No rocket protection for Negev's unrecognized Beduin residents

Desert dwellers put their faith in sheet metal and Allah.

beduin 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
beduin 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
"Rockets don't know the difference between Arabs and Jews," said Suliman Abu Abayed, as he sat in the backseat of a pickup truck on a bumpy road outside Beersheba on Wednesday. "They go up and come down - nobody knows where they'll land," he continued. "But it doesn't really matter, they're deadly no matter what." The truck's driver, Muhammad, a middle-aged man with a stubble beard and dark black mustache, nodded in agreement as he strained to navigate the old Toyota towards a patchwork of sprawling caravans and farm equipment that sat in the middle of the desert. "This village is unrecognized," Abu Abayed said, pointing towards the group of structures. "They don't even have electricity, much less a siren system, and they have no way of knowing when a rocket is coming." Abu Abayed explained that the small Beduin village of Assir, like many other small encampments scattered across the Negev, had never been granted permanent status by the Israeli government and was in no way prepared for the rocket strikes that had begun peppering the fields and desert plains around it. The residents have Israeli citizenship and some have even served in the military. Yet in an effort to encourage them to move to recognized cities like Rahat or Shaqib as-Salam, the government has refrained from officially recognizing their villages. Abu Abayed knows the story well. As head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages (RCUV), a body which represents the estimated 80,000 residents of these small Negev farms and plots of land, he assists residents in their fight for basic services like water or electricity, in what can often seem like an overwhelming tangle of bureaucracy within the government system. Obtaining assistance for rocket fortifications, said Abu Abayed, was all but out of the question. "Like all residents of the South, the Beduin community is scared of the rockets," he said. "At least in the recognized towns, the homes were built with safe rooms and the residents have a siren system. Out here," he continued, looking out across the wide expanse of desert and the minarets that stand tall above some of the area mosques, "they have nowhere to go. There's nothing for these people to rely on but luck." So far their luck has been good. Rockets have landed in open areas near a few of the villages, but no direct hits have been reported. "Not yet," he said. "Thankfully nothing has happened so far." Nonetheless, the villages represent a vulnerable target - the thin metal walls of their homes are no match for the ball bearings and gunpowder of Hamas' Grad rockets, and with little protection and no more on the way, representatives from the Beduin community are afraid that if the rockets keep falling, their luck may run out. Traversing a rocky dirt road, the truck maneuvered up a small hill and past a series of caravan homes, their exteriors constructed from nothing more than sheet metal. Children ran by and young women, clad in black and purple scarves that covered their faces, backed away shyly. "Call your father," Muhammad said to the children, and they ran off to get him. Soon, Khalil Azaz, the head of the household and owner of the farm, was sitting in an open structure with cement floors and a thin metal roof. Carpets had been laid out to accommodate the guests and glasses of sweet tea were passed around. Azaz launched right into talk of the rockets. "I have to rely on the siren in Beersheba if I want to know when they're coming," he said, "But I can barely hear it out here." "Besides," he added, "half the time we work with electric generators, and when they're on I can't hear the siren at all." "But if I [do] hear it, I tell my kids to take cover and I go out and look for the rocket to see if it's going to land anywhere near us. Usually, I just hear the boom." Azaz pointed out that the Home Front Command had not paid a visit to his farm, nor had it issued him instructions on what to do in case of an attack. "This is our 'miklat,'" (bomb shelter) he said, grinning and pointing to the metal roof. "What am I supposed to do? If a rocket is going to come out of the sky and hit us, there's nothing to stop it. It's God's will and I welcome it." Azaz added that he must pay taxes on all of his animals, the government was constantly threatening to tear down the structures on his farm and that current plans to build a guardrail on the highway outside his property had not allocated an entrance for him and his vehicles. "So what are some rockets?" he asked. "I'm already living here with difficulty, and it hasn't moved me yet. This lifestyle is in our blood, and we won't move for anything. A rocket is the least of my worries." But Azaz has six children of his own, not to mention other families nearby with even more. "I do worry about the children," he said. "It's a dangerous situation. I just hope it all ends soon, and we won't have to worry about it at all anymore."