Arab, Muslim, Israeli — and under fire

A day in rocket range with the residents of Rahat, home to 54,000 Israelis and zero public bomb shelters

Rahat, a Bedouin town in Israel's south, on Tuesday (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)
Rahat, a Bedouin town in Israel's south, on Tuesday (Times of Israel/Matti Friedman)

Two air-raid sirens warning of incoming rockets had gone off in the Bedouin township of Rahat by mid-morning Tuesday, but residents seemed unfazed: The Al-Manar restaurant downtown was doing a brisk business in shwarma, the outdoor stalls selling cheap clothing outside the post office were packed, and a handful of teenage girls were shooting the breeze outside the local Domino’s Pizza franchise.

Rahat, a poor town of 54,000 in southern Israel, is the largest of the towns and unrecognized villages that are home to the Negev’s 170,000 Bedouin. Many of them live within easy rocket range of the Gaza Strip.

Sirens had been sounding here in Rahat regularly for a week, signaling 40 seconds before a Palestinian rocket hit somewhere nearby, usually with an audible boom.

But a visit to the town Tuesday indicated residents had decided they had nothing to fear, ignoring warnings to stay indoors and to avoid congregating. Those tendencies are a cause of worry for the local officials in charge of their safety.

People in Rahat, one city official said with a grim smile, have a “mental Iron Dome.”

The lively atmosphere in the city — markedly different from the one in the neighboring Jewish city of Beersheba, which feels largely deserted and thoroughly spooked — belies a dangerous reality, according to municipal officials here.

There is not a single public bomb shelter in Rahat — only five small portable rooms of reinforced concrete that were recently delivered and can house a small number of people. Barely half of the homes have safe rooms built to withstand rocket fire, as required by current construction codes. More than half of the residents are under 18, and with schools closed, thousands of children are spending their days wandering around outside.

To make things worse, each building here tends to house an extended clan rather than a small nuclear family, meaning that a direct hit could exact a high toll in human life.

Part of the reason for the lack of safety precautions lies with the government’s long-standing neglect of Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority. Part lies with the fact that Rahat is poor, the local authorities cash-strapped, often dysfunctional, and lacking any meaningful clout with the state offices that dole out funds.

This city is “far more exposed than Jewish towns nearby,” Ali Abo Zaid, the municipal ombudsman and emergency liaison to residents, said Tuesday.

No rockets have hit Rahat during this round, but one did land here during the military’s Cast Lead operation four years ago, causing light damage. “Like all residents of the south, we hear the sirens, and we have no guarantee that they will miss us,” he said.

‘If they keep shooting, one day it will hit us, and when it does, the damage will be grave’

In order to change residents’ apathy toward the threat, the municipality sent text messages to local imams last week asking them to discuss safety procedures during Friday prayers, Abo Zaid said. Residents were given pamphlets telling them what to do when the siren sounded. Nonetheless, he seemed to indicate, the instructions were generally being ignored.

“If they keep shooting, one day it will hit us, and when it does, the damage will be grave,” he said.

As he spoke, his daughter Layla, a second-grader, colored at his desk. Like all of Rahat’s other children — and all Israeli children in the south — she is out of school and at loose ends.

Among Israeli Bedouin, it is not uncommon to have relatives inside Gaza and relatives serving in the Israeli military, giving people here a thoroughly unique take on the conflict and multiple reasons for concern.

“You’re worried about both sides,” Abo Zaid said.

Residents of Rahat are better-off than residents of the dozens of unrecognized Bedouin villages in southern Israel, home to about half of the Negev’s Bedouin population.

Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University, traveled with her husband and three young children this week for a visit to the home of her in-laws in a village called Al-Zarnuk, hoping for a breather after days under rocket fire at their home in Beersheba.

The village is unrecognized and off the grid, its houses flimsy and roofed with tin. The 4,000-odd residents, she found, had no protection at all, even though they were well within the rocket zone.

“As far as the Home Front Command is concerned, this place does not exist at all,” she said. The family did not stay long.

With few other options to protect themselves, and guided by a conservative and traditional culture, many in Rahat have adopted fatalism as a strategy for coping with the barrages from Gaza, said Jamal al-Kirnawi, a social worker from Rahat and a student counselor at Ben-Gurion University.

“For many people, the only option is a belief in fate,” he said. The poverty of many of Rahat’s residents, and of the municipal services, make them more vulnerable to this kind of thinking, he said.

On the other hand, Kirnawi noted, there was a kind of fierce allegiance to daily life and an unwillingness to abandon home. This sentiment was shared, he said, by many in the south — Arabs and Jews.

“Among residents of the Negev there is a strength, a desire to stay in place and to keep functioning,” he said.

He suggested Israelis in the area will get through the crisis together.

“The fate of the Bedouin is connected to the fate of our neighbors from the Negev, and cannot be separated,” he said. “In this kind of war, rockets don’t differentiate between kinds of blood.”

Several hours later, a mortar barrage from Gaza aimed at Israeli forces along the border killed Alian Salem Alanbari, a Bedouin from an unrecognized village in the south. He was working alongside the military as a Defense Ministry contractor.

Alanbari, the fifth Israeli fatality in the fighting, was buried late Tuesday in the Bedouin township of Lakiya.

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