GIVAT HAVIVA — The first class of an army preparatory program for members of the Bedouin community graduated this week, with its 15 members bound for enlistment better equipped to handle the challenges awaiting them, participants said.

Up until last year, Israel had 55 pre-army programs, known in Hebrew as mechinot (mechina, in the singular), geared toward Jewish Israelis and three for the Druze community, but none for the country’s Bedouin population, according to Tal Galin, the head of the new Academy for Bedouin Leadership in the Galilee.

There had been attempts to create a program for the Bedouin community over the years, but all fell flat until now, Galin says.

The program was started by the Ma’ase Center Association, an offshoot of the Rashi Foundation, which runs initiatives mostly in Israel’s farther-flung and generally poorer cities, referred to collectively as the “periphery.” It also received assistance from the Defense and Education ministries, the IDF, the forum of Bedouin regional councils, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of San Francisco and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.

The blue-eyed Galin, 29, is decidedly not Bedouin. He refers to himself as the “big white Ashkenazi,” a reference to his tall stature and Eastern European Jewish heritage. But the former company commander of an Armored Corps reconnaissance unit had experience working in other mechinot, and so he was brought in lead the inaugural staff, he says, noting that all the other staff members are members of the Bedouin community.

“It was important for the program to have a Bedouin character. We had classes on Bedouin heritage,” Galin says. “Bedouins have been fighting for Israel since before it was a state.”

The 15 participants of Israel's first army preparatory program geared towards Bedouin Israelis at their graduation ceremony on February 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

The 15 participants of Israel’s first army preparatory program geared towards Bedouin Israelis at their graduation ceremony on February 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

The 15 participants of the Academy for Bedouin Leadership in the Galilee had their graduation ceremony on Tuesday after six months of volunteering, trips around the country, Hebrew lessons, and endless discussions on values, leadership and personal growth.

They came from Bedouin villages and towns throughout northern Israel. There were no representatives from the Bedouin communities of the Negev, though this may change in the future, Galin says.

In the coming weeks the graduates will report to induction centers to begin their military service, most of them in combat units.

A soldier tries out the IDF's 'selfie' station at the main induction center. (IDF spokesperson)

Illustrative. A soldier tries out the IDF’s ‘selfie’ station at the main induction center. (IDF spokesperson)

Thirteen of them are bound for combat units, in the Israel Defense Forces or Israel Police. One will join the army’s telecommunications unit and one will join a military transport unit.

Shadi Swaeed, from Rameh in the Galilee, will be the first member of his family to join the Israel Defense Forces, fulfilling a dream he’s had since childhood. He is set to join the Givati Brigade. The 18-year-old says he is looking forward to his draft date as though it’s his wedding day.

While many Israelis enlist in the IDF straight away after high school, some opt to enter these preparatory programs to both mature and to learn the skills necessary to succeed in the military and in life.

“If someone [in Hebrew] used to ask me my name, I would freeze up. The mechina gave me self-confidence, responsibility and concern,” says Mustafa Hujerat, from Bir al-Maksur, in the Galilee.

“Now I care for my friends. If someone’s sick, I’ll bring them food,” he says.

“Like you did for me,” interrupts Swaeed.

‘I used to just worry about getting through the day, now I think about advancing my community’

The program also expanded their thinking about the world and their role in it, says Anan Hujerat, from Bir al-Maksur.

At the beginning of the mechina, each participant wrote down their goals and aspirations for the course, sealing them in a time capsule. At the end, they read what they’d written six months prior and

“I used to just worry about getting through the day, now I think about advancing my community,” he says.

Anan, who will also be joining the Givati Brigade later this month, says he is already thinking about becoming an officer.

Mustafa, who goes by the nickname Musta, came into the program with a fear of public speaking, but says his goal in life is now to become the head of his local council.

“But it’s hard when there’s racism in the country,” Musta says, citing his college-educated cousin’s struggles to get a job in the government.

Musta initially sought to join the police, but was rebuffed due to inadequate Hebrew. He will instead join the Nahal Brigade. His goal in the army is to be “unique.”

“I want to be the first Bedouin Nahal officer,” he says with a chuckle, a reference to the perception of the Nahal Brigade as a unit predominantly composed up of white, Ashkenazi Israelis.

A society of disparity

The state’s treatment of Israel’s Bedouin communities has been debated heatedly in recent months, prompted by a deadly incident that occurred during the demolition of the southern Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in January, when a resident, Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an, was shot by police before his car slammed into an officer, Erez Levi. Both men died.

