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.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
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.

"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.

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.

His wife's uncle lives in Gaza City. "My wife is afraid first for her children, then for her relatives," he explains.

Asked whether he blames Hamas for his children's ordeal, Mr. al Tory responds, ''Israel and Hamas are both no good. They don't want the interests of their peoples.'' But he faulted Israel for, in his view, causing a surge in Hamas attacks by assassinating Jaabari.

Still, he condemned the rocketing of Beersheba. ''There is no difference between Arab and Jew. All are human.''

Mayor Faiz Abu Cahiban believes Israeli leaders ordered the assassination of Jaabari to score popularity ahead of the January parliamentary election, but he is also critical of Hamas. ''If it rules Gaza, it has to control all the groups there,'' he says, implying that Hamas should have reined in the factions responsible for rockets.

''We now have a paralyzed country with missiles on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is impossible to destroy Hamas, and Hamas cannot destroy the state of Israel, so it is necessary to sit down and to respect an agreement,'' says Abu Cahiban, who belongs to the moderate wing of the Islamic Movement, which holds a seat in the Israeli parliament. 

Looking at the rockets instead of taking shelter

He is particularly worried about the fate of 5,000 Rahat residents who live in corrugated metal huts and are thus the most exposed in the event of a missile strike. 

When the warning siren sounds, many people head into the streets and look up at the sky, rather than take shelter, Abu Cahiban says.

"People are afraid of missiles but their curiosity overcomes this," he says in his office. "It could be that they have a gut feeling that the missile couldn't be aimed at Rahat, that it's aimed at a Jewish community, but this is a mistake."

The municipality is using mosque loudspeakers to press the point that ''missiles are liable to fall in Rahat'' and that people should take shelter when the sirens sound, he says.

The park across the street from the Rahat municipality appeared tranquil at first yesterday, with mothers looking on as their children played, but they were poised to run across the street to a shelter if the siren sounded.

"It's certainly hard. My son asks me why are there sirens and why is there no kindergarten?'' says a young woman named Hind, who covers her hair like all of the women in Rahat. She asked not to be identified by her last name, worried her husband would object to her speaking with a journalist.

"Of course I'm afraid of the missiles. Of course I'm afraid for my relatives in Gaza. I spoke to them two days ago. They have no water, no electricity, no shelter, less food, they can't sleep, there is no school, and 24 hours a day they hear the explosions. And they have no early warning sirens. They just hear the bombs.''

''I told them to endure and to pray that peace will come,'' Hind says.

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