The Defense Ministry announced a new effort this week to assist Bedouin veterans, including deeply discounted college education, after over two dozen soldiers said they won’t report to duty over what they described as racism towards their community.
A representative for the 25 reservists said they had not been consulted about the issue and that it did not address many of their grievances.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan presented the plan in the Knesset Wednesday on behalf of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is in the United States on an official visit.
Ben-Dahan said Liberman promised a “wide cover of assistance” for Bedouin soldiers, including additional military preparatory programs.
Last week, the inaugural class graduated from Israel’s first pre-army program for Bedouin Israelis.
“The Israel Defense Forces is working with various organizations, including the Israel Police, the Israel Electric Corporation and others, in order to assists soldiers from the Bedouin community find work, upon their release from the IDF,” Ben-Dahan said.
“In addition, the defense minister ordered that under the ‘From Uniforms to University’ program, under which combat soldiers’ bachelor’s degrees are paid for by the defense establishment, every soldier from the Bedouin population who is released from the army will also get their studies paid for, regardless of where they served,” the deputy defense minister said.
The “From Uniforms to University” program does not actually cover the entire cost of an academic or vocational degree, but provides at least two-thirds of the funding. The rest comes from money they receive upon their release from the army.
It already applied to soldiers coming from special populations, like those who serve in the army without assistance from their families or who require financial help from the military. Bedouin soldiers will now be a part of that group.
These measures were proposed by Likud MK Anat Berko and Labor MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former IDF general. Both serve on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The expanded benefits for Bedouin soldiers were made in response to a letter penned by 25 reservists from the Bedouin town of Bir al-Maksur, in the Galilee.
Omar Hreeb, one of the signees, said he was surprised to hear that the government was offering new services to the Bedouin community.
“Nobody called us. Nobody reached out to us, not from the Defense Ministry or the Defense Minister’s Office,” Hreeb said on Thursday.
The bulk of their letter dealt with employment discrimination towards the Bedouin community, notably in the field of security and transportation.
“We will not allow the people who sent us to spill our blood to continue spitting in our face. We will not continue fulfilling our duty, if no one is coming through with our rights… We will not report for duty until we feel that the state is treating us as equals among equals and until we are given the right to live our civil lives like every other Israeli citizen,” the reservists wrote.
They claimed that Bedouin Israelis, who served in the IDF and Border Police, have been denied bus driver licenses and gun permits, necessary for work as private security guards, after they were released from their military service.
Hreeb said these issues were not directly addressed by the defense minister’s proposal.
“Education is great, send them to learn. But these are people trained in something, trained to be fighters and to serve the country. And they want to continue to do that, to work in defense, in security,” he said.
The authors of the letter claimed that what they described as discriminatory treatment was the reason the army has seen a drop in enlistment among members of the Bedouin community in recent years. Unlike Jewish, Circassian and Druze Israelis, Bedouin Israelis are not required by law to enlist in the army, though many members of the Bedouin community volunteer.
There are about 250,000 Bedouins in the country, according to Israeli government figures. The IDF could not provide an estimate of the current number of Bedouin soldiers in the military, but unofficial estimates count about 1,500 currently serving members of the community.
Their missive was addressed to both Liberman and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who the reservists accused of making “slanderous” claims about a Bedouin schoolteacher involved in an incident in the village of Umm al-Hiran in January.
During a demolition of the village, Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police before his car slammed into an officer, Erez Levi. Both men died.
Erdan and other senior officials quickly described the incident as a terror attack and made statements insinuating that Abu al-Qia’an was associated with, or inspired by, the Islamic State group.
However, an upcoming review of the incident by the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department will reportedly contradict those claims, finding that the police shooting may have unwittingly caused Abu al-Qia’an to lose control of his car and hit Levi.
Last month, Erdan appeared to walk back on his initial statements, referring to what happened in Umm al-Hiran as an “incident” as opposed to a “terror attack” and calling Abu al-Qia’an a “citizen” instead of a “terrorist.”
And two days later, he promised to apologize to Abu al-Qia’an’s family “if it turns out that it wasn’t a terror attack.”
These assertions were initially made by police, but were later proven incorrect by video evidence.
On Monday, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel expressed the first apology by an Israeli official over the incident.
“If there was a mistake in Umm al-Hiran, I apologize deeply,” said Ariel during a visit to the Bedouin city of Rahat. “We will wait for the results of the Police Internal Investigations Department probe, but there are voices attesting to grievous mistakes that were made — I want to pass on my apologies to the family.”