The car which was used in a car ramming attack, killing an Israeli police man, during clashes and protests against demolition of homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, Southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The car which was used in a car ramming attack, killing an Israeli police man, during clashes and protests against demolition of homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, Southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Politicians and the police rapidly categorized the event as a terror attack and made statements hinting that Abu al-Qia’an was associated with, or inspired by, the Islamic State.

However, an upcoming review of the incident by the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department will reportedly contradict those claims, finding the police shooting may have caused Abu al-Qia’an to lose control of his car and hit Levi.

Citing the statements made by politicians and police, more than two dozen army reservists from Bir al-Maksur said last month they they would not report for duty until the government begins addressing the perceived mistreatment of their community.

During the mechina, one participant personally experienced discrimination during a trip to Jerusalem, according to Galin.

While riding on the capital’s light rail, his Defense Ministry-issued transportation pass wouldn’t register with the scanning machine — a not uncommon problem for Jerusalem straphangers.

The ticket-collector ‘just saw another Bedouin trying to steal’

But despite having a valid pass, albeit one that did not register with the machine, an inspector immediately gave him a ticket for riding without paying, and also called the police.

Anan, who witnessed the incident, says the ticket-collector “just saw another Bedouin trying to steal.”

Galin, who was not with the group at the time, quickly jetted over and smoothed things out.

“I showed up — Ashkenazi, white, tall — and… told [the inspector] that there are often problems with Defense Ministry transportation passes and asked him, ‘Why are you giving him a ticket anyway? How is that necessary? Just check the facts.’

“He goes, ‘Wow, you’re right. If I had known, I wouldn’t have given him one,'” Galin recalls.

When he asked why the police had to be called to the scene, the inspector muttered a noncommittal answer, Galin says.

“It’s infuriating. [The inspector] needed the big, white Ashkenazi to stand in front of him in order to listen. We’re a society of disparity,” he says.

The issue of racism in Israeli society and demolitions of Bedouin villages were frequently discussed during the program, Galin says.

“People having their homes destroyed is terrible,” Shadi says.

“We’re all human beings and we know how much [home demolitions] hurt,” Anan agrees, but adds, “It isn’t going to stop me.”

An uphill battle

Unlike Jewish, Druze and Circassian Israelis, Bedouin Israelis are not required to enlist in the IDF, though some opt to do so.

However, in recent years, those numbers have begun to drop. Exact figures on the number of Bedouin Israelis entering the military are difficult to come by. (The IDF is generally loath to give out exact manpower statistics.) However, for a sense of the decrease’s scope, last month the army named its first Bedouin colonel, Hassan Abu Salb, whose explicit mission is to triple the enlistment from his community.

Though not directly related to Abu Salb’s promotion, the Bedouin mechina is also meant to confront this issue.

The Bir al-Maksur reservists cited discrimination as the cause for this drop in enlistment. The Academy for Bedouin Leadership in the Galilee participants say part of the problem is also a lack of outreach.

‘All my friends say we are frierim’

Bedouin teenagers would hear from older friends about their struggles in the military, but would not always hear about success stories, something the mechina hopes to address by introducing the participants to high-ranking Bedouin officers.

But the program has also met resistance.

For the comparatively small number of Bedouin Israelis who do go into the army, the concept of deferring that already voluntary service by at least six months has not immediately been accepted with open arms.

Musta recalls multiple arguments with his friends about the virtues of the program.

“All my friends say we are frierim,” he says, using Hebrew slang for “chumps.”

After months of publishing ads, conversing with community leaders, speaking in schools and answering parents’ questions, the program registered 21 participants. Six of them left or were asked to leave relatively early on, leaving the 15 who graduated, Galin says.

Next time, they hope to double that.

This first session of the mechina was offered free of charge, in part to entice parents. The cost for the next session, which will begin in August, is still being debated within the organization. The program needs to cover its costs, but since it is new, the mechina has not yet been able to demonstrate its value, Galin says.

‘I wrote twice as much in the mechina as I did in 12 years of school’

The graduates, however, have no doubt that the program has helped them develop as people and, no less importantly, learn Hebrew, which is meant to be taught in school but is not necessarily spoken in the community.

“I wrote twice as much in the mechina as I did in 12 years of school,” Anan says, in what is as much of a commendation of the program as it is an indictment of the Israeli education system.

“I’ll pay for people to go,” Musta offers, “whatever the cost.”