The Israeli War of Independence was still raging when Sheikh Odeh Abu Muammar of the Bedouin Masoudin tribe penned an impassioned letter to the military commander of Be’er Sheva. “We ask the Israeli government to provide us with food, clothing, and weapons to properly defend ourselves against the rest of our tribesmen and their Egyptian collaborators,” he wrote in December 1948. “We pledge before God almighty to be loyal to the Israeli government […] and never use our weapons illegally. We shall use them to help whenever requested.”
This was hardly Abu Muammar’s first contact with the Jewish authorities struggling to establish Israel. As Hillel Cohen notes in his 2010 book Good Arabs, as early as 1943 Odeh helped guard Jewish villages, later smuggling stolen British arms to the Haganah. Abu Muammar went on to establish the Bedouin trackers’ unit in the nascent IDF, passing away in 2009 at the age of 100.
But the days of Bedouin goodwill toward the Israeli army now seem long gone. The IDF is struggling to raise motivation among young Bedouins to volunteer for nonmandatory military service, unlike the case for Druze and Circassians, who must enlist by law. The results are not encouraging. While thousands of Bedouins graduate Israeli high schools every year, just 300 join the IDF annually, on average. Two-thirds of those recruits live in northern Israel, where roughly one-fifth of Israel’s Bedouin population resides. The Negev’s 240,000 Bedouins produce just 100 soldiers a year.
“The Bedouin soldier sees his friends living in Tel Aviv or Herzliya while he comes home to his shack, which could be demolished at any moment. That’s tough,” said Col. Wajdi Sarhan, who oversees the recruitment of Bedouins through the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, explaining the low enlistment levels. “The expectations of Bedouin army veterans aren’t always met: After three years of service they return to find nothing has changed. They still can’t [legally] build a home, they haven’t received a plot of land, they’re unemployed. All this affects enlistment.”
Through a range of new schemes, the army is trying to change that mode of thinking. Historically, Bedouins served in homogeneous units as trackers or drivers. But the IDF now wishes to integrate them in a wide range of prestigious combat and noncombat positions. The new recruitment model has reduced their length of service to 28 months (as opposed to 32 months served by other Israelis), kicking off with a three-month preparatory course that teaches them Hebrew, personal development, and noncombat basic training.
The IDF is hoping to double the number of Bedouin soldiers joining the innovative track to 400 by the end of 2018. College education is fully funded for Bedouin veterans, as well as academic tracks through the army for excellent candidates with the potential of having an impact on their society in the future. One of its recruitment schemes offers Bedouin high school graduates a free bachelor’s degree in education as well as a teacher’s certificate in return for military service within the Bedouin school system. “We want to create role models,” Col. Sarhan said, “to show the youth that even their teachers serve in the army in uniform.”
But the problem of security clearance looms large for Israeli Bedouins, many of whom have Palestinian relatives in the West Bank and Gaza. “It takes much longer to OK them for service, if such an OK arrives at all,” Sarhan admitted. The language barrier, as well as racist attitudes from Jewish soldiers, also take their toll. “There are soldiers who don’t differentiate between a Bedouin soldier and a Muslim from Sakhnin,” he said. “That causes difficulties in their ability to socially integrate.”
Nevertheless, Sarhan believes that preserving the IDF as “the people’s army” makes the investment in Bedouin recruits worthwhile.
“I have no doubt that someone who wears the uniform for a period of two years—or even two months—comes out a different person. They become much more Israeli, even if they don’t express it a day after they’re discharged.”
Attia el-Assam, a member of the Islamic Movement who heads the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, says the Bedouins’ dual identity as Palestinians and Israeli citizens makes enlistment to the IDF a non-option for most. “In the south, it’s the government that convinces us not to join the army,” said el-Assam. “The humiliating treatment we receive has driven us away.”
El-Assam’s father joined the IDF in 1949, a time when Bedouin youth flocked to the army in a show of solidarity with the nascent Jewish state. David Ben Gurion’s policy of not “encroaching on Bedouin land” also played a role, he said. “For my father’s generation, whatever the state said was holy,” noted el-Assam, 56, a former stone and marble merchant. “But Israel also took advantage of the Bedouin complacency, and of their faith in the state.”
‘There are IDF soldiers who don’t differentiate between a Bedouin soldier and a Muslim from Sakhnin.’
For el-Assam and his siblings, who reached adulthood in the late 1970s, joining the IDF was never on the agenda. “The state doesn’t respect me. It treats me differently.”
Today, he claims, the Islamic Movement needs to do little to dissuade the youth from joining the army. “Bedouins are increasingly exposed to the world. They don’t cling to the state like they did 20 years ago. Why? Because the state didn’t want them. You always try to move closer, and the state pushes you away. It doesn’t really want you to be a good citizen. That has had a profound effect on us.”
Far from the public eye, a tug of war is taking place between state-sponsored clerics and soft-spoken Islamists like el-Assam over the hearts and minds of the young.
Sheikh Jamal al-Obra oversees activities in mosques across the Negev on behalf of Israel’s Ministry of Interior. A civil engineer by training, al-Obra became more devout when his father passed away 20 years ago. After studying Islamic law in Nablus, he was appointed as imam of a mosque in his hometown of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel. Today, he makes sure that Friday sermons delivered in state-controlled mosques are devoid of incitement to violence. But most mosques in the Negev either belong to the Islamic Movement or are privately owned, meaning that the state is absent. From a total of 117 mosques in the Negev, just 24 mosques are overseen by the state, al-Obra says.
“[The Islamic movement] imams don’t meet our criteria,” he explained, citing an employment process that includes two tests in Islamic law and a personal interview. Israel pays the salaries of 350 imams nationwide, but Al-Obra insists he does not tell the clerics what to say in their sermons. El-Assam of the Islamic movement challenges that claim, however. Two years ago, he notes, the government tried to impose a pacifist sermon on one of its employees in the Bedouin town of Kseifa. “We told them: ‘You want to dictate? Take him away. He won’t work in our mosque anymore,’ ” el-Assam recalled his conversation with the state representatives. He then turned to the cleric. “You want to give a sermon? Go right ahead, but not exactly as the state wishes. It can’t tell you, ‘Don’t demonstrate, don’t complain, don’t struggle.’ ”
One thing al-Obra and el-Assam can agree on, though, is the importance of religion in the schools. Every few months, al-Obra and his colleagues visit local high schools to imbue students with moderate Islamic messages. “I bring with me 20 imams and we enter the classrooms, each tackling the issue of violence from a different angle: domestic violence, verbal violence, physical violence. Then we have an interreligious panel to conclude,” he said. “Imams are charismatic. They draw respect not enjoyed by teachers. As soon as they enter the classroom, everyone is silent.”
Up until a few decades ago, Bedouin youth were far removed from religion in Rahat, al-Obra noted. But that is changing today. “I remember that during the 1980s, no more than two dozen people would show up for morning prayers at my mosque. Now there are between 200 and 250,” he proudly declared. “Today the young are returning to religion. Not all of them, but a fair number. You can rest assured that those who find religion won’t get into trouble or harm others.
“Religion is the salvation of our youth these days,” he concluded.
This is the fourth dispatch in a Tablet series, Israeli Arabs at a Crossroads: The Negev.
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.