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Decaying Loyalty?

Arab Bedouins, traditionally allied with Israel, are pushing harder than ever for state recognition and, in an alarming trend, are showing some support for militant Islamic groups.

July 15, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABU KAF, Israel — Holding an Israeli flag his son had brought home from school, Salameh abu Kaf stood near the stream of sewage that runs past his home in this ramshackle Bedouin encampment.

Abu Kaf said his clan has lived on this land in the Negev desert for generations. For the last half a century, they have been citizens of Israel, and a number have served in its army. But the government does not recognize the clan's land claim and provides no services to the 3,000 people who live here.

Abu Kaf, 32, said Israel deserves no honor in return.

"Bedouins have died defending this flag," he said of the small plastic banner in his hand. "We are citizens of this country, but we are not equal citizens. We live in the sewage."

For many of Israel's 1 million Arab citizens, the Jewish state's recent 50th anniversary celebrations served mainly to remind them of their unequal status and unmet aspirations within its borders. Most boycotted the observances.

But resentment is running especially high among the Bedouins--a quiet minority of the Israeli Arab population and traditionally among the most loyal to the state.

From the Negev in the south to the Galilee in the north, the Bedouins are increasingly frustrated by decades-old land disputes with the state and years of official neglect that have left them, by many measures, Israel's most disadvantaged community. And more than ever before, they are coming to identify with the Palestinian cause.

The descendants of once-nomadic desert tribes, Israel's Bedouins historically have been led by conservative sheiks who have allied themselves with the government and complained relatively little about how the community has been treated.

Now, however, for the first time, a small number of Bedouin activists are speaking out, demanding greater recognition and more funding for their people.

At the same time, Bedouin advocates and some Israeli officials warn of more dangerous trends: a new restiveness in the community and a growing, if still limited, support for militant Islamic groups such as Hamas.

Both, they say, underscore the urgency of new efforts, official and otherwise, to find a long-term solution to Bedouin grievances.

One Israeli proposal given preliminary approval in May calls for the creation of four new Bedouin towns. But advocates are divided on the merits of the plan.

"The Bedouin community has always been patient, waiting for fair treatment from the government," said Ismael abu Saad, the director of a newly opened center for Bedouin studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. "But Israel's policies are gradually turning a very loyal and peaceful community into a hostile one."

Elie Rekhess, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University who specializes in Israel's Arab minority, agreed.

"The situation with the Bedouins is very, very explosive," he said. "All you need is a match."

Israel's 150,000 Bedouins are descendants of the tribes that once roamed the deserts of the Middle East, unfettered by borders or national allegiances. Their world today bears little resemblance to the images enshrined in Hollywood movies--an independent way of life defined by goatskin tents, curved daggers and boundless space.

Concentrated mainly in the Negev, a huge, pie-shaped wedge of desert and semiarid land that makes up half of Israel's area, they live in a handful of bleak towns established by the government or in illegal, officially unrecognized communities like this one, without running water, sewers or paved access roads.

At the heart of the matter, as always here, is land.

The Israeli government controls the vast majority of land in the Negev, where it has used the great open spaces for military training and to establish more than 100 towns, villages and farming communities for nearly 300,000 Jewish citizens. But Israel has not recognized the claims of most Negev Bedouins to ownership of the land where they grazed their herds or pitched their tents in the days before Israel was a state or where they were moved after 1948.

"Of course, the government cannot give all of the Negev to the Bedouins," said Dodik Shoshani, who heads the Negev Bedouin development administration under Israel's Ministry of National Infrastructure. "Sometimes the tribes are spread out on a very wide area, and we have plans to make a road or a factory or a railway there. But we are trying to find a better solution to this problem."

In recent years, the government has sought to concentrate the Negev Bedouins in seven towns, arguing that it is more economical to provide them with services in larger communities. More than half have resisted, fearful of losing any rights to the land they claim along with the last vestiges of their independent, clan-based way of life. An estimated 60,000 remain in the unrecognized communities, despite the hardships.

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