On the morning of October 7, the Alqur’an family awoke to the deafening shrieks of rockets hurtling toward their small desert community. After the rockets hit, several family members approached the explosion site to check for casualties. Shortly afterwards, a second Hamas rocket landed in the same spot. It killed four children: Muhammad Dhib (15), Ameen Akel (11), Jwa’ed Ibrahim (13), and Malek Alqur’an (16), two siblings and their cousins, the children of three brothers.
The Alqur’an cousins were among eight Bedouin citizens of Israel killed by rockets on October 7. Unlike the majority of Israelis, most Bedouin do not have access to shelters or safe rooms to protect them from rocket fire which comes from Gaza. Some 120,000 Bedouin live in dozens of unrecognized villages like the Alqur’an family. Lack of recognition means that the government does not provide them with basic infrastructure: It does not pave their roads or connect them to the electric grid. What’s more, until very recently, the government referred to these villages as “open areas”, meaning that rocket warning systems (sirens) and the iron dome defense do not function there.
This is part of why, since October 7, Shatil, NIF’s action arm, has been working tirelessly to provide assistance to the Negev’s most vulnerable individuals and communities—the Bedouin among them—while also advocating for Jewish-Arab solidarity.
At the forefront of our emergency work is the Joint Emergency Center for the Negev Bedouin—a collaborative initiative including Shatil, local and national NGOs, and government ministries. Based on a successful model established during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shatil and partners recognized the need to re-open the network when war broke out, especially given the government’s slow response to the humanitarian emergency. The Center works on several fronts, including procurement of mobile bomb shelters; medical and mental health support; distribution of information about what to do during rocket attacks; videos about civil rights called “Rights in the Shadow of War”; as well as policy and government advocacy. Following intensive advocacy by the Joint Emergency Center, including Shatil, the IDF changed its official designation of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev—from “open areas” to “populated areas,” which requires the state to provide them with protection, something that has been sorely needed for years. Shatil also played a leading role in the publication of a letter by 16 Jewish and Bedouin Negev mayors calling for de-escalation of tensions and for partnership and solidarity among all residents in the wake of the war.
“In regular times, the Bedouin community is not treated equally by the state when it comes to rights and services,” said Sultan Abu Obaid, director of Shatil’s Be’er Sheva office. “As a result, they are poorer and more vulnerable than the rest of the population. During war, this inequality has been exacerbated because the Bedouin, especially those living in unrecognized villages, don’t have basic, life-saving infrastructure. Without warning sirens and safe rooms, you can’t protect yourself or your family. If you’re injured, it’s hard to reach medical facilities.”
Abu Obaid recounted that when a rocket hit the Alqur’an family, relatives were forced to transport two injured children to the hospital because ambulances do not serve their village; by the time they reached the hospital, it was too late.
Dr. Yasmeen Abu Fraiha, an internal medicine specialist who is a member of the Shatil-coordinated Southern Health Forum and an NIF board member, gave a snapshot of the health-care services available to the Bedouin community at a recent media tour organized by Shatil and partners. She pointed to a lack of Arabic-speaking mental health specialists and noted that many of the health clinics in Bedouin towns cannot open during the war because they don’t have safe rooms. These issues underscore the urgent need for the Joint Emergency Center.
Shatil’s impactful work in the Negev is part of the New Israel Fund’s Safety Net. Grants have funded educational kits for children in unrecognized villages aiming to reduce emotional stress, support for educational staff in Palestinian-Israeli towns located in conflict zones, and psycho-social support for asylum-seekers who have been evacuated from Gaza-border areas.
Looking forward, Abu Obaid hopes that some good will emerge from the catastrophe that has befallen the Bedouin community. He believes that public perception of the Bedouin has improved because the community has been so hard hit. Also, several stories of Bedouin citizens’ heroism during the Hamas attacks have received wide exposure in the Hebrew-language media, including the story of Amr Abu Sabila, who saved two Jewish girls in Sderot before he was killed by Hamas militants. As a result, Abu Obaid believes that there is a better understanding of the Bedouin’s plight and the need to help them, as well as their commitment to helping their fellow citizens—both Arab and