A Bedouin elder in the ruins of his home
A Bedouin elder in the ruins of his home
Florence Beaugé

QASR AL-SIR — There are no sirens here, no shelters and no “Iron Dome,” Israel's air defense system.

It was 11 a.m. Saturday, July 19. Ouda al-Waja, 30, was resting under the porch of his small shack, sheltering from the hot weather. His youngest daughter, just three months, is sleeping next to him. Suddenly, a rocket blast hits the front porch, and steel rains down, killing the young father instantly. The young girl's head is severely injured, and four people from the same family are hit by the Hamas attack intended for other parts of Israel.

Qasr al-Sir, one of the many Bedouin camps in the Negev desert, is only 60 kilometers from Gaza. Virtually in the middle of nowhere, this Israeli village built of canvas and corrugated iron is often hit by Hamas rockets. The Palestinian movement’s intended targets are Dimona and Beersheba, but the missiles sometimes fall on those who are supposed to be allies. Although they are Israeli citizens, the 200,000 Negev Bedouins are in fact Arabs or Muslims who, like the Palestinians, were transferred under the yoke of Israel when it was created in 1948.

“It's war. I don’t blame Hamas or Israel, but I reproach Israel for not protecting all of its citizens equally,” says a glum Souleiman, Ouda’s father-in-law.

The crater the rocket left was filled with sand and stones, but the rest — twisted corrugated iron and broken glass — is still untouched. Given such a desolate sight, the sound of the goats and sheep bleating seems out of place.

Souleiman al-Waja, 41, is the leader of the al-Wadj tribe. He has two wives and 15 children. Some 400 people, all related, live in Qasr al-Sir, one of the Negev’s 35 unrecognized villages. There is no running water, just a hose connected to Dimona, three kilometers away, and no electricity either, except for that produced by solar panels. And no collection of wastewater or garbage.

“The tent over there is to be demolished by the authorities’ order,” the tribe leader says wearily, pointing to a bivouac where some 20 women and young children are busying themselves. “Our village was declared illegal, but I was born here. Like my father and his father before him. We have no other choice but to stay here.”

A few hundred meters from here, a group of men are gathering to honor Ouda’s memory. Lying on mats under a tent, they are speaking Arabic. They still dream of the past, back when they were free to come and go as they pleased in the Negev. Today, under Israel’s military laws, the Bedouins are living on only 10% of their ancestors’ territories.

“War doesn't scare us,” says a tribesman named Salem, divided between nostalgia and anger. “Our black goats from the Sinai used to show us all the paths and caves where to hide. Now, we can’t settle where we want, and we get killed.”

Driven to the other side

Unlike their parents, younger generations of Bedouins (60% are under 18) feel increasingly closer to the Palestinians. “It’s the solidarity of the excluded,” explains Haia Noach, executive director of the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. The Bedouins are the poorest community in Israel. Almost 70% of them live below the poverty line. Infant mortality, for example, is eight times higher than in Tel-Aviv.

Israel is increasingly looking to the south, and many firmly believe that the country sees the Negev as a new frontier. But the Bedouins see the region’s development plan, which supposes that 40,000 of them will be displaced, as first and foremost meant to benefit Israel’s military industry.

On top of Dimona's nuclear power plant, large military bases soon will be built, along with training camps, new towns and new settlements — all officially meant to relieve the West Bank and compensate for the loss of Gaza, and even leisure centers. “We will become the region's Las Vegas,” some claim.

Their fellow Jewish citizens have a poor opinion of the Negev Bedouins. The latter believe they are seen as “a kind of Roma,” “thieves, liars and scroungers,” and therefore do not seek to integrate Israeli society anymore, but rather to obtain the same rights.

“They are deeply attached to the land of their ancestors,” insists Haia Noach. “This is what their current battle with the state is all about.” But Lior Rosenberg, a doctor at the Beersheba hospital, fears that the Bedouins are no more no less than a “time bomb” for Israel.

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