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The Lost Tribes of Israel

The Jewish state seeks to bring the Bedouin in from the desert

Matt Rees
January 29, 2015

Ishmael Khaldi is frustrated with the local council. He’s been campaigning four years for a dilapidated road to be repaved outside his village, Khawaled. It would cut the distance to jobs, shops, and health clinics by 80 percent. The council keeps inventing excuses not to re-lay the road. “It’s haflaf,” he says. “It’s chakamaka.” The words both mean a lack of planning and professionalism. They’re Arabic in origin but common slang among Israeli Jews. I ask him about the usage. “It’s Israeli language,” he says. “The mixture of Arabic and Hebrew.” Which is just about where Khaldi fits.

The Zionists who founded Kibbutz Kfar Ha-Maccabi in the 1930s brought the people of Khawaled to work in their apple orchards. Each day the Bedouin went down the old Ottoman road to labor on the land. The same road took them on to the town of Kiryat Ata for medical treatment or shopping. With the establishment of Israel, the Khawaled understood their prosperity was tied to the economy of Kfar Ha-Maccabi and the two other kibbutzim on the Kiryat Ata road—Usha and Ramat Yochanan. So, the Bedouin voted for the political parties that represented the kibbutzniks. They went to the Israeli army, too, where most served in tracking units.

That life started to change when Khaldi was a boy during the 1970s. True, the same old fumes from the Nesher cement plant filled his family’s tent. He still tended goats on the rough hillside above Khawaled, watching ships glide across the vibrant blue strip of the Mediterranean into the port of Haifa, 10 miles away. But his elders realized that the kibbutz leaders only stopped in when there was an election, to remind their laborers how to vote. That sense grew stronger in the 1980s after some in the village built permanent houses. The Israeli government demolished them, because the village was “unrecognized.” The term meant little to the Khawaled clan. The village was there; they were there. What was there to “recognize”? Consequently Ishmael absorbed a less subservient attitude to the Jewish state around him. Not confrontational, but more demanding than his father.

Changes under way in Israeli politics mirrored the generational shift in his village. The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party took over the Interior Ministry. Unlike the Labor kibbutzniks, Shas didn’t take for granted the support of the Bedouin. The party had to earn it. So, Khawaled was recognized in 1993 and made part of a regional council that included the three kibbutzim, another Bedouin village, and an Arab village.

Other changes at that time were less auspicious for Khawaled. A highway carved through the plain between the village and the kibbutzim. Like Bedouin all over Israel, the Khawaled simply cut illegal dirt entrances onto Road 70 and used the two-lane to speed around the kibbutzim to Kiryat Ata. The old Ottoman road across the fields degenerated, chewed up by kibbutz tractors and lack of maintenance. The Khawaled depended now on the fast connection to the town and their jobs. With few working as herdsmen anymore, the hillsides around the village grew wilder. Fox and boar, which used to be frightened away by the presence of shepherds and livestock outside the village, became common sights in Khawaled.

The local council opened a Jewish cemetery on a hill near the Bedouin village. In 2010 the Ministry of Transportation paved a road alongside the highway to serve the cemetery. But it also closed up the illegal exits. Suddenly the Bedouin had to drive alongside Road 70, right past one junction, to enter the highway at a second junction and then to reverse their direction along the main road to reach Kiryat Ata. It was a round trip of 10 miles.

Khaldi stepped in. He had become the first Bedouin to join Israel’s diplomatic corps. Always looking for avenues others might consider unlikely, he struck up a friendship with Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister who is generally considered far from a friend to Arabs. But Khaldi appreciated Lieberman’s frankness and pragmatism. He liked it better than the decades of hot air from the kibbutniks.

He pressed the Zvulun Regional Council, which has its offices in Kfar Ha-Maccabi, to repave the Ottoman road. It was precisely one mile long. Instead of 10 miles on the service road and the highway, the Bedouin of Khawaled would be in Kiryat Ata after a journey of less than two miles. What Khaldi got was excuses about permits and British Mandate plans.

Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry sent Khaldi to work in Britain as counselor for civil society affairs. He appears in public regularly to talk about his hopes for equality and progress in Israel and to counter the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement. It isn’t easy. At Edinburgh University 50 protesters shut down his talk, bizarrely comparing Khaldi to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. “Shame on you,” the students chanted. His face stony and his heart seething, Khaldi walked out.

