RAHAT — Since four members of their clan were taken hostage by Hamas on October 7, the Ziyadne family’s men have gathered every day for a vigil.
Sitting in a large circle in Ali’s front yard — Ali is brother to one hostage and uncle to the other three — the men are observing a Muslim custom that is typical for days of mourning.
Ali’s residence, a box of concrete and corrugated metal, is located a 20-minute drive away from the center of Rahat, the largest Bedouin settlement in Israel, through a dusty unpaved road that cuts through the Negev desert, sided with acacia trees and heaps of plastic trash.
Ali sits in the circle and displays a picture of the three male abductees from his family — his brother Youssef, 53, and Youssef’s sons Bilal, 18, and Hamza, 23. They were kidnapped by Hamas in the morning of October 7 while working in the cowshed of Kibbutz Holit, less than a mile away from the Gaza Strip.
Youssef’s 17-year-old daughter Aisha was with them that morning and is now also in the hands of Hamas. The family was recently notified by the IDF that the status of all four has been modified from “unaccounted for” to “abducted.”
“Waiting for them is the hardest thing one can imagine,” Ali said. “Not knowing their fate is an ordeal. Our only hope is that negotiations will continue. There have been reports that Qatar is mediating and there is progress. We just want to see them return safe and sound,” he added.
“We call on all the peoples of the world, on all the countries to intervene and push for their liberation,” he said.
Despite Ali’s cry, and repeated visits to the family vigil by Israeli and foreign journalists, the Bedouin community has mostly kept a low profile about its missing members. Six Bedouins were taken hostage by Hamas, local sources say, while 21 were killed during the October 7 onslaught and in rocket fire from Gaza in the following days.
“We don’t have an international voice representing us when it comes to our hostages,” Rahat Mayor Ata Abu Madighem told The Times of Israel. “Our voice is the State of Israel.”
The paucity of exposure is due in part to the Bedouin community’s lack of the levers afforded to some other Israeli abductees. For example, dual citizens can count on the pressure brought by foreign ministries outside Jerusalem.
But the silence is also partly due to cultural features, Rahat psychologist and social activist Jamal Alkirnawi explains, namely suspicion of outsiders and privacy in matters of personal sorrow and mourning.
In one illustrative case, the family of a fallen Bedouin soldier chose to bury its son at night, for fear of exposure in the community and the media, recounts Alkirnawi, head of a Bedouin-Jewish coexistence organization called A New Dawn in the Negev.
“Bedouins have been struck by this tragedy as much as their Jewish brothers,” the psychologist notes.
“We are a traumatized community. We have lost so many good people. Many from Rahat were working in the kibbutzim along the Gaza Strip. The Western Negev is a small region. We are all brothers here, Jews, Arabs, and Christians. We are all human beings. And we have all been struck by this evil. It killed the humanity in all of us,” Alkirnawi continues.
Rahat, a city of 80,000, is the largest of seven recognized Bedouin settlements in the Negev. Altogether, the Bedouin population in southern Israel amounts to about 300,000, with many living in unrecognized villages, deprived of infrastructure, schools, medical facilities, and – critically – rocket shelters.
But even in established communities such as Rahat, these are difficult times. “We have 27,000 children who are not going to school, and someone needs to take care of them. Many homes in Rahat do not have shelters, and nobody is giving us a shekel to fix that, neither the government nor the army,” said Rahat mayor Madighem in an interview.
Israeli officials have not neglected the Bedouin community these past few weeks, however, with visits paid by President Isaac Herzog, War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz and Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, while others have promised to pay their respects soon.
“This could be the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the State of Israel and the Bedouin community, and over time it may lead to a solution to the many problems that have plagued our community since 1948,” the mayor says, referencing the year of the establishment of the State of Israel, when Bedouins inside its borders were granted Israeli citizenship.
In addition to being exposed to Hamas terrorists and rocket fire, many families in the region have lost their main source of income since the onset of the war. Many local residents used to work in farming, and agricultural activity along the Gaza Strip has all but halted.
In the days following the onslaught, various local organizations set up a logistical base in Rahat’s main community center, manned by Arab and Jewish volunteers, to collect and distribute donations for families in need throughout the area, both Jewish and Arab. Commenting on the grassroots initiative, co-conceiver Hanan al-Sanea said that “the murderers didn’t distinguish between Jewish blood and Arab blood, and neither did the missiles.”
“We are in the Negev, our social fabric includes a mosaic of different identities, with a common denominator: We all believe in caring, reciprocity, solidarity and acceptance of the other,” said Fouad al-Ziyadne, manager of the community center network in Rahat that houses the grassroots initiative.
Beyond the material necessities, however, the city is also grappling with the psychological aftermath of the horrors of October 7.
“This is the biggest collective trauma we have ever experienced as a community. From day one, we opened an emotional first aid center to help people process the experience, addressing especially the many Bedouins who witnessed the Hamas onslaught,” said Alkirnawi.
“We help families who have lost loved ones, killed or kidnapped. We have set up a network of organizations to listen to residents, help them process their losses, cope with the fact that people went to work one morning and never came back, or that they were hit by a rocket while they were sitting inside their home and died on the spot.”
His organization is working to create support groups to help people open up and “build their own narrative about what happened on that fatal Saturday morning so that they can carry on with a resemblance of a normal life in these abnormal circumstances,” said Alkirnawi.
“We are still processing all of this, and have not really had the time to catch up with the rest of the world, or ask international media to tell our stories,” the psychologist said. “We feel we are too far away from all of that.”
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