Israel’s Bedouin defenseless against Hamas rockets

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 20, 2014 

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Smoke from Israeli strikes rise over Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Monday, July 21, 2014. The first major ground battle in two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting exacted a steep price Sunday: It killed 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and forced thousands of terrified Palestinian civilians to flee Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood, reportedly used to launch rockets at Israel and now devastated by the fighting.


— When a rocket from Gaza slammed into the community of Kaser A-Ser on Saturday, Auda al-Wadj, 32, had no defense. Like 100,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel, al-Wadj lived in a shantytown of tin shacks, with no bomb shelters. He died; four family members were hospitalized.

Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled Sunday that the state is not obligated to provide bomb shelters to the Bedouin. The decision was in response to an appeal filed Thursday by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

“The blanket of protection is too short to cover every area in range of rockets,” the court’s judges, Yoram Danziger, Zvi Zylbertal and Noam Sohlberg, wrote in their decision. “Pulling the blanket to one area will expose another area.”

Israel is home to about 200,000 Bedouin, former nomads who have long settled in permanent communities. Half of the Bedouin live in townships the state established in recent decades. The other half live in villages scattered throughout the Negev desert.

They claim they are living on ancestral land; the state sees them as squatters. The Israeli government has attempted and failed to resolve the land claims several times over recent years. Out of 46 villages, 35 are “unrecognized” by the government.

The result is that the Bedouins in unrecognized villages live on the edge of legality. Their homes are often served with demolition orders for illegal construction. Many unrecognized villages lack basics like electricity, health services and schools.

During war, these deficiencies are glaring. Every time Omar Al Wakili hears the siren alerting of incoming rockets, he panics. He lives in Awajan, a cluster of tin shacks that house about 2,000 people south of the town of Lakiya in the desert. Last week, he said, he could hear the siren of the neighboring Jewish community, Omer, at about 5.30 pm.

“We listened carefully. And there was a rocket that fell between two houses here, near the dairy,” Al Wakili said by phone. “And then we heard the voices of kids crying and screaming.

I went to the area to see what was going on. And my brother told me his two daughters were injured, and he brought them to the hospital.”

Shrapnel lodged in the bodies of the girls, age 11 and 13. They survived but underwent surgery to remove the pieces of metal. Since then, Al Wakili said his 12 children beg him not to leave the house for work in the center of the country. Without any concrete shelter, when rockets come in he just tells his children to lie on the ground with their hands over their heads.

During the current fighting with Hamas, the Iron Dome anti-missile system has provided protection to millions of Israelis. The system intercepts incoming rockets mid-air and has claimed as high as 90 percent success rate in populated areas.

However, the system is designed to intercept only those rockets hurtling toward urban areas. Attorney Nisreen Alayan, who represented the Bedouins in court, charged that because the unrecognized Bedouin villages do not appear on planning maps, they were excluded from the missile defense system. The court’s judges responded that they did not have enough information to verify or reject that claim.

Alayan said in court Thursday, “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.”

Hamas has hit deeper into Israeli territory during this operation than ever before. Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told McClatchy that the military organization has stockpiles of more than 10,000 rockets and missiles, including some with a 200-km (125 mi) range. These rockets have hit the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. They have also hit towns in the West Bank. On Friday, June 12, a rocket barreled into the ground outside a home in the village of Sair, near Hebron, shattering the house’s windows. Earlier that day, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum addressed Arabs in areas targeted by Hamas.

“Our rockets will not touch you,” Barhoum said on Hamas-run television. “We know the geography. Our rockets will not hit one Arab Palestinian child. Our rockets are aimed at the Israelis.”

Bedouin villages are not the only areas that lack protection. Association for Civil Rights in Israel spokeswoman Nirit Moskovich said certain neighborhoods of Beer Sheva, a mostly Jewish city, also have inadequate shelters. However, “even with the worst protection, at least they have normal buildings that are not tin shacks,” she said.

Although the High Court rejected the petition for concrete bomb shelters to be placed immediately in Bedouin communities, the judges called on the Ministry of Defense and the regional councils where the Bedouins live to respond to the demands for better shelter within 30 days.

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