How Israel’s Arab Bedouins Became Hamas Targets

Abdelkarim Hasan, a 48-year-old driver and father of ten children, was woken from his sleep at 6 a.m. on October 7 by his phone. He had dropped off a young customer there Nova rave near Gaza The previous evening he had begged Mr. Hasan to come back and pick him up.

“They said there were rocket attacks and asked him to pick them up. His wife told him not to go, but he said, ‘How am I going to leave her there alone?'” Mr Hasan’s brother Yusef told the Telegraph from their home village of Kuseifa in southeastern Israel. The day of terror has left a deep mark on Israeli Jews, but it has also impacted minority communities, including the Bedouins of the Negev Desert.

Mr. Hasan, a stocky man with a clean-shaven head and bushy eyebrows, had been enjoying himself at a wedding just hours earlier, but then he jumped into his black minivan and drove to the intersection near the Kibbutz of Re’im. His vehicle, whose windshield was riddled with bullet holes, was discovered by a Telegraph reporter two days after the attack. Mr. Hasan was killed while trying to save the partygoer.

On October 7, at least 24 Arab Israelis, most of them Bedouins, were killed and six Bedouins taken hostage – a sign of the indiscriminate nature of Hamas’ attack on Israel. Hamas has not indicated that any Arabs or Muslims it holds will be released any time soon.

The Bedouin community, a Muslim people who are native there Negev desert, have found themselves on the front lines of the Israel-Hamas war. They hope that the Israeli government will finally embrace them after decades of deep-seated mutual distrust. However, the state does not recognize them as an indigenous group, and UN experts last year called on Israeli authorities to put an end to the demolition of Bedouin settlements, which are being removed to make way for Israeli settlements.

Wahid al-Hozzil is a Bedouin and a retired IDF colonel who lives on the outskirts of the town of Rahat, a predominantly Bedouin town in southern Israel. As he speaks, a camel grazes on the side of the road. Since the terrorist attack nearly a month ago, he has received a flood of requests from tribesmen searching for their missing relatives.

Colonel Hozzil, who proudly displays a clipping of a newspaper portrait of him and a photo of a Bedouin ancestor on the wall of his home, mobilized locals to collect information about the missing and killed and to compile the data.

According to his calculations, eleven Bedouins, mostly agricultural workers, were killed in the Hamas attack on October 7th, and seven others died in rocket attacks. This is in addition to the six people held captive in Gaza.

When asked why Hamas was targeting Arab co-religionists, the colonel, who retired after 22 years of service, replied: “Hamas makes no distinction between Arabs and Jews. For them, we are all Israeli citizens.”

Bedouin IDF soldiers are frequently stationed in the Negev, near Gaza, and Colonel Hozzil was involved in repelling a Hamas infiltration from Gaza when a suicide bomber broke through the fence with a truck loaded with explosives in 2008.

That Hamas would launch an attack on Israel was no surprise to Colonel Hozzil, but what struck him was the group’s brutality against women and children and the lack of a strong Israeli force on the border:

“I knew 100 percent that something like this could happen, but I never thought Hamas would target civilians. I thought we were the ones who had to face them,” he said.

Bedouins were systematically discriminated against Since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, the authorities have attempted to relocate the traditionally nomadic and semi-nomadic people to recognized cities. Many Bedouins have refused to leave their ancestral lands and an estimated 80,000 people still live in villages in the desert, unrecognized by the state and therefore without access to basic amenities such as electricity and water.

In a 2021 report, Israel’s state comptroller described the Negev’s Bedouin population as “the poorest section of society in Israel, suffering from a lack of infrastructure and quality education.”

The report also acknowledged that Israel does not know the exact number of Bedouins in Israel because Israel does not recognize dozens of villages scattered across the desert. Estimates vary between 200,000 and 250,000 people.

The scale of the disaster for the community is unprecedented; Bedouins often have large families and the loss of even one breadwinner is significant.

Among the victims of the attack is a man who had 35 children with three different women. The community must now take care of everyone, said retired colonel Hozzil.

In the village of Kuseifa, a fleet of minivans parked on the side of a dusty road near two two-story houses owned by the Hasan family. After Mr. Hasan’s death, the six other brothers stopped working in the family’s minivan company.

They helped his two wives and ten children move to the village and decided to complete the construction of the house, for which he only had time to lay the foundation.

