Israel's Bedouin: Caught Between the Iron Dome and Hamas

The "open areas" where many rockets fall aren't always empty.

The Negev, as seen from an Israeli Air Force plane (Reuters)

Tel el-Barad, a village in Israel’s Negev region, is home to 300 people, all of them related to each other. When I visited one recent afternoon, a rocket had just landed in the village’s livestock pen. According to government sources, the rocket had fallen in one of the country’s “open areas”—a term Israeli officials frequently use when describing rocket attacks, and one implying that the rockets dropped harmlessly in empty fields.

But “open areas” are not always empty. They also encompass many of the Bedouin villages of southern Israel. When the rocket exploded that afternoon in Tel el-Barad, according to locals, Israeli police came, removed it, checked that no one was hurt, and left. By the time I arrived, all that remained of the attack were shrapnel holes in the pen, a few shards of misshapen rocket, some strands of flapping police tape, and four dead sheep, one without its head.

In the last 25 days of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” more than 1,400 Gazans and 61 Israeli soldiers have died. Astonishingly, only three civilians in Israel have lost their lives in the hail of 2,500 rockets that Hamas has hurled toward Israel. One of them was a 32-year-old Bedouin man named Auda al-Wadj, who was killed in his village in southern Israel, Qasr al-Sir. Three of his family members, including an infant and a five-year-old, were also injured when the rocket hit.

Israel’s low number of missile-related casualties is attributable in part to the ingenious and well-funded Iron Dome missile-defense system, which, according to Haaretz, has thus far intercepted roughly 500 rockets. It is also due in part to Israeli citizens’ willingness to follow safety instructions, which include taking shelter within seconds of hearing a siren. But there’s a catch: None of these mechanisms operate in “open areas.” Iron Dome, which prioritizes strategic or densely populated areas, does not discharge in those locations, and there are no sirens, much less public bomb shelters. For the Bedouin of southern Israel—who are Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli all at once—there is nowhere to run. They find themselves both outside the protection of the Israeli state and targeted by Hamas. They are a population that has fallen through the cracks—a population protected by no one.


The precarious situation in which Israel’s Bedouin find themselves has its roots in the early 1950s, when a young Israel resettled in the northeastern corner of the Negev Desert some two-thirds of the semi-nomadic people dwelling within its new borders. In 1948, these itinerant Bedouin were granted citizenship, though they lived under martial law until 1966. Today, the Negev is home to some 200,000 Bedouin, with the largest concentration located in Israel’s southern city of Rahat (population 50,000). The city is one of 18 Bedouin communities that Israel has recognized, and that are therefore technically eligible for municipal services. But only half of Israel’s Bedouin live in these recognized villages and townships. The remainder are scattered among some three dozen unrecognized villages, where municipal services are absent and where building anything—including a bomb shelter—is a crime.

As a result, even before this latest round of rocket bombardments, residents of these villages faced the constant threat of house demolitions. The unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, for example, was originally demolished to make way for a government-approved reforestation project. When the residents returned to rebuild, it was bulldozed again. Since July 2010, Al-Araqib has been demolished 50 times.

Today, the Bedouin make up approximately 30 percent of the Negev’s population, though only 2.5 percent of Israel’s total population. Poverty levels in their unrecognized villages are far higher than those of the Israeli Jewish population, excluding the ultra-Orthodox. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics consistently ranks these villages at or near the bottom of its socioeconomic index, which includes measures of education levels and annual income. The Bedouin are a community in limbo, alienated from Israel, yet dependent on it—a minority within a minority.

Even officially recognized villages struggle with serious spatial challenges. Ali Dhubsan, whom I spoke with in Lakiya, the closest recognized Bedouin village to Tel el-Barad, lives with several hundred members of his extended family in one of the small land blocks in Lakiya’s “neighborhood #8.” Ali has 10 children, and they all live in his two-room house. His relatives, who live in similar structures, are his immediate neighbors: to the left, right, front, and back. As a result, he cannot expand his home—he has nowhere to build. He told me that he was fed up with living like a mouse in a cage: “Even when you want to buy a plot [in a recognized village], you never see the request filled.”


