Bedouins say Israeli police ignoring violence in their communities

Some characterize the Negev as the Wild West because of the lack of law enforcement.

al-monitor A Bedouin man stands next to a mural depicting Mickey Mouse outside a polling station as Israelis vote in a parliamentary election, in the city of Rahat in Israel's southern Negev Desert, April 9, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jun 8, 2020

On June 2, a disturbing recording from an incident at the military training base Tzeelim in the south of Israel was made public. Bedouin youth who were suspected of stealing munitions threatened the reserve soldiers who chased them.

Anyone who is familiar with the situation in the south knows that this incident is part of the daily life of residents, a situation where a small segment of Bedouin youth has adopted crime and violence as a lifestyle, pure and simple. The truth is that quite a few times in the past, Bedouin youth have been documented firing guns in public, even if this is supposedly “celebratory shooting” following a wedding, and behaving as if there’s no law and no judge.

We should note that we must in no way stain a whole community because of a handful of lawbreakers who see violence as a lifestyle and livelihood. But every law-abiding Bedouin citizen in the Negev wonders why violence reaches the headlines and the public agenda only when it is aimed at military bases or Jews. Where is the police responsible for enforcing the law?

“I would call it approval by silence,” declared Nuzaha Alassad Alhuzail, a social worker and lecturer at Sapir College, in conversation with Al-Monitor. “Only a few weeks ago when there was gunfire toward police officers, we saw tons of forces in the town that searched every house and in the end they made arrests. Law enforcement authorities try to depict the situation [of minimum intervention] under the umbrella of cultural sensitivity; they tend not to intervene. And so, we get to the point where people shoot at each other.”

For his part, Gilad Sharon, the son of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a resident of the south, who knows the phenomenon up close, clarified, “We have to remember that most of the Bedouin population is law-abiding, but there are still some among the population who are lawbreakers. The state has to decide to deal with it on the national level and to enforce the law. Right now, there’s anarchy in the south.”

The feeling on the Arab street is that they’re not part of the state — that the state treats them as less equal, and that as long as “Arabs are shooting Arabs,” the government and the police are ready to let them keep doing so. As I wrote in a previous article, this is precisely the problem that bothers every Arab citizen. When violence is internal to the Arab community and within Arab towns, why is there no media coverage and the subject rarely gets on the public agenda? Is it coincidental? That’s hard to believe. According to a report by Haaretz on Dec. 31, 2019, the percent of murder cases solved in the Arab community was 38% (35 out of 91), compared to 55% (26 out of 47) among the Jewish community. These data bother every Arab citizen and contribute to the sense that the police don’t make enough of an effort when it comes to the Arab community and that what starts as internal Arab violence will inevitably end with shooting at police and attacking soldiers, as we have seen.

Nevertheless, is only the police to blame? What’s the role of the Bedouin community in the matter, and what has caused the noted breakdown in Bedouin society, which has always been known for sheikhs and leaders who made sure to keep order in their communities and were respected by young and old? This is something that has disappeared in recent years. “The process of rapid urbanization has caused the breakdown in the tribal structure and hierarchy and damage to essential values within the community,” said Fadi Elobra, an activist and social entrepreneur from Rahat, in conversation with Al-Monitor. “Before the process of urbanization, there were clear values and a tribal structure. Today, instead of hierarchy we have anarchy. We must add to this that when the police 'ignore' the violence that is spreading, so long as this is internal Arab violence, this creates a laboratory to produce violence and crime among youth that starts in Arab towns and then moves on to Jewish towns.”

Perhaps this is actually the reason that the Negev has become the Wild West, which has caused many to take the law into their own hands. In the past, Bedouin society was made up of tribes — each headed by a leader — and guided by a “tribal legal system” to which all were subject and which settled conflicts in the village. This led to “law and order” as far as Bedouin residents were concerned. Over the years, many Bedouin moved to cities established by the state of Israel as part of a government program to establish permanent localities for the Bedouin population in the Negev, such as Rahat, Hura, Kseifa and others. But alongside the positive aspects of this move came negatives ones, like the establishment of tribal neighborhoods within the cities. Each tribe is located in a different neighborhood in order to create separation between the tribes. This in turn caused a desire among each tribe to control as many resources as possible, such as land, jobs and local government within the cities.

This process generated many conflicts between the tribes, lacking a responsible adult who would put youths in their place. “The Arab community in the south is a Bedouin tribal society that is based on the laws of the desert,” argued Yousef Abu Jaffar, treasurer of the Hura local council, in conversation with Al-Monitor. “Modernization brought the dissolution of centralized rule; as a result of a lack of faith in it and its representatives in the city, there are conflicts — and of course because of the breakdown of the old tribal laws. We should add to that the transition from the group to the individual. All of this together created fertile soil for violence and disputes and led people to take the law into their own hands.  For instance, this isn’t happening in the West Bank because they have a central government.”

And where is the police in this story? Isn’t it time that it enters the vacuum that has been created and enforces the law as expected? In conversation with Al-Monitor, Police Maj. Gen. Jamal Hakroush, head of the administration for the improvement of police services in Arab communities, clarified: “The phenomenon of violence and gunfire in Bedouin towns in the south has been known for many years. The police force is doing all in its power to eradicate this entrenched phenomenon, but we need the dedication of all elements of the Arab community to work together to treat the problem. Shooting at law enforcement forces that arrive to take care of a problem and enforce the law and help is very grave and constitutes a threat to the security of the normative citizen.”

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