A wiry man who jogs four miles a day, Khaldi never gave up on the road through the pomelo and olive groves. He started to see that, though the Khawaled Bedouin had all moved from tents into permanent houses and taken up jobs in agriculture or industry, the kibbutzim had changed still more profoundly. The pioneering spirit of the early kibbutzim had given them a common connection to the land with the Bedouin. Now that Kfar Ha-Maccabi made its money from a plastics factory and high-priced avocadoes, its leaders saw the Bedouin as backward and alien. Even when, like Khaldi, they had served at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco and been special adviser to the Foreign Minister.

In September Khaldi launched a Facebook page and an online petition. Each signature sends an automatic email to the Transportation Ministry, demanding the strip of road across the fields be paved. On the petition’s website, one signatory from Berkeley wrote: “People are calling Israel an apartheid state. Prove them wrong!” The pressure forced the Zvulun Council officials to meet Khaldi again in October. They told him they’d look for a solution. When I contacted them about an interview, they told me there were a lot of bureaucratic obstacles to paving the road, but they declined to meet because they were making the rounds of Arab and Bedouin villages to press the flesh for the Eid al-Adha holiday. “They drink some Bedouin tequila”—the strong, bitter sa’ada coffee—“and go home,” Khaldi said.

As Khaldi’s father gave me another hit of Bedouin tequila, a boy keened out the call to prayer from the village mosque—without amplification. In Jerusalem the imams turned up their loudspeakers on Yom Kippur, but here Khaldi persuaded the mosque to respect the holiday period and not disturb the kibbutzim. We headed for the disputed road past pale, tan cattle, their Khawaled herdsman strolling behind with a stick to prod the stragglers. “We’re not asking for a nightclub or a shiny new main road,” Khaldi said. “This is about our future, for us all to use together.”

Our car rumbled slowly across the dusty track until we reached the leafy shade of the kibbutz streets. At Kibbutz Usha, Khaldi stopped at a new stretch of road built to enable the residents to reach the highway without going through Kiryat Ata’s traffic. Wide and pristine, with high painted curbstones and tall streetlamps, it was almost as long as the road the council refuses to resurface for Khawaled. Khaldi stared at it. “Sometimes I bite my tongue, because I don’t want to say apartheid,” he said. “For the kibbutz this can be built, and for Khawaled it can’t?”


This summer and fall I set out to examine the condition of the Bedouin in Israel. I found myself chronicling with some urgency a culture in flux. Many of the Bedouin are choosing to reject their traditions, either modernizing or leaving their society entirely. Increasingly I saw my task as mapping their different pathways into and away from Israeli society—before it’s too late. “Bedouin culture is changing a lot,” says Clinton Bailey, an ethnographer who has studied the community since 1967. “They are no longer masters of their own life.”

One hundred tombstones, some almost a century old, mark the gateway to al-Arakib in the Negev Desert. The village is unrecognized by the Israeli government, which would have the inhabitants relocate to the nameless, numbered neighborhoods of Rahat, the town two miles away that was built to concentrate the tribes during that heyday of regrettable urban planning, the 1970s. On the slopes below, the 573 residents of al-Arakib lived in tents, shacks, and concrete houses until 2010. Now almost everything is gone, bulldozed by 49-ton Caterpillar D9s under the protection of gray-clad riot police.

The dead in the cemetery and Sheikh Sayeh al-Tory remain. He reclines on a thin mattress, the whites of his eyes made glossy brown by the constant hot wind over the bare dirt. His skin is dark and golden, like the tobacco inside a split cigarette. With his prodigious mustache, a silver dagger in his belt, and a gray robe, he is at once the romantic image of the mythic desert nomad and a gritty, living symbol of the troubled political reality of Bedouin life. His words straddle that dichotomy too, caught between tall tales and contemporary grievance.

“We have been here since biblical times. Abraham married his sons to Bedouin women from the Negev,” he says, in a loud voice frayed with desperate energy. “If anyone tells you there is a law to protect the Bedouin in Israel, they are government spies. There is no law to protect us.”

