Israeli Army Pulling Plug on Gaza Rocket Alert Apps Leaves Bedouin Out to Dry

Most of the unrecognized Bedouin communities in the south can't receive real-time warnings of attacks from Gaza since they are not included in the army’s database

A Bedouin village in the Negev, December 16, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Most of the unrecognized Bedouin communities in southern Israel are unable to receive real-time warnings of incoming rocket and mortar shell attacks from the Gaza Strip since the army’s Home Front Command smartphone app does not include these communities in its database.

The Israel Defense Forces said that it was difficult to add the communities to their database since they are not recognized by the state.

On Thursday, the military announced that it would disconnect all private third-party smartphone apps that had previously been given access to data about incoming attacks from Gaza after receiving complaints from users about false alarms due to technical glitches. The military recommended using the Home Front Command's official app, which it says delivers reliable, real-time alerts to users.

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About 90,000 Bedouins in Israel's south, or half of the country's Bedouin citizens, live in unrecognized villages where they lack basic infrastructure and are not connected to any services. 

To download the app, users must choose three communities about which they want to receive real-time warnings. Residents of unrecognized villages who want to download the app will not, however, be able to find their communities' names in the list when they come to select three in order to download.

Unlike the private apps, where warnings can be received for any region in Israel, the official military app restricts the range and does not allow access to large areas, nor does it have the names of local councils, but only of specific communities.

The private 'Red Alert' app that sends notifications about incoming rockets from Gaza rockets.

After downloading the app users can, however, also receive alerts to their phone based on their location as determined by their phones' GPS. However, the GPS will not alert them since it only notifies with regards to incoming rockets or missiles in communities that can be found in its database, not in "open areas."

“This is another phase in the neglect of the Bedouin and the negative attitude of the state,” says Atieh Al Asam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev. “We remember in the last wars all the unrecognized communities were defined as ‘open areas.’ If [a rocket] was aimed at an unrecognized community, this would be treated as if there were no people there. That explains why people were killed. What we see here is another phase of pressure on residents to leave their villages.”

During the 2014 Gaza war, a Bedouin resident was killed after a missile fired from Gaza at an unrecognized community was not intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. A subsequent investigation by the army revealed that many residents of the unrecognized communities do not appear on IDF maps, and so the defensive system does not protect them.

In 2016, the state comptroller published a report on preparations to protect civilians from rocket attacks, including physical structures, alerts and evacuation. “In some of the recognized communities, in light of planning problems, the residents are unable to receive a building permit, not to mention in the unrecognized communities. Therefore the obligation to protect the home ... cannot be met by a good many of the residents of the Bedouin communities,” the report states.

The comptroller’s report noted that the High Court of Justice had issued a ruling following a petition filed during the 2014 war, after Bedouins were injured from rocket fire at their communities. The High Court determined that because “there is no doubt that the state is responsible for the lives and physical safety of its citizens and residents... this obligation also applies in times of war and emergencies. This obligation applies to all persons who they live in an area that endangers their lives, whether ‘recognized’ or not,” the court determined.

In response to a query from Haaretz, the army conceded that there are communities that are not in the Home Front Command app’s database of names. The army said that such people should inform the Home Front Command of their place of residence to have it added to the list. However, the statement released last week by the army spokesman’s office following the decision to disconnect private smartphone apps did not advise people to do this, nor did it mention where they can direct their requests to have their community included in the database.

“The app allows users to choose three main areas of interest about which the app will alert users whenever there a need,” the army spokesman said. “In addition, the system alerts users with regards to any place they are located by use of the GPS in their phone. The database of communities is based on the government database, and additional areas determined as needed. In addition to the app, it is recommended to use complementary means such as sirens, the Home Front Command website and the Nofar system, which [alerts] factories and institutions.”

Bedouin villages in the Negev, both recognized and unrecognized, had no protection during the 2014 war. Despite numerous requests from Bedouin villagers to the Home Front Command as well as petitions to the Supreme Court, the villages were never given adequate solutions, neither temporary nor permanent. The fact that the villages are not recorded on maps, and considered open areas, also enabled a situation in which the Iron Dome missile defense system did not intercept rockets fired at them. During the operation, one Bedouin from the Negev was killed by a rocket and many others, including children, were injured.