Keep the Bedouin Loyal

There is no better index of the state of relations between the country’s Bedouin citizens and the State of Israel than the number of Bedouin volunteers for IDF service each year.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on April 23, 2008.)

Had it not been for the courage and initiative of Major Walid El-Huzeil and the men of the Givati Brigade’s Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion, many Israeli homes might have been in mourning during the week of Passover. The group succeeded on the eve of Passover in aborting at Kerem Shalom the most complex Hamas operation we have seen since the disengagement in August 2005.

It was not the first time in its 20-year-old history that this unit distinguished itself. Unfortunately, it is only on occasions like this that Israelis are reminded of the service to the nation’s defense rendered by Bedouin youngsters who volunteer for three-year service in the Israel Defense Forces, even though they are under no obligation to do so.

Their unit, although called a reconnaissance battalion, is a regular IDF infantry combat unit, which has taken more than its share of casualties over the years. The officers and soldiers who serve in this unit come from the most disadvantaged sector of Israeli society. The Bedouin, particularly those living in the Negev, have the lowest level of education, health care and housing. Whatever improvement may have taken place in recent years, the gap with the average Israeli citizen has only grown, as successive governments have lacked a coherent policy to address the problems of the Bedouin community.

Half of the Bedouin in the South live in what are euphemistically referred to as “unrecognized villages,” and are frequently denied the most elementary services such as water and education. Under such conditions, it is only to be expected that many among them would feel alienated and even develop hostility to the State of Israel.

Yet for many years the Bedouin in Israel, despite their poor social conditions, expressed loyalty to the State of Israel, a loyalty that was demonstrated when some of them agreed to cede land to the state for the establishment of an air force base in the Negev.

However, in recent years the Islamic Movement, exploiting the government’s neglect of the Bedouin, has been able to penetrate Bedouin villages and encampments, preaching religious fanaticism, solidarity with the Palestinian cause and hostility to Israel.

A prime object of the Islamic Movement’s propaganda had been the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion: Service in the IDF is being denounced as collaboration with the enemy. IDF recruiting officers are being kept from appearing in Bedouin high schools by teachers and principals belonging to the Islamic Movement. Slowly but gradually, they are capturing the hearts and minds of many Bedouin.

It is hard to say that Israel is losing the competition for the hearts and minds of the Bedouin, because the government is almost absent from this competition so important to Israel’s future.

The nearly 300,000 Bedouin in Israel constitute almost a quarter of Israel’s Muslim population, and their integration into Israeli society is one of the greatest challenges facing the country. The service of Bedouin youngsters in the IDF can play a primary role in the process of integrating Bedouin into Israeli society, similar to the role that IDF service has played in integrating the Druze community.

But this is not going to happen by itself.

The IDF must sponsor an active recruitment campaign among Bedouin youngsters in the South and in the North, as well as among the many Bedouin in mixed cities and villages. The government must give preferential treatment to Bedouin youngsters who have completed their military service, providing them with educational and employment opportunities.

Special attention should be given to outstanding Bedouin high school students, offering them tailor-made service opportunities in the IDF. Of course, there are many other aspects of the lives of the Bedouin that need to be ameliorated, but service in the IDF can be the litmus test of the degree of their integration into Israeli society.

The Islamic Movement is fully aware of this, and this is why they concentrate so much effort in discouraging Bedouin youngsters from volunteering for the IDF.

There is no better index of the state of relations between the country’s Bedouin citizens and the State of Israel than the number of Bedouin volunteers for IDF service each year. When the number goes down, as it has in recent years, it is a sign that Israel is not succeeding in meeting a challenge of great importance to its future.

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