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For Bedouin Arabs guarding Israel's borders, new challenge to loyalty

Bedouin trackers have played a crucial role in Israel’s military for decades. But land disputes are souring the community's ties to the state, and enlistment is down.

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    Bedouin soldiers gather at dusk for instructions at the start of a semi-annual tracking exercise in the Negev desert, Ze'Elim, Israel, Dec. 16, 2014.
    Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
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    A Bedouin officer shines his flashlight on a footprint in the Negev desert, Ze'Elim, Israel, Dec. 16, 2014, discussing the likely build of the person who made it, as well as his direction and type of mission. He and his soldiers were participating in a semi-annual tracking exercise.
    Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
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Night has just fallen over Israel’s Negev desert, and a bevy of Bedouin trackers are padding across the desert, following their enemy’s footsteps.

Suddenly they stop. They have lost the trail. Two men fan out over the low vegetation, swinging their flashlights through the fragrant night air until they find tiny clues of a footprint – a squished blade of grass here, an overturned stone there. Then the patrol moves on.

These men are not on a mission for their tribe. They’re soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), engaging in a semi-annual training exercise. They come from a long tradition of Bedouin trackers who have defended Israel against everything from Sinai drug smuggling to Hezbollah booby-traps. While Arabs are exempt from military service, thousands of Bedouin volunteer, often in the hope of securing good jobs. Some openly profess a deep sense of loyalty to the state.

“I was raised since childhood to love Israel…. I have no other country,” says Lt. Col. Muhammed Haiev, the leader of this semi-annual training exercise who comes from a village with a long tradition of IDF service. “Since I opened my eyes, all I saw was uniforms.”

Bedouin are among several minority groups that together account for about 6,000 soldiers in the Israeli military, along with Druze, Arab Christians, and a handful of Arab Muslims. Two in three Bedouin soldiers make a career out of their service in the army, which has long championed their intimate knowledge of the land. Bedouin trackers take pride in having uncovered one of the first Hamas tunnels along the Gaza border and in having stopped commanders just as they were about to step on Hezbollah bombs along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

But a schism between Bedouin communities and the state is growing, especially over police-enforced evictions of residents from unrecognized villages. Young Bedouin are increasingly unwilling to serve in the army – and those who do are becoming embarrassed to talk about it.

In the past year, Bedouin enlistment from the Negev area of southern Israel has dropped 40 percent, according to Col. Wajdi Sarhouan, commander of the IDF’s Population Administration, who declined to divulge the precise number of Bedouin inductees.

Traditionally, Bedouin were nomadic shepherds who moved freely around lands that are today controlled by Israel. But as Israeli towns and modern infrastructure spread into those areas, authorities increasingly pushed the Bedouin to live in permanent housing in prescribed communities.

The most recent effort was the Prawer Plan, presented by the government in 2011 as a way to promote economic development and better services for Bedouin. But the fact that it called for demolishing as many as 35 villages and resettling tens of thousands of Bedouin led to an uproar, and the plan was suspended in December 2013.

A long-standing covenant weakens

As a result, the decades-long covenant of serving in the army in hopes of receiving social benefits appears to be breaking down in the south, which accounts for about a third of Israel’s Bedouin soldiers and where villages are much worse off than those in the north where Haiev grew up.

“Now Bedouin realize for a change that the state is treating us in a racist way,” says Salem Talalqa, citing in part the exposure of young Bedouin to social media. “The new generation … is aware of their rights and they’re suddenly saying, you’re giving so much and you’re getting nothing in return.”

Some say another factor is the rising influence of Israel’s Islamic Movement, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that some Israelis accuse of backing terrorist activity, though it officially abandoned such activities decades ago. The movement has stepped in to provide social services to neglected Bedouin villages in the south – bringing with them not only religion but a different ideology.

“For sure the Islamic Movement has … [created] awareness about our rights as citizens,” says Nouri al-Okbi, a Bedouin human rights activist in the Negev.

Israeli Jewish leaders put it differently.

“They are busy spreading anti-Israel propaganda,” wrote former defense minister Moshe Arens in the liberal newspaper Haaretz. “Their message to the Bedouin [in the] Negev is that they are Palestinians, that Israel is their enemy, and that they are not allowed to enlist in the IDF, the army of their enemy.”

War veteran's home is demolished

During the Gaza war last summer, tens of thousands of reservists were called up. Among them was a Bedouin combat soldier who told his story to The Christian Science Monitor on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the issue in his community.

At an Israeli rest stop not far from Beersheba, he tells how he had put on his uniform to go serve along the Gaza border, where mortar fire posed a constant threat.

He returned home safely, but just two days later the police came and had his house demolished, saying it was built illegally.

“They only respect us when we’re wearing the uniform,” he says, speaking quietly as his eyes dart around to the other tables at a popular cafe.

His village, Twayil Abu Jarwal, has been demolished 53 times, according to community activist Aqil al-Talalqa.

Following an order from the Beersheba Magistrate Court to demolish their homes and evict them from the area, designated as state land, the more than 400 residents of the village have relocated to the outskirts of Laqiya, about half an hour northeast of Beersheba. There they cobbled together dwellings from inexpensive materials, which are perched alongside a rutted dirt road with no electricity or other state services.

“Israel favors whoever serves it – either those with the army, or collaborators,” says Mr. Talalqa.

But the combat soldier, a father of seven, has received no such favoritism. His house was demolished a second time since he returned from Gaza, and says another demolishing is imminent.

“Whenever my house gets demolished, people come and say, ‘Huh, serves you right – you’re in the army,’ ” he says.

Each time he has rebuilt, it cost 50,000 to 60,000 shekels ($12,700 to $15,200), which his extended family has helped to cover. Now he’s working hard to get a permit for his house, but lacks the funds to hire a lawyer.

He says he’ll let his sons decide whether to serve in the IDF, but as for him, if he were turning 18 this year he wouldn’t join. Why not? “Racism,” he replies.

A fading craft?

But even he says it’s not racism in the army itself, instead blaming the police and their enforcement of state policies. In fact, the Bedouin interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor said the army is the one place in Israeli society where they feel respected.

“I haven’t seen anywhere else [where] there’s such a care for each other,” says Haiev, who feels deeply appreciated by colleagues, including a regional IDF commander who had just come to thank them for stopping nearly 100 pounds of heroin headed into Israel from Egypt. “We always feel how important we are.”

During the training exercise, he and his officers hone the soldiers’ skills and teach them how to detect the latest methods of their enemies – who often are Bedouin, too, but lacking the professional development provided by an army.

Many Bedouin soldiers come to the army’s two-month tracking course with extensive knowledge given their rural upbringing, but some worry that the younger generation is losing the craft and feel an urgency to pass it on, even as the army downsizes its tracker units due in part to new border technology.

“What’s interesting for me now is passing the knowledge on to the next generation,” says the oldest soldier in the unit, who served in Lebanon and Gaza, as an army jeep idles loudly nearby. “Because for what we do, there’s no textbooks.”

Nuha Musleh provided research and translation.

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