Israel faces possible Bedouin-Druze clash over murder of Arab sheikh

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Bedouin sheikh shook his head slowly, wrapping his long black gold-rimmed gela-beih (cloak) tightly around him. "We will wait before we seek revenge," he said, gazing at Bedouin notables seated on floor cushions in his modern but bare salon.

"We will wait for the Israeli government, the Israeli judge," he added. "The government has promised to deliver justice."

The notables had gathered at Duseifa near here to duscuss the murder on Jan. 12 of Sheikh Hamed Abu Rabiya, scion of the prominent, 3,500-strong Abu Rabiya Bedouin clan. He was the nationwide leader of the Israeli Bedouin, the Arab Muslim herders and farmers who live largely in the Negev Desert. He also was the only Bedouin member of the Israeli parliament.

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From the veranda of this one-story stone house in the midst of rolling scrubby desert hills broken only by splotches of Bedouin tin shacks, concrete bungalows, and an occasional tent, could be seen the two-story villa of the late Sheikh Hamed, linked to the distant highway by the only Bedouin telephone line.

Sheikh Hamed's death by gunfire outside a west Jerusalem hotel presents the Israeli government with a complex dilemma.

The Israeli police are seeking murder indictments against three sons of Sheikh Jaber Moadi, a leader of another minority in Israel -- the 11th-century Druze sect related to Islam -- and the man who by law succeeded to the Knesset (parliament) seat left vacant by Sheikh Hamed.

(Police said Jan. 25 that Seif Moadi, a lieutenant in the Israeli Army, had confessed to the murder, saying neither his father nor his two detained brothers knew of his intention to kill the Bedouin leader.)

This raises the danger of a blood feud between two Israeli minorities, each numbering about 50,000, who historically have been far more active supporters of the Israeli state than the bulk of ethnically related Israeli Arab Muslims. Druze are drafted into the Army, unlike Arab Muslims. Many make it their career , and many Bedouin volunteer.

But the youth of both Druze and Bedouin communities are showing new signs of alienation from the Israeli state, and Israeli officials now confront the Solomonic task of providing justice for the Bedouin without affronting the Druze.

The drama began with a private agreement between Sheikhs Abu Rabiya and Moadi that they would share in turn the one Knesset seat won in 1977 by the Labor Party-affiliated Arab list, but Sheikh Abu Rabiya refused to make way for Sheikh Moadi.

Sheikh Abu Rabiya had strong reasons for risking a slight to the honor of his Druze opposite. Israel, forced to transfer major air bases from the Sinai to the Negev Desert after its peace treaty with Egypt, had expropriated 20,000 acres of Bedouin land, reduced from a much higher amount after strong Bedouin protests. But compensation was sharply limited and court appeals forbidden by a new law.

Many Bedouin were angered by what they felt was shabby treatment in comparison to that received by Jews also displaced by the peace treaty. Abu Rabiya wanted to stay in the Knesset to fight for a better land deal.

Druze Sheikh Moadi was also struggling to maintain the respect of young Druze , small but increasing numbers of whom are identifying with the Palestinian cause. The slight to his honor would have drastically reduced his standing with his own people, a motive which could have driven his highly trained sons -- one a deputy prison commander and another an Army lieutenant -- to avenge their father's honor.

Sheikh Moadi insists his s ons are innocent, even though one has confessed.

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