Relations between the communities known as the “Bedouin diaspora” and the State of Israel took a particularly heavy blow early Wednesday morning. This was not just a case of state-ordered home demolitions and a dispute over lands, as in the past. This confrontation ended with the fatal car-ramming of an Israeli policeman, Erez Levi, 34, and the killing of his assailant, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an. The incident can only intensify the tensions among Bedouin residents of the Negev as regards their treatment by the state. The fact that Levi was killed in what appears to have been a terrorist car-ramming does not change the underlying picture. The Bedouin regard the demolitions of homes in Umm al-Hiran as a deliberate provocation by the Israeli authorities intended to boot them from their lands in order to build a Jewish town.
Those who argue that force need not have been used at this stage, given that there were ongoing efforts to negotiate the peaceful evacuation of the unauthorized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, may well have a point. Critics point to the case of Amona, an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank, where ultimately the Israeli government and the residents reached an agreement to avert a potentially violent evacuation (although that evacuation has not yet happened). Nonetheless, those who note that the residents of Umm al-Hiran illegally took control of lands that do not belong to them are also correct. The trouble is, as we’ve learned too many times before, that being right is not enough in the Middle East; it’s preferable to be wise. And apparently wisdom was in inadequate supply when the decision was taken to order home demolitions early Wednesday in Umm al-Hiran.
In the Negev today, there are some 240,000 Bedouin. About two-thirds of them, 160,000, live in nine cities and the rest in what is known as the “Bedouin diaspora” — 360 unauthorized encampments. These encampments cover immense expanses of land and their residents claim that these territories belong to them. The state emphatically disagrees.
Some 60 percent of the Negev Bedouin populace are youths aged less than 18. The problem of housing obviously intensifies given the high rate of natural growth in the community. While in most of Israel a young couple generally finds itself struggling to get a mortgage in order to purchase a home, among the Bedouin diaspora such an option is almost nonexistent. Young Bedouin find it hard to find a place to live; there is no proper planning in many of the Bedouin settlements.
The question of housing, however, is only one small problem that the State of Israel grapples with when it comes to Negev Bedouin. For a start, there is a considerable problem with governance in the Bedouin diaspora. There is a great deal of violence and gunfire. There is violence against police officers, who largely try to steer clear: Each year sees dozens of violent incidents in Bedouin settlements, and the state has difficulty enforcing the law there.
Even within the various Bedouin tribes themselves, the traditional community leaders, the heads of clans, have increasing difficulty imposing their authority on the younger generation for whom old traditions and norms are less relevant.
As with other Arab communities in Israel, there is a process of religious radicalization among the Bedouin of the Negev, and an increasing affinity for extreme ideology. This is not the ideology of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, but rather the more extreme mindset of Raed Salah’s Northern Branch. And some young Bedouin increasingly identify with Islamic State ideas.
One must also not ignore another problem: the growing connection between the Bedouin diaspora and the Palestinians, especially residents of the nearby southern Hebron Hills. There are nowadays large numbers of illegal residents in the Bedouin sector in Israel — about 15,000 at present. And lots of Bedouin have married Palestinians: About 18,000 Israeli citizens among the Negev Bedouin were born of marriages between Bedouins and Palestinians. The Palestinians are often those who run Bedouin households; one prime example is the Segev Shalom Bedouin town in the Negev, where one-fifth of the population is of Palestinian origin.
All of this inevitably creates fertile ground for radical ideas. About 100 Israeli Bedouin citizens are today identified as Islamic State sympathizers — not activists in the organization, but people who have expressed support for its ideology. One radical example of this is Dr. Othman Abdulkayan, who left Israel for Syria to join Islamic State, and was reportedly killed in 2014. In the eyes of many members of his family, he is something of a local hero. On the whole, though, supporters of IS limit their activities to social media and the internet.
One extreme example of IS activity surrounded a group of teachers at the Salaam school in Hura, some of whom are members of the al-Qia’an clan, who advocated pro-Islamic State activity and whose ringleader was jailed last year. They were often helped by teachers who came from Arab areas in northern Israel, and who share the ideology of Islamic State and its affiliates. These ties between teachers with extreme, dangerous ideological tendencies and young, poor students are likely to prove dangerous to the state, and indeed, to the Negev Bedouin themselves.
It’s worth emphasizing that the vast majority of the Bedouin diaspora is not part of these dangerous trends. Most Bedouin seek to find their place economically and socially within the fabric of the State of Israel. They do not regard the activities of pro-IS activists and supporters of other extremist movements in any positive light.
Unfortunately, events such as Wednesday’s strengthen the voice of the extremists and weaken those who want to be part of the state, even serving in the Israel Defense Forces.