Angry Bedouin find loyalty to Israel goes unrewarded
The arrest of an Arab hero offends a community that provides soldiers for the nation’s defence force
Conal Urquhart Zarzir in Israel
Sunday February 23, 2003
For the young men of Zarzir, Omar Hayeb was a hero and proof that an Arab could prosper in the Israeli army. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was honoured for his bravery in Lebanon, where he was badly injured by a landmine.
Now Hayeb languishes in an Israeli military prison accused of spying for the Lebanese militia, Hizbollah. In the light of his experience many other Bedouin are questioning their generations of service to the Israeli Defence Force.
Zarzir is a small Arab town in northern Israel whose residents, unlike the majority of Israel’s 1.2 million Muslim population, have served with Jews to protect the state of Israel since its foundation in 1948. The Arabs of Zarzir are Bedouin who over the past 40 years have given up their nomadic life as shepherds.
Soltan Haib, Zarzir council’s engineer, said the charges against al-Hayeb were the latest in a series of slights.
‘Already many of the charges against him have been dropped, but it has already tested Bedouin loyalty to the state,’ he said. ‘When we try to go to nightclubs we are told it is a private party, we are subject to special security checks at the airport, we are rejected for jobs because we are Arabs.’
Bassim Jrafat, an imam in Zarzir, said 60 per cent of the town’s residents no longer agreed with serving in the IDF. He feels it is wrong for Bedouin to serve in the Israeli army and was dismissed by the Ministry of Religion when he refused to lead prayers at the funeral of a Bedouin soldier.
‘I do not want our children to be killed and I do not want them to kill our Muslim brothers,’ he said.
The council offices of Zarzir are similar to those in West Bank Palestinian towns with much milling around, smoking of cigarettes and coffee-drinking. But in Zarzir the Israeli flag is ever present and kippah-wearing Jewish Israelis go about their business.
The conference room is decorated with photographs of leading Israeli figures: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, and even leaders of the religious Right. But equal prominence is given to photographs of meetings with the royal family of Jordan.
Hassan Hayeb, Mayor of Zarzir and brother of Omar, declines to discuss the charges against his brother but declares: ‘Bedouin are renowned for their loyalty to the state they have chosen. Either they serve it 100 per cent or they fight it 100 per cent.
‘The situation is not easy. We have relatives in Syria, Jordan and among the Palestinians. But we live by the law of Israel. We are like Muslims in the UK, loyal to our faith but we serve in the army of our home country.
‘I am really disappointed by the failure of successive governments to address our concerns, and treat us like any other citizens of Israel.’
A short drive from Zarzir is a memorial garden for the 136 Bedouin killed in action. It has rock gardens, artillery pieces and a tank captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. A museum is run by Alisa Gross, a Jewish woman who works for free out of respect for the Bedouin. ‘It is because of people commemorated here that there is an Israel and that I am here,’ she said. ‘It was not only Jews who created Israel.’
Khaled Majed Haib also works at the memorial. His father died when he stood on a mine in Lebanon in 1994 and his name is printed on the grey stone memorial. ‘When he died I was 14 years old. I couldn’t believe he was gone. But it was his destiny to go into the army as almost all the men in our family do,’ he said.
Suleiman Jawmees served in the army for 27 years. ‘I worked hard and then I pocketed my money. Now I have Peace,’ he said with a smile. Peace is the name of the restaurant he owns, adjacent to his bakery.
‘The army is a perfect life for a Bedouin. One day you are in one place, the next another. All the time you are living in tents,’ he said. Although he owns property and a house, his pride is his tent, a long, framed structure covered in tarpaulins and lined with rugs and cane matting. In it he pounds coffee beans in a noisy traditional way which alerts neighbours to join him for fresh coffee.
Jawmees is the exception in a community that is the poorest in Israel. Nearly all Bedouin disagree with the Israeli government’s iron-fisted treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Dr Alean Krenawi, the director of Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben Gurion University, said Israel’s 200,000 Bedouin, who live in the north of Israel and in the southern Negev desert, have the highest unemployment rate and receive the lowest level of government investment.
‘Since the outbreak of the intifada in October 2000, the situation has got worse. People don’t trust each other and there has been a rupture in the peaceful coexistence that existed between the Arab Israelis and Jews before that,’ he said.
Soltan Haib said the loyalty of the Bedouin should never be taken for granted. ‘If our rights are ignored, then some might react in the same way.’