War finds Bedouins split by loyalties, generations WAR IN THE GULF

February 24, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEGEV DESERT, Israel -- The mat on the dusty ground was quickly offered to a guest, and sweet tea brought on a silver tray. But for Abu Mohammed, the traditional hospitality included a modern disclaimer.

If an air raid comes, he said, humor weaving wrinkles about his tanned face, "you might as well try to climb in that cup of tea."

"Look at the way we live," he said, now laughing. His hand swept toward the burlap tent behind him and the vast desert in front. The only protection from a chemical attack would be the whims of a breeze.

The Bedouins of this desert are unlikely targets of Iraqi rockets, although one Scud missile was fired toward an Israeli nuclear reactor in the desert.

But the war, which seems such far-off babble from the whispered sigh of the desert wind, has touched the Bedouins here.

The sheep that mill in bleating swirls about each Bedouin encampment are sold mostly to the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The strict curfew that came with the war closed those areas and destroyed the market.

"The West Bank merchants cannot come here, and we have lost a lot of money," said Abu El-Kean, who owns nearly 500 sheep.

But more troubling, perhaps, is the tug of war for loyalties brought on them by the war.

Bedouins are Arabs and by custom and social place much closer to Palestinians than to Jewish Israelis.

Their inferior treatment in Israel and the Muslim rallying cries by Iraq would seem likely to lure the Bedouins to join Palestinians cheering the attacks on Israel.

But there also is a strong tradition of loyalty to government among the Bedouins.

Many serve as trackers in the Israeli army, though the military will not say how many.

Such service has been a source of pride for the Bedouins. So it came as a shock last month when authorities arrested four Bedouin cousins from the northern village of Naura, accusing them of spying for Iraq.

Naura was better known for another native son, Abdel Majid Hader.

Mr. Hader, who took the Hebrew name Amos Yarconi, was a renowned tracker whose assignments still are classified by the Israeli army. He won four decorations and lost an arm and use of a leg in battles. Yet when he died this month, friends had to struggle for permission to give him a military funeral, and he was buried in a section of the cemetery separate from Jewish veterans.

It is that kind of enduring discrimination that troubles the Bedouins, admitted Abu Mohammed.

The desert here is brown and stony and dips in sharp hills toward the horizon. Patches of the hillsides suddenly come alive -- a flock of dusty sheep searching for green among the stones.

At 60, Mr. Mohammed said, he is fixed in his ways. His leathered face tells of years tending sheep. He wears a traditional kaffiyeh headdress and a cloak bound at the waist with a leather belt and a sturdy knife. His feet are bare.

One of his 13 sons, 35-year-old Ahmed, joins him, sitting cross-legged on the mat on the open ground.

Their debate is respectful and quiet, even as it reveals the political crosscurrents that have swept through the family.

"I'm proud of Bedouin who serve in the army," Mr. Mohammed said. "Bedouin should be in the army wherever they live."

"I don't agree with you," countered his son. "Bedouin should serve in the army only if we have full rights. We do not."

In theory Bedouins here have full citizenship. In practice, they are excluded from many of the benefits and services provided to Jewish Israelis.

But the older generation is more grateful for changes they have seen.

"We have full rights," said the father. "The Israeli authorities supplied us with water, and that's good."

"You think supplying us with water is full rights?" asked his son. "I don't know if Saddam Hussein is fighting for rights. But I don't think what the allies are doing is right. This is an Arab problem."

The Bedouin tradition of debate is an old one, even if set amid more modern trappings. A haphazard collection of tin structures spread out in clusters across the desert. Set among them was an incongruous suburb of new, modern buildings being constructed by the government for the Bedouins, part of a program to try to anchor the wandering tribes.

"I prefer living in the old way," Mr. Mohammed said. "When you live close to your sheep, you can do things. But my son and his sons prefer the house."

"We are forced into the new buildings," Ahmed protested. "The government won't let us live in the old camps."

"To tell you the truth, my grandsons do not love the sheep and the shepherd's life," complained Mr. Mohammed.

Ahmed acknowledged that his four sons and three daughters probably will not follow their grandfather's ways.

"I don't expect they will be shepherds," he said. "But I would like to see them educated. And living in peace."

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