Calls mount for reining in Beduin camel owners after boy's death in crash

Camel accidents have taken the lives of fifteen people since 2008 and injured 350 others.

 Camels roam in an unrecognized Beduin village, as the southern Israeli city of Beersheba is seen in the background December 17, 2015. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Camels roam in an unrecognized Beduin village, as the southern Israeli city of Beersheba is seen in the background December 17, 2015.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A thirteen-year-old boy, Lior Elmakiass, was killed Tuesday night near Mitzpe Ramon after the car his father was driving crashed into a camel that had wandered onto road 40. The news of the horrific accident was jarring for many.
For Shoshi Bazuglo, a medic from Netivot who lost her brother Kobi under similar circumstances three years ago, it was doubly traumatic. "It takes me back to our tragedy. This death was unnecessary and it outrages me that our country works this way."
Bazuglo, and many others, believe that camel accidents can be prevented if the Knesset passes a law proposed by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) that enables the identification of owners of camels through an electronic chip inserted under the animal's skin. Currently there is no legal requirement to identify owners, according to agriculture ministry spokeswoman Dafna Yurista. When identification is made, it is through a tag to the camel's ear, which can be removed by the owner after the accident.
Bazuglo says she was deprived of justice after the owner of the camel that caused her brother's death denied it belonged to him. "They should have tried him but they closed the case, saying the public did not have an interest in it. I warned back then that the next tragedy is on the way."
The right wing NGO Regavim, which helped Smotrich draft the bill, says the chip offers an accountability that can bring a halt to camel accidents, which have taken the lives of fifteen people since 2008 and injured 350 others, according to Or Yarok, a road safety group. But Beduin rights activists say the bill—which delineates where and under what circumstances camels and other animals can be herded, is actually aimed at harming the Beduin by minimizing their ability to grow camels. Whoever is right, the problem of roaming animals is very real.The explanatory notes to the bill cite the police as saying there are about a thousand complaints a year of animals roaming onto roads.
In Tuesday night's accident, the boy's mother suffered severe head injuries and the father moderate injuries. His brothers, 9 and 14, were also moderately injured. An army vehicle was also involved in the accident. According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, that vehicle also struck the camel and flipped over, lightly wounding four passengers.
"We are looking into [the incident, to] see who was responsible for the camel, which tribe and area it belonged to," Rosenfeld said.
Oz Dror, spokesman for Or Yarok, says camels go on to roads in order to forage, consuming vegetation on roadsides or eating food left behind there by people. "The Negev is the deadliest area for animal collisions because we are talking about camels. The car strikes the legs and all of the weight falls on the car. A half ton collapses on those in the car."
"A car comes quickly on old roads, it's dark and it's like smashing up against a tank," he said.
"We've known this phenomenon for years and what is needed is to demand responsibility from the camel owners," he added. "You have to create a situation where the owners are held to account for letting the camels move in an irresponsible fashion."
Avraham Binyamin, spokesman for Regavim, says the Smotrich bill is aimed at filling "lacunae" that have enabled the camels to pose dangers. He said that without the electronic chips, identification has been impossible. In only one case in recent years were authorities able to identify the owner in a camel crash, one that killed a pre-military academy director, David Cohen, in 2014, he said. "The moment there is a law and criminal sanctions and fines, it will prevent the next accidents," he said. The progress of the bill, which passed a preliminary reading in 2016, has been slow going as it bounces back and forth between the justice and agriculture ministries, he said. Tuesday's accident marked "an unnecessary death that would have been spared had the law been passed," he said.
MK Eitan Broshi (Zionist Union) says he is seeking to expedite passage of the law. "We are talking about a matter of saving human lives and also being merciful to animals."
But Beduin rights activists distrust the motive of the law and say it is more about restricting Beduin land use than safety. Its explanatory notes say that "there are areas designated and arranged for herding beasts and nevertheless many beast owners choose to herd in open areas, next to roads and even in army firing zones."
Yaela Raanan, a Beduin rights activist who teaches at Sapir Academic College, says: "The ulterior motive is to harm the Beduin by minimizing their ability to raise camels."
She says the danger from roaming camels could be handled by spreading wire along roads as is the practice in Saudi Arabia. In the view of MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) Smotrich's bill "is part of continued targeting of the traditional way of life of the Beduin community. If they are doing this in good faith, they should have negotiated with the Arab Beduin community and accommodated its needs."
MK Gouma Azbarga (Joint List) says that, at present, Beduin in unrecognized villages who build pens for their animals face demolitions. The solution to the camel accidents, he says, is to "recognize the villages where they are and let the Beduins establish agricultural farms like Jews are allowed to do."