How Israel Talks About Its 'Bedouin Problem'

The Negev Bedouin are invisible when they need public services, not least the police; but the Bedouin are the all-too-visible targets of an effective indoctrination effort which vilifies them as the country's enemy.

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After the murder of Rimas and Isnad, two young girls from the Bedouin village of Al-Fura'a, the dismissal of the commander of the Arad police station was swift - and covered extensively by the Israeli media. Despite the girls’ mother having come to the police station the night before the murder, warning that the girls’ father posed a serious threat to his daughters, no action was taken. The dismissals may have been an inescapable formality for the police, but it cannot make any real positive impact; in fact it would almost be viewed as an act of injustice to the dismissed officers.

If this sounds like a curious reading of the event, then we need to understand the context of this tragic event. The police inattention to the complaints filed by the girls’ mother was not a mishap, as current and former police officials have tried to emphasize. Despite the unusual, tragic outcome, the mishandling of the case was not evidence of a “bad apple” or a “singular incident”. Instead, it was a horrific demonstration of standard operating norms.

Policing is an important public service, despite the fact that it involves the possession of firearms, the legitimacy to use force and a hierarchical, semi-military chain of command. These features are an unavoidable part of this public service, used to ensure policing effectiveness especially in terms of securing members of the public. In recent years, the police has increasingly highlighted and reinforced its service orientation and less its enforcement role. “We are here for the public,” commanders repeat to their subordinates. “Our job is to listen to citizens, help them in times of distress, protect them, and save their lives.” This is absolutely correct.

If we expect the police to follow public service norms, we should perhaps ask what exactly these norms are when procedures involve the Arab-Bedouin population.

Is the (dis)service that Arab police officers gave the abused Bedouin mother very different from the lack of other—more or less critical—public infrastructure services that the residents of Al-Fura’a, Abu-Ashibah, Al-Atrash, Wadi-Naam, and other Bedouin settlements receive? Do urgent calls to disconnect electricity in order to operate life-saving equipment receive a rapid response? Do cable technicians jump quickly into their van when a resident of Bir Hadaj reports reception problems? Has anyone ever given a thought to placing a train station halfway between Be’er-Sheva and Dimona, in Abu-Tlul, for example?

These questions might seem merely cheap, groundless demagoguery, especially since most Bedouin villages have neither electricity nor running water. The services mentioned above were never planned to reach the Bedouin who live in the dozens of villages dispersed between the government-established urban towns or townships in which 67% of the Negev Bedouin live.

The almost complete transparency of these Bedouin in the eyes of public service providers is made possible through an effective indoctrination effort in which the Bedouins are a prominent target. Through this propaganda, the Bedouins are portrayed as far from being invisible but rather as numerous and threatening, as invaders and infiltrators, reckless drivers, violent individuals and criminals. Not only do they pose a danger for the country, they are also a danger to their own communities and families. This hatred for Bedouin is propagated by public figures (such as the media celebrity Avri Gilad, for example, who wrote a Facebook post in April about his recent Negev visit :“I’m appalled by what I’ve seen….By force, by shameless criminal activity, with insolence met only by fear and submission, the Bedouin have taken over the entire Negev") and organizations, such as the non-profit Regavim, for example, which under the mission of "protecting the national lands", works hard to delegitimize and deprive the Bedouin population, and elected public officials, who simply covet Bedouin lands. Their motto is: the fewer Bedouin in a smaller area, the better.

So if that’s the situation, and these are the limited services available to Bedouins, what could we have against the police officers from the Arad station? Do we expect them to be different from all the other civil servants? Do we expect them to ignore the newspapers and TV? Do we really think that they can be oblivious to the “Bedouin problem”?

And we haven’t even mentioned the problematic dual role that the police plays in the Arab sector. While for the Jewish citizens, the role of the police is more of a straightforward duty to provide policing services, it has a second, national security-oriented role in the Arab sector. How can these two duties coincide? Is it really feasible to expect the police force to adopt a true service orientation toward the very population segment that it considers to be a security threat?

More than any other organization in the country, the police has invested enormous efforts since the events of October 2000 (in which 13 Israeli Arab protestors were killed by the police) to improve its services to the Arab public, whose trust it is slowly gaining one step at a time. But as long as the police force is immersed in the country’s milieu, and as long as it is assigned an impossible task when working in the Arab sector, its options to improve the quality of policing are limited.

The dual, even contradicting perception of the police towards Israel's Arab citizens was manifested sharply during the evacuation of the injured Bedouin victim of the Be’er Sheva bank shooting to the hospital. He, unlike any of the other customers caught in the crossfire, was the sole victim to be handcuffed.

Under the leadership of their station commander, Arad police officers were merely acting in accordance with the racist norms prevalent in Israeli society. These norms expect the police to treat an entire population group as invisible at best, and as the enemy, at worst. The dismissed police officers are not only the police’s fig leaf – they are a fig leaf for us all.

Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu is the Co-Executive Director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.

Bedouin children traversing a new building site in the Negev town of Rahat.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Sisters Asinad, 2, and Ramais, 3, who were found dead in Bedouin town of Al-Fura’a.

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