Ra’am MK Said al-Harumi, a champion of Negev Bedouin, dies at 49

Al-Harumi made history when Ra’am became 1st Arab faction to play integral role in coalition; he abstained in vital vote, to protest home demolitions in Bedouin communities

Lawmaker Said al-Harumi pauses during an interview at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Lawmaker Said al-Harumi pauses during an interview at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Ra’am MK Said al-Harumi died early Wednesday after being rushed to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba after suffering a heart attack, the party announced. He was 49.

According to the Arab Israeli news site Panet, al-Harumi was driving through Beersheba when he suddenly had a heart attack. His car veered out of control and crashed. He was rushed to the hospital, but to no avail; he passed away before dawn on Wednesday.

Al-Harumi, along with his fellow lawmakers from the Islamist Ra’am party, made history this year when they became the first Arab party in decades to join a governing coalition, and the first-ever to play an integral role in Israel’s governance.

Al-Harumi abstained in June’s confidence vote, while his other three Ra’am colleagues voted in favor, giving the eight-party coalition a wafer-thin majority to oust the government led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. In July, al-Harumi was appointed chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee.

“May God have mercy on our Said and accompany him in peace,” Ra’am said in a statement announcing his death. “Condolences to his family and the people of the Negev.”

Party chief Mansour Abbas said al-Harumi was a “young, smart, energetic politician.”

“He always believed in his path as a son of the Negev Arabs. The loss is great,” Abbas said.

With his death, the Knesset is expected to see the return of Iman Khatib-Yasin, a self-described feminist and Israel’s first hijab-wearing MK, who was elected to parliament in 2020 but failed to retain her seat in the 2021 vote.

Al-Harumi hailed from the Bedouin heartland in the Negev Desert, where tens of thousands of people live in unrecognized villages that are largely cut off from basic services and where homes and other structures have been built without legal permits, putting them at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities.

Al-Harumi spent years negotiating with the government to recognize some of the Bedouin villages and had hoped that Ra’am’s controversial decision to enter the government would advance their cause.

Lawmaker Said al-Harumi speaks on his mobile phone in the corridor of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Monday, June 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The MK surprised observers in June when he refused to vote with the rest of his party on a confidence motion that installed the new government, replacing Netanyahu after a 12-year stint in power. His abstention in the vote came in response to the planned demolition of Bedouin homes in the Negev. The coalition was approved by the narrowest possible margin — 60-59 votes.

Ra’am chief Abbas later said al-Harumi’s protest vote was coordinated in advance and that coalition leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid had been aware of it. Al-Harumi had been ready to back the government if there had been any chance it would not pass the vote, Abbas said.

In recent years, Israel has sought to relocate the Bedouin to established towns, saying it would allow the state to provide modern services and improve their quality of life. The Bedouin view such efforts as a way of uprooting them from their ancestral lands, disrupting their traditional way of life and confining them to impoverished, crime-ridden communities.

Demolished homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, in the in southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I want the Arab Bedouin of the Negev to choose their way of life,” he said in a recent interview. “Those who want to live a traditional, agricultural life as Bedouin should have the opportunity to do so on their own land. What’s the problem?”

Al-Harumi said he hoped to benefit his people by engaging with wider Israeli society and joining the government.

“It’s an experiment,” al-Harumi said. “Can we influence the government to benefit our society and exploit the political conditions that exist, or do we keep to ourselves? The easiest thing is to stay back and say I won’t get involved.”

On Tuesday Lapid sent condolences to the family and credited al-Harumi with helping the wildly diverse government come to fruition.

“Great sorrow over the untimely death of MK Said al-Harumi, who was a partner, and one of the people thanks to whom the government was formed. A man of the Negev, who loved mankind and believed that Israeli society could be changed and advanced,” Lapid tweeted.

Ra’am MK Mazen Ghanaim told Kan Bet Radio that he “loved this man and his speaking style. He always cared for the people of the Negev. He did not live for himself, but for others.”

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said he was shocked by the death of al-Harumi. “In recent months, MK al-Harumi had been in constant contact with me and my office, offering advice and ideas for our plans for the Arab sector,” he said.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said she was saddened by his death. “Just last week we met to discuss interior and environmental protection issues… Condolences to the family,” she said.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said al-Harumi was “a gentle and generous man, and a brave and determined activist for the Negev.” The party’s MK Ahmad Tibi said his death was “a painful loss for everyone, for the Negev, for Ra’am, for me personally, and for the entire Arab community.”

Likud MK David Bitan also sent condolences to the family. “May you never know sorrow again,” he tweeted.

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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