To reach Tel el-Barad from Ali’s house in Lakiya, you need to travel along a miserable, unpaved road through the Negev’s arid hilltops. Tel el-Barad, like most unrecognized villages, lacks paved roads as well as most other elements of modern infrastructure. The national electric grid and water mains have never been connected to the village. No one collects the trash or distributes mail to local addresses, and there are no bomb shelters. So the locals make do: They have purchased solar panels, created a water system with one massive tank, and resorted to burning their garbage. As for incoming rockets, their options are few. The official directive during a rocket attack is to lie down flat, hands behind the head—a protocol that also applies to drivers who hear a siren while on a highway. Some Bedouin have downloaded an app that announces sirens, since they can’t hear them, but most don’t bother: “It makes no difference,” they say. When Ali told me that there was a “complete disconnect between the state and its residents,” he meant it quite literally.

Amal Dhubsan, Ali’s sister-in-law and an energetic mother of eight from Lakiya, told me how dangerous homemade infrastructure can be on a normal day. This winter, she said, strong rains flooded her illegally built, cracking house. She found her kids “floating” at four in the morning. “I’m always afraid,” she said. She’s never felt safe in Israel, she says. “In order to feel safe you need to know what safety feels like.”

Now, rockets compound these daily risks, and the most vulnerable to Hamas fire are also the most vulnerable in general—the elderly, migrants, and the Bedouin.


One Monday in early July, two Bedouin girls, Maram and Atil al-Wakili, ages 11 and 13 respectively, were playing in their family’s farm in the unrecognized village of Awajan when a rocket fell not 150 feet from their home, sending them both to the hospital, one to the intensive care unit. The army confirmed that the rocket, like the one that later killed four sheep in Tel el-Barad, had landed in an open area.

The following day, the girls’ uncle, Omar al-Wakili, was among those who submitted an appeal to the Israeli High Court for protection from rockets for the Bedouin communities of southern Israel. Earlier this month, the justices upheld the decision of the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command, the body responsible for civilian protection, not to provide shelters. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the justices admitted that the Ministry of Defense had not given them detailed information about where and how Iron Dome operates, but said that they believed the system gave no weight to “the appearance or absence of any settlements on different maps.”

The state’s legal counsel argued that the limited number and high expense of transportable shelters—Israel has somewhere between 120 and 150 of the hefty concrete cylinders, which cost $14,500 apiece on average—restrict its options for where to use them. These factors, combined with the fact that most Bedouin villages are outside of Gaza’s immediate firing range, mean that those villages are simply a lower priority for the state when it comes to providing shelters. Furthermore, argued the state, the law requires that owners or tenants of residential structures protect their residents.

But because the Bedouin build illegally, their structures lack what other law-abiding Israeli citizens have: built-in shelters. Michal Rotem, a coordinator for the Negev Coexistence Forum, an advocacy organization for Bedouin rights, explained that this presents Bedouin villagers with a dangerous paradox: “On the ground, Bedouin residents of the Negev are expected to protect themselves—but they are not allowed to build any structure,” she wrote in an email. “It is the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens.”

Ibrahim al-Wakili, the grandfather of the injured girls, is the head of the council that represents unrecognized Bedouin villages. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 on the day his granddaughters were injured, he said that the girls hadn’t been able to properly hear the siren the attack triggered given their distance from the closest city. They were lucky, he said, that the rocket hadn’t fallen on their house. Al-Wakili also repeated his organization’s four-year-old request for shelters from the Home Front Command and voiced his opposition to war: “We’re against war,” he said. “We don’t want our kids to die, not in Israel, not in Gaza, not anywhere. ... We want only peace.”

As of last week, according to Suleiman Dhubsan, another Lakiya resident, Ibrahim’s granddaughters were still in the hospital. He told me then that it looked like they would pull through. I asked Suleiman what he and his six children (ages four to 14) do when there’s a siren. “Nothing,” he told me. “We look up to the heavens and hope.”