Tribal people's exodus meets the reality of modern states
Azazmas crossed into Israel last week and were ordered to leave Sunday.
NEGEV DESERT, ISRAEL — These days, home is an amorphous concept for many Azazmas, a Bedouin tribe that today is dispersed in the sands of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.
The Bedouins, who are something like the Amish of the Middle East as they try to maintain age-old methods, once freely roamed the region. But in this century, as modern borders have sprung up, the Bedouins' roamings have not always been welcome.
And in the past week, Azazmas were firmly reminded of this.
Deciding that life in Egypt had grown too perilous, the Azazmas decided to move to Israel - all 600 of them - and simply began walking until they crossed the fenceless border about a week ago. They flocked to the Negev Desert, where other members of their tribe already live, enjoying Israeli citizenship.
Israel wanted the refugees to go back where they came from - Egypt's Sinai Desert - worried about the precedent that might be set if the tribe were allowed to stay. Egypt was equally eager to see them come home, concerned about bad press surrounding the flight of the Azazmas - who say they were mistreated by the Egyptian authorities.
Though Israel and Egypt have rarely agreed on much in their two decades of cold peace - the 20th anniversary of their groundbreaking treaty falls this Friday - an Israeli court ruled Sunday that the government can send the Azazmas home, and Egypt says it will ensure their safety when the runaways return.
A feud with another tribe sparked their departure, but economic and social frustration also seem to have inspired the Azazmas' exodus. Tribal members complain of a lack of food, water, and work in Egypt, as well as lack of schools for their children and legal rights. Though the Negev Bedouins suffer from discrimination and a systematic attempt to force them to give up their tents in the wilderness for Israeli-designed townships, the Azazmas who fled Egypt think their brethren living in Israel have it easier here.
Some of the older Bedouins seeking asylum were born here, but were deported to the Sinai soon after Israel was founded in 1948. And, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 Middle East War, the Azazmas again lived under Israeli sovereignty, some of them serving in the army as desert trackers - as do Negev Bedouins.
"There is no law in Egypt. Here, at least there's a government that will be straight with us. This is the best treatment we've ever had," said Salim Azazma last Thursday, who speaks Hebrew and is impressed by the food, water, and first aid the Israeli army is providing his tribe while they are held inside a closed military zone.
The Israeli army says the aid was purely humanitar-ian. "Even though they did something illegal, we still see them as people," said Capt. Avi Gombash on Sunday. "Allowing them to stay in Israel would open the way for others, and this is not the way to enter the country. It's true that they may have economic problems - not enough work, not enough to eat - but we cannot solve such problems on the Egyptian side of the border."
An Israeli lawyer for the Bedouins argued that they had a right to citizenship because their roots are here, but the Israeli high court rejected the claim.
Bedouin advocates were disappointed by the decision to deport the Azazmas, which the army was expected to act on immediately. "There are 12 million dunans [3 million acres] of space in the Negev, and I don't think giving up a few of them to the Azazma would hurt the state of Israel," says Nuri el-Ukbi, the spokesman for the Association of Bedouin Rights, based in Beersheba. "I know that there are Israelis who would like to let them stay, because some of them may be in danger if Israel throws them out again."
It is unclear how well-founded their fears are. Egyptian officials have told Israel they have a constructed a safe camp to receive the Bedouins, which will be guarded by soldiers. But others say there is reason to believe there will be reprisals, given the Azazmas' criticism of Egypt in the foreign press.
The fact that some of the Azazmas once served the Jewish state, tribal leaders say, is one of the reasons they've grown unpopular with other Bedouins in Egypt - as well as the local government authorities.
"In Egypt, they started saying that we are Jews because we worked for the army ages ago," says Saalem Azazma as dozens of other men crowd around him, crouched with their arms wrapped around their shins, to tell their story. Though they are all Muslim Arabs, the insinuation was that they had aided the enemy.
So when a family feud developed between them and the larger Taya tribe, he says, the Egyptian police sided against the Azazmas.
"They all want to kill us. We'd rather die first than go back to Egypt," he says. "When the police suspect someone of something, they'll just grab any one of us or his whole family. We'll all end up in prison or dead if we go back."