Israel’s most recent attempt to resolve the Bedouins’ problems was formulated by Ehud Prawer, head of policy planning in the prime minister’s office. His plan aimed to resettle 40,000 Bedouin in new townships with compensation for their land and granting legal ownership of new lands. The plan’s opponents were strange bedfellows. Arab Knesset member Jamal Zahalka called it “a transfer plan.” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said it would “decimat[e] their traditional cultural and social life.” The Israeli right saw it as a gift to the Bedouin. As an article in Arutz Sheva explained, “The plan gives Negev Bedouin 45,000 acres of state land for free, additionally granting them ‘compensation’ for the state land many Bedouin are currently squatting on.” Orit Struck, a Jewish Home Party Knesset member, described that as “wrong and unjust.”

Concentrating the once-nomadic Bedouin into urban areas is neither new nor specific to Israel. Modern Beersheba was founded in 1900 as part of an Ottoman policy to civilize Bedouin who otherwise terrorized the region as bandits or ran protection rackets. British archeologist Claude Conder wrote in 1895 that the “Bedawin” were “scoundrels” who preyed on the villages. In Jordan, the process has been slow and more sensitive to the needs of the Bedouin, who constitute a major pillar of support for the ruling Hashemite family. The Sinai Bedouin have escaped the attention of the Egyptian government for some years now due to the political turmoil in Cairo, and they continue to run smuggling rings and “whatever they have to do to survive,” says Bailey, the Jerusalem-based ethnographer. In the West Bank, the 2,800 Jahaline Bedouin, officially refugees from the Negev who fled in 1949, have found themselves shunted around by the expansion of Israeli settlements east of Jerusalem, in particular Maaleh Adumim. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says one-third of them are “food insecure.”

Some Bedouin sheikhs say they would have gone along with the Prawer plan, so long as they were allowed to live in agricultural villages where they could maintain their culture. In effect, they said: Give us electricity and schools and running water, but don’t give us Rahat. The government dumped the Prawer plan in December 2013. Officials have since spoken of the urgency of resolving land issues in the Negev, but without new ideas. “The Israeli government could solve all the problems of the unrecognized villages in 10 years,” says Ariel Dloomy, who works for the Arab-Jewish cooperation group Ajeec-Nisped. “It needs only an economic component to provide jobs. None of them wants really to keep living in substandard conditions without running water and other facilities.”


In October, as fall made the Negev merely baking hot, rather than summertime scorching, Janice Abu Hani, sat among the tin huts and shacks of the al-Wakili family, with a question for the dozen children gathered before her. “Can you show me how a rabbit hops?” The Bedouin kids bounced across the dirt, laughing and tumbling. Then Abu Hani, an animal therapist, brought out a small white bunny for them to pet. The giggling and smiling went up a few notches.

The al-Wakili weren’t smiling in the summer during the barrages of rockets from Gaza. A Hamas rocket landed in the village. Asil, 13, took shrapnel to her legs. The blast damaged 11-year-old Maram’s stomach and kidneys. Because the village is unrecognized, it doesn’t receive the protection of Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system, just as it doesn’t get electricity, water, or gas. As far as Iron Dome was concerned, the rocket that injured Maram and Asil was headed for open land and didn’t require a pair of $50,000 missiles to intercept it. (Elsewhere a Bedouin man was killed by another Gaza rocket, and his two small children were badly wounded.) For the al-Wakili family, the girls’ injuries were doubly hard to bear—the home they were forced by government order to demolish last year had a bomb shelter inside. Of the 40 children in the clan, all were traumatized by the rocket and its effects, as well as by the constant sense of peril during a summer of frequent alerts across the Negev.

During the war Abu Hani was completing her studies as a therapist at Sapir College in Sderot, the Israeli town most plagued by the Hamas rockets. Fellow students complained that they had only 15 seconds after the sirens started to find a shelter before the rockets landed, so close were they to Gaza.

“You’re fucking lucky you have 15 seconds,” Abu Hani blurted out. “In Gaza they don’t have a shelter and they don’t have a warning.”

The air in the room grew still. “Yeah, but that’s different,” one of the students ventured.

“How is one dead child different from another?” Abu Hani shouted.

It’s a fact of life in the Middle East that people see the dead of their side differently from the dead of the other side. Dead Palestinians and dead Israelis even rate different sized headlines in U.S. newspapers, let alone the attention or sympathy they generate among their compatriots. But Abu Hani has dedicated herself to preserving the life within every child. In Bedouin society that ought to be a primary issue. After all, 54 percent of the 210,000 Negev Bedouin are under the age of 14, and the birthrate is 5.5 percent (helped along by a 25 percent polygamy rate, according to the government). When Clinton Bailey started studying the Bedouin 47 years ago, there were only 20,000 of them.

