Massacre in Hebron mosque pushes Israel's Bedouins into violence

March 01, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

RAHAT, Israel -- When the Israelis rounded up nomadic desert Bedouins and moved them into towns in the early 1950s, they submitted without a fight. Even when their Arab brethren in the occupied territories took to the streets in the six-year uprising of the intifada, Israel's Bedouins watched impassively from their towns.

But when a Jewish settler machine-gunned a mosque full of praying Arabs on Friday in the West Bank town of Hebron, Bedouin resentment awakened.

Not only have young men in a cluster of Bedouin towns thrown stones, overturned cars and set tires aflame for the past two days, they have also joined the casualty list of dissenters. A 22-year-old Bedouin was shot to death by police here Sunday as he set fire to a tire.

This surprising new source of unrest at the north end of the Negev desert is a telling indicator of the breadth of Arab pain and anger over the Hebron massacre -- and of how difficult it may be to repair the damage.

"This is the first time something like this has happened here," says Suleyman Greinawi, a community leader in this town of about 25,000. "During the intifada we really didn't get in contact with the Palestinians. They were fighting for their land, and we are Israeli Arabs. But this shocked everybody. This barbarous act affected anybody who has religious faith. These people were praying in the house of God."

Not that Israeli Bedouins didn't already have plenty to be upset about.

They once roamed the southern reaches of what is now Israel much as they pleased, grazing their goats and sheep and setting their tents in small tribal encampments. The only things that could move them were the seasons and the promise of finding rain.

"I still remember the good old days," says Abu-siam Greinawi, 70. "There were not so many buildings then. We had camels and horses then, no cars."

When the Israeli government claimed their wandering grounds for state land, the Bedouins were rounded up and moved together. They had to pay for grazing permits for the land they once considered their own. And just because they got new, more substantial homes in their new towns didn't mean that they got much in the way of government services.

Clinton Bailey, a Tel Aviv University authority on Bedouin culture, cites the infamous Green Patrol that confiscated Bedouin land and livestock over the years in what he characterizes as "years of shabby treatment."

The result is that now the reality of the Bedouin lifestyle in Israel is a long way from the lingering romantic image.

"There is nothing here for us," says Hadra Sanna. "There is no work. There is only a place to come and sleep."

But for all this, they've been easily pacified over the years.

Despite his nostalgia for the "good old days," Abu-siam Greinawi remains philosophical about his fortunes. "Our land and the Palestinians' land are both occupied, but it is a different kind of occupation. We find ourselves better off than them. We were harassed for about 10 years, but we started to work, and then life became normal for us. As long as there is water and food, it is OK for us."

This sort of attitude is why "they would settle for little, and the truth is, they have a remarkable desire to be considered Israelis," Mr. Bailey said.

There have been recent signs the Bedouins are approaching the limits of their tolerance, such as a five-month protest outside the prime minister's office -- that ended in January -- by a Bedouin who had been expelled from the Negev.

Last month, the Israeli Knesset sought to address some of this discontent by appointing a committee of inquiry on Bedouin issues.

Yet even when Friday's massacre touched a nerve, Bedouin residents here say unrest would have been avoided if they'd been allowed to hold protest marches without police interference.

"The police all came from the Gaza Strip, where they are used to fighting with live bullets," says Saleb Talaqa, a teacher. "The police and the people here always had respect for each other. It was these border police who didn't know what to do, how to react."

Yesterday, as 2,000 local residents gathered for a one-mile funeral procession down the main highway running by the town, police tried a different tactic. They waited a few miles away, with 40 vehicles and a helicopter standing by. The procession came and went without incident. The policemen spent the afternoon playing soccer.

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