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Israel's Bedouin Arabs caught in middle as rockets fly in both directions

Residents of the Bedouin Arab town of Rahat are divided between worry for themselves as rockets from Gaza land nearby and worries for their relatives in Gaza facing an Israeli barrage.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / November 19, 2012

Israeli soldiers stand near a mobile artillery unit after it fired a shell towards northern Gaza from its position outside the Gaza Strip on Monday. Residents of the Bedouin Arab town of Rahat are divided between worry for themselves as rockets from Gaza fly in both directions and worry for their relatives.

Amir Cohen/Reuters

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Rahat, Israel

"Remember God" reads a sign on the main street of this devout, impoverished Bedouin Arab town in southern Israel that is trapped in the middle of the devastating Israel-Gaza fighting, even more than most places in the country.

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Like nearly a million other Israelis in the south, the lives of Rahat's 55,000 residents are interrupted by missile strikes in the vicinity, recurrent sirens, and fears that the pictures of shattered apartments they see on television could include their own homes next.

But unlike their Jewish neighbors, many of Rahat's inhabitants have relatives in the Gaza Strip, making them more adamant about the need for a cease-fire and more sensitive to the spiraling civilian casualty toll there.

The familial ties to Gaza date back to 1948, when Bedouin who were expelled or fled from what became southern Israel arrived as refugees in the coastal enclave. The relationship between southern Israeli Bedouin and Gazans even extends to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who, according to Israeli Hamas specialist Shlomi Eldar, has a sister living in the Israeli Bedouin town of Tel Sheva.

As Israel ponders expanding the military operation into an all-out ground incursion, many in Rahat are urging a solution through negotiations.

''I am mad at both Israel and Hamas. We need peace,'' says Hanan al-Karanawi, a farmer.

Khalil al-Zbareh, a gas station attendant, added: ''This cannot continue. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi must meet and make a sulha,'' he says, referring to the Arabic word for a traditional reconciliation between warring families or tribes.

Al-Karanawi says his six children have been ''screaming and crying'' from the missile sirens and taking cover under a table and the stairs.

Despite their links to Gaza, Rahat residents have a real chance of being hit by one of the rockets soaring into Israel, al-Karawani says.''Why won't Rahat also be hit by a missile? We have no immunity,'' he says.

'I'm worried about them'

But what his children go through pales in comparison to the barrage against Gaza, where his uncles live, he says. They have no warnings before the Israeli airstrikes.

''Compared to them, we are living it up here,'' he says. ''I'm worried about them. All are humans. There are a lot of innocent civilians on both sides.''

Around the same time he spoke, two Grad missiles struck Beersheba, a city about 10 miles to the south where many Rahat residents work. The hit caused damage but no injuries, Beersheba municipal spokesman Amnon Yosef said.

Rahat's schools have been closed since the Israeli army operation began on Nov. 14 with the assassination of Hamas military wing Ahmed Jaabari, but some businesses have remained open. Grocer Saber al Tory has prepared a safe room in his house against rocket attacks. When the sirens go off, his six children, ranging from two to nine years old, ''go like rabbits into the room. They cry, they are afraid,'' he says.

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