Sitting on blue plastic chairs on a terrace outside one of the houses, the men of the Hasan family recalled desperate attempts to find him when his phone cut out just hours after he left the house to rescue the partygoer.

A brother rushed to the hospital to see if he had been taken there, while Suleiman and Yunis went to the scene of the rave and begged the police guarding the place to let them in.

Suleiman and Yunis found his body in his black Mercedes minivan, abandoned on the side of the road. His body had a gunshot wound. From the position of the car, they could tell that Mr Hasan had gone to the construction site and was trying to escape when he was killed.

More than 260 partygoers were killed by Hamas attackers that day.

The police did not allow the family to remove the body. They spent three days waiting at the gate of a military base in central Israel for the official identification of his body. The base was so overwhelmed after the tragedy that refrigerated trucks had to be brought in to store the victims’ bodies.

Mr Hasan was buried in the village later this week as several hundred people came to pay their last respects. A video from the funeral shows the Bedouins performing Muslim prayers in the desert.

Yusef Hasan, who himself rescued a medic who fled the scene of the rave after a location marker was sent to him that same afternoon, did not hesitate when asked why his brother would ignore the danger and go to the site of the massacre.

“These are our customers. We live together. We are responsible for them,” he told the Telegraph on the terrace of the family home, as military helicopters and transport planes whirred over the barren hills on the horizon.

Unlike most other Israelis, the families of the Bedouin victims and hostages are wary of publicity, fearing a backlash from both sides.

“We are stuck here between a rock and a hard place: to the Palestinians we are traitors, to the Israelis…” Adam al-Zeadna, whose nephew Abdelrahman was killed by Hamas, paused as he spoke, careful not to overdo it to sound critical of the government, which still refuses to recognize dozens of them Bedouin villages.

His family is one of the few that still farms the land in their home village of Al-Ziyad in southeastern Israel. Most moved, but the Zeadnas declined.

Abdelrahman, 26, was a truck driver and a modern man who loved camping.

On Friday evening he spent the night on the beach in Zikkim, a favorite spot of the family on the Mediterranean coast, just a few kilometers from Gaza.

It was almost 7 a.m. on Saturday when his father, Ates al-Zeadna, received a call.

“He said, ‘Dad, people are coming out of the water and shooting at us,'” Mr. Zeadna, dressed in a traditional long black thobe and holding an embroidered blue pillow, said from his living room. “A few minutes later I tried to call but there was no answer.”

Abdelrahman’s body was soon identified, but the father still does not know how he died.

On the day of the Hamas attack, a rocket landed about 100 meters from the Zeadna house. No one was injured, but the community was once again reminded of the government’s neglect of the Bedouins.

Most apartment blocks in cities across Israel are equipped with safe rooms, and in Jewish-majority cities in the south there are numerous government-built bomb shelters in the streets.

For a predominantly Bedouin village, a safe space or shelter is still a luxury.

In Al-Ziyad, a cube-shaped concrete bomb shelter stands at the entrance to the village lined with olive trees. It proudly displays the logo of an international NGO that made the donation.

“This is a village of 4,000 people and we only have one place to stay – only five people can fit in – what are the rest of us supposed to do?” said Adam al-Zeadna. “We are Israelis. Jews have the same fate as us.”

Still, government investment is beginning to flow into tribal communities like Rahat, Israel’s largest Bedouin town, which is undergoing an urban transformation. New, modern public buildings are under construction.

In one of the recently built community centers in Rahat, Sliman al-Amour runs an emergency relief center set up after the Hamas attack. He raises funds for at-risk families and works with the government to deliver portable bomb shelters to the communities that need them most.

The government has sent hundreds of shelters to Bedouin villages in recent days, but they need thousands, Mr. Amour says. He says the community is under pressure from far-right groups and politicians who are inciting companies and schools to fire and expel Israeli Arabs, whether Palestinian or Bedouin.

The school dropout rate among Bedouins is three times higher than the national average, due to poor economic conditions, lack of security and lack of transportation.

As the longtime co-director of a charity that fights against discrimination and inequality against Bedouins, Mr. Amour has fought for years to ensure that the Israeli government provides basic amenities to all unrecognized villages and stops the destruction of properties that Israel deems illegal.

With the Bedouins of the desert now on the front lines of Israel’s war against Hamas, Mr. Amour says it is time for the government to make amends with his community on a fundamental level.

“Water and infrastructure issues are real,” he said. “We are trying to call on the authorities to change something. They can’t continue like this.”

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