At home in Rahat, Abu Hani snuggles her wriggling, 4-year-old Sudanese foster child, Dunya. Her 13-year-old developmentally disabled adoptive daughter, Qamar, sits beside her, cooing over Abu Hani’s newborn granddaughter. She keeps a menagerie of cats and guinea pigs for use in her therapy along with her beloved horse, Prince. Though Bedouin are proud of their hospitality and friendliness, they’re not known as a compassionate people. Abu Hani seeks to remedy that. Not only to protect animals, who are often the victims of hooligan torture in Rahat, but also because she believes she can lower the levels of violence within Bedouin families by teaching gentleness toward animals. “Kids will kill anything that moves around here,” she says.

Abu Hani began introducing children to animals with Ajeec-Nisped, the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation-Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, a Beersheba organization that focuses mainly on projects in the Bedouin community. She’s been particularly busy since the Gaza war. “The unrecognized Bedouin villages are the most fragile society in Israel, because they lack actual physical protection during wartime and they don’t have programs to cope with trauma,” says Dloomy, of Ajeec-Nisped. “Janice’s animal therapy is a wonderful way of dealing with trauma.”

Her latest effort is to found Anachnu ve Ha-Hayot (Us and the Animals). She’s teamed up with a veterinarian from Lakiya, a Bedouin township with an average monthly wage of $1,200, half the national level. They aim to start the first petting zoo in a Bedouin village, working with abused children and orphanages.

She’s taken on a considerable challenge. The patriarchy of Bedouin tribal life can be violently repressive. Compounding that culture is the ghettoization and alienation that came with the growth of Rahat, home to a quarter of the Bedouin. Its 60,000 people live mostly in numbered areas arranged by tribe. Almost all the Abu Hanis, for example, live in Area 7. The town lacks economic opportunities, but urban blight is plentiful. Rahat means “relief” in Arabic and “fountain” in Hebrew, though in both cases it’s a somewhat erudite word. When I asked one Bedouin what Rahat meant in Arabic, he glowered and said: “I don’t know. It means shit in Romanian.”

Into this problematic town came Janice Abu Hani. Raised in Birmingham, England, she married her husband Taleb when he worked there in a hotel. Their three sons were born in as many years in England, but she pushed for a move to the Negev. She hoped the dry desert air would alleviate her second son’s asthma. She also thought the proximity of Taleb’s clan in Area 7 would make for a warm atmosphere for the kids. When her eldest, Mike, was 4, Janice got a reality check. Her father-in-law decided she was too soft on the boy and thrashed him. Janice moved the family to a different neighborhood and didn’t speak to Taleb’s father for five years.

Her children are a mirror for the divergent paths of today’s young Bedouin. Mike, now 22, grew up with the cosmopolitan perspective you might expect from someone with parents from such different cultures. He studied in Israeli Jewish schools from kindergarten, lived in Norway and Britain for a while, and now studies at Tel Aviv University. The two other Abu Hani boys grounded themselves entirely in Bedouin culture. When the second son, Sami, was 2 years old, he rebuked his mother for speaking to him in her native language. “I’m a Bedouin,” he shouted. “I don’t speak English.” Even now he answers her in Arabic.

The Abu Hani boys didn’t go to the Israeli army either. Bedouin in the Galilee, like Ishmael Khaldi and his family, value their service highly. Negev Bedouin are at best ambivalent about the army. In Rahat the IDF is increasingly seen as part of an oppressive state apparatus. As few as 5 percent of eligible Bedouin serve in the army. Whereas Jewish and Druze Israelis are generally required to perform military service, the army takes into account the potential conflict between Bedouin’s status as Muslim Arabs and their citizenship as Israelis, accepting only volunteers. Even those who aren’t opposed to army service find themselves alienated and stereotyped. Gesturing at the gas station, the bank, and the supermarket behind him, one young man explained why he refused to serve in the army’s Bedouin tracker unit: “I’m from Rahat. How would I recognize a footprint in the sand?”


Handwritten in slanting Arabic script, marked as official by colorful Turkish postage stamps, the contract from 1905 designated the land of al-Arakib as the possession of Sheikh Salem Irshad Abu Mdeireh and his clan. Another contract from 1929 bears red, violet, khaki, and green “Palestine” stamps issued by the British Mandatory authorities. The Bedouin signed with thumbprints in purple ink. Abu Mdeireh’s great-grandson Sheikh Sayeh al-Tory totes these legal documents in a plastic shopping bag across the dusty waste of al-Arakib. For all the aid they have been in his fight to retain the land in Israel’s courts, he may as well put them in a trash bag.

Al-Arakib was a large agricultural area of fig and olive trees and livestock. Janice Abu Hani used to ride along the edge of the village orchards, because the residents didn’t stone her for being a woman on a horse as kids in Rahat did. Now it’s an expanse of disturbed, dry dirt scattered with fragments of bathroom tile and water pipe, like an archeological dig carried out by a clumsy giant. A dozen geese flap and flutter along the slope. They are Sheikh Saleh’s guard dogs, honking at the arrival of any stranger. The sheikh sits with his blue-stockinged feet in half-lotus position, smoking pungent aromatic cigarettes, easily outraged by innocent questions because his life has become an offense to him.

Israel seeks to bring the Bedouin in from the desert. Whether that’s for their own good or part of some sinister, collectivizing project depends on who you listen to. In 1963, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told Ha’aretz: “We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. … The children would go to school with their hair properly combed. This would be a revolution, but it would be fixed within two generations. … The phenomenon of the Bedouin will disappear.” Now the Bedouin are a proletariat without any industry. Two-thirds live below the poverty line, compared with a quarter of Israelis overall.

Al-Arakib’s slide into invisibility started when the JNF planned to include its land in a new forest. Bedouin objections led to a 2006 case in which the Beersheba District Court ruled that land laws had been properly applied by the government. Al-Arakib hadn’t been the site of a continuous permanent settlement, the court ruled. Sheikh Saleh says the tribe never moved more than a few hundred yards and that move, anyway, was at the urging of Israeli officials who declared al-Arakib a military zone in 1953. Prof. Ruth Kark, the Hebrew University geographer who was the government’s expert witness in the case, says, “The Bedouin arrived in the Negev no more than 200 years ago from Egypt and Jordan. They weren’t living there from time immemorial.” She contends that “there was no permanent settlement in the Negev apart from Beersheba” before the foundation of Israel. “Most of the Bedouin narrative is untrue. I say that based on 19th-century documents and examination of contemporary maps.”

Once the court case was lost, the clock was ticking on al-Arakib. The first demolitions were in 2010. The houses were knocked down, the trees uprooted. The next day Sheikh Saleh’s son Azez al-Tory sheltered from the wind behind the rubble of his house with his wife Sabah and his six children. He wondered if they should leave for Rahat.

“Do you want to kill us?” said Sabah, who was also born in the village. “If we leave al-Arakib, you’ll be killing us.”

“We have no money, no food,” he said.

“If I have to live on bread alone, I’ll stay here. I’ll never move.”

The Bedouin rebuilt again and again, until by this summer there had been 76 different individual demolitions and the last shanties were gone. Though Azez clings on, Sabah and the children live mostly in Rahat.

“They’re killing our culture. You see? Look at this.” Azez brandishes a vacuum flask. Before his house was destroyed, he would have presented me with coffee from an old pot warmed in the coals of a fire. Now he must keep it hot in a plastic Thermos made in China. To him it’s as though he were forced to offer me a shallow fake version of Bedouin hospitality, to betray his traditions. “We have a beautiful culture. When you come, I say, ‘Welcome, make my home your home.’ But now I have no home to offer you.”


Nasser Alfrawna came to Rahat to find work as a structural engineer. He married Foda, a woman from Area 7 where Janice Abu Hani first lived, and had four girls and four boys. Unusually for a Bedouin, he put equal effort into the education of his daughters and his sons. He was highly protective of them. Not only were they Bedouin, they were also black, which made them doubly subject to prejudice. Descended from Africans, black Bedouin are often called abeid (slave) by lighter-skinned Bedouin. The rounded, chocolate-covered marshmallow treat called krembo in Israel is sometimes referred to by Bedouin as a ras abeid (slave’s head).

Nasser’s daughters resented the attention he paid to them. Bader, the second girl, wanted to be like her female schoolmates, for whom there was little expectation other than the production of children. But Nasser arrived at Bader’s classroom at the end of every school day to quiz teachers about her performance. He kissed and hugged her in front of her friends.

“You’re embarrassing me,” she said.

“No, it’s natural,” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed.”

Bader used to go home crying, feeling that her father’s attentiveness marked her out even more than her dark skin. It would be years before she understood him, and then she made tremendous sacrifices so that his wishes for his daughters could be fulfilled.

Bader’s mother tried to rein in Nasser’s ambitions for Bader and her elder sister Hind, who wanted to be a doctor. Nasser intended for both of them to leave Rahat and study in a boarding school. For Bedouin girls to sleep away from home was scandalous. “What will people think?” Foda said.

“I don’t want to hear that talk,” Nasser said. “The girls will do what they want. Don’t listen to anyone else.”

At 13 Bader went to Ha-Kfar Ha-Yarok, a Jewish agricultural school in Ramat Ha-Sharon, north of Tel Aviv. “I felt like one of them,” she says. “We were all friends, the Jewish girls and boys too.” Even now Bader’s speech is a mélange in which, as she converses in Arabic, Hebrew provides many of the technical words and most of the verbal tics and phrases that add color to her meaning.

But her mouth wasn’t what her relatives worried about. Nasser’s clan back in the village of Shaqib al-Salaam cut him off, to pressure him to bring Bader and Hind back to Rahat from the boarding school. Instead Nasser announced that Hind would go to Germany to study medicine. If Hind went, his relatives responded, they’d kill Bader, who was then 16. They stole Hind’s passport to prevent her traveling. Only the intervention of a male relative allowed Hind to recover her travel documents. Eventually he also persuaded the hotheads to withdraw the threat to Bader.

When she graduated boarding school, Bader returned to Rahat. Her old friends were married. Many were beaten by their husbands. When one of them described a beating, another told her she deserved it. “Nobody deserves to be hit,” Bader said. She made excuses to visit her friends in Tel Aviv whenever she could. “I’m from here in Rahat,” she realized, “but I’m not really one of them.”

She volunteered with Step Forward for the Promotion of Education in Rahat, an organization aimed at improving the lot of Bedouin women and children. Within three years she ran it. She went door-to-door recruiting women for a literacy program. Some signed up, but when they asked their husbands—or when their husbands asked the clan sheikh—they backed out. Still, Bader had many successes too. One woman said her children no longer laughed at her for holding their story books upside down.

Then it came time for Bader to pay back her debt to her father. Stricken by diabetes and severe cataracts, Nasser was no longer able to work. Bader took a second job at night, working with handicapped people in Beersheba, to pay for Hind’s medical school in Marburg, Germany. It saddened Bader to see her father brought low. He had such aspirations for his society. He ran for the local council, but no one would vote for him because he was black. Now he was too sick to do anything. She worked around the clock for two years, until Nasser was able to secure disability benefits. That allowed her to quit the evening job and to study three days a week for her law degree at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, four miles from Tel Aviv.

She qualified six years ago and took a job at the prosecutor’s office in Beersheba. “I loved it. I felt energized,” she says. Her first appearance in court was a domestic violence case in a Jewish home. She noted down everything she needed to tell the judge to be sure that she didn’t forget. She was so nervous, she even wrote down her name.

She stayed with the prosecutor’s office a year before she opened her own practice in a basement under a shabby Rahat commercial strip. In the sickly light of three fluorescent strips she tends to Bedouin clients whose unfamiliarity with electricity and running water has led them to amass debts on unpaid bills, as well as handling immigration cases and domestic violence suits. People told her that men wouldn’t come to a female lawyer—she’s one of only two practicing in Rahat—but many of her clients are men.

She lives now in central Israel, in the Arab town of Kafr Qassem, near Tel Aviv, and is married to an Arab man who’s not Bedouin. I told her that she was by far the most impressive Bedouin I had met but that her story suggested her people will soon be indistinguishable from Israel’s Arabs, with virtually identical problems and political agendas, rather than the distinct values of the Bedouin. She shrugged.

She drives 70 miles down Highway 6 to her office each day and heads back each night. But she does this not out of great love for Rahat. Instead she comes to protect people from Rahat and its depredations. In her tiny, Spartan office, I ask her what elements of Bedouin culture she would like to pass on to her son. “It’s hard,” she says, “hard to think of anything.” She adjusts her posture and links her slender fingers on the desk—she has made her conclusion. “Nothing. I’d like him to be a rounded human being, that’s all. But from the Bedouin culture, nothing.”


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Matt Rees is a correspondent and novelist based in the Middle East since 1996.