‘When the sirens sound, we have nowhere to hide’

For the Bedouins of the Negev, the demand for concrete shelters is not just about protection, it’s about recognition

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Bedouin near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev, August 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Bedouin near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev, August 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Two air-raid sirens sounded in the Bedouin village of Awajan on Monday evening. One came from Omer, an affluent suburb of Beersheba, the other from the Bedouin settlement of Lakiya.

Awajan, with its 2,000 inhabitants, is one of approximately 40 unrecognized Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev desert (the exact definition of a village is under debate). Seen as illegal by the state, Awajan has no siren system nor protection from incoming rockets fired from Gaza. Its homes are shabby brick structures with tin roofs.

“There were two landings. One [rocket] fell about 1,500 meters from the house and the other fell exactly in-between two homes, hitting a sheep pen,” local resident Omar Al-Wagili told The Times of Israel.

Shrapnel from the rocket hit two of Wagili’s nieces, who found nowhere to take cover. Maram, 10, sustained serious injuries to her torso; her older sister Athir, 13, was moderately hurt in the knee.

“There’s nowhere to run. We wait for [the rocket] to fall. If it falls far away, we’ve been spared. If it falls nearby, we’re the victims,” he said.

Ironically, in 2008 Wagili used to work as a contractor for the the Defense Ministry, installing protective concrete structures — known in Hebrew as Miguniot — for schools in Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip hit by Hamas rockets around the time of Operation Cast Lead.

Omar Al-Wagili (photo credit: courtesy/Omar Al-Wagili)
Omar Al-Wagili (photo credit: Courtesy Omar Al-Wagili)

“I asked the Home Front Command, ‘What about us?’ and they said, ‘You need to wait your turn.’ Our turn hasn’t come from 2008 to 2014,” he said. “We wouldn’t sleep for 24, sometimes 48 hours. We worked throughout the war to protect the children.”

Following the injury of the two girls, Wagili said, all the children of Awajan were sent away to relatives near Dimona, further from the range of Gaza rockets.

“Just speaking about home makes the children cry. They’re scared. When we ask them if they want to come back they ask, ‘Are there rockets there?'”

A group of Israeli human rights organizations filed an urgent appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday on behalf of Al-Wagili and other Bedouin residents, demanding that the state install the 2 x 3-meter concrete Miguniot in the unrecognized settlements. Israel, they argued, refrains from using the Iron Dome system to intercept rockets headed for the unregistered settlement, which the state considers open areas for operational purposes. Thus, they argued, the danger facing some 100,000 Bedouins is doubled.

Nisreen Alayan, an attorney with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), said that the government and the IDF have neglected to heed to the call of Bedouins in the Negev for protection since 2008.

“So far, the state has presented no solution to the Bedouins. They feel that the state goes out of its way to provide solutions to other citizens in the area, forsaking the Arab Bedouins in the Negev. This is unacceptable negligence on the part of the state,” she said.

A concrete bomb shelter is placed in a school in Ashkelon, April 2009 photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
A concrete bomb shelter is placed in a school in Ashkelon, April 2009. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

In court, the state told the three-judge panel that the statistical probability of rockets falling on Bedouin settlements is extremely low, even compared to nearby Beersheba, which has been intentionally targeted by Hamas numerous times. Moreover, testified Colonel Benny Shick of the Home Front Command, by obeying the army’s orders and lying down on the ground when a siren is heard, citizens could reduce the chance of injury by 80 percent.

“Even with no budgetary constraints, if we had 500 more structures,” Shick said, “we would send them to the area immediately around the Gaza Strip.” As much as 27 percent of Israel’s population is inadequately protected from the menace of missiles, he noted.

Each Migunit costs around NIS 50,000 ($14,700), the state claimed, and is intended primarily to allow for a sense of security outdoors in the most vulnerable areas in Israel, not as a real defensive solution. 600 such structures have been dispersed around the Gaza Strip in recent years, it reported.

ACRI attorney Nisreen Alayan photo credit: Elhanan Miller)
ACRI attorney Nisreen Alayan (photo credit: Elhanan Miller)

But Bedouins would settle for even such a false sense of security, their representatives said in court, as long as the state undertook some measure showing that it cares.

“We can’t speak only about security; we must also speak about a sense of security,” said attorney Hen Avitan, representing the Bedouin regional councils.

The court seemed attuned to the petitioners’ arguments. “What about the psychological aspect?” asked Justice Zvi Silbertal. “After all, this is a neglected population.” Justice Yoram Danziger, who headed the panel, wondered why concrete protection was being placed in nearby Beersheba and not in the Bedouin areas. Information on civil defense, distributed in Arabic in mosques and schools, was not quite enough, he hinted.

A decision is expected within days.

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