jew first, “then the Druze and maybe ultimately the Bedouin.” Harid wanted to remain in the army as a career soldier but his unit was eliminated. He sent his resume to the police but heard nothing, he said, and complained that Bedouin who served in the army are not given preference over other Muslim Israelis who have not. “I won’t send my children to the army. My dad made the mistake, I made the mistake, I won’t let them make it too,” he said. “I would prefer that they go and study and become doctors.”

But his view was not shared by 25-year-old Hamudi Abu Harid, who also served in the Border Police and said he would still like to encourage young people in Bir al-Maksur to enlist if the attitude towards them changes. He is currently working as a security guard and for the past two years has been trying to land work as a policeman. With each attempt, the application process has stalled without explanation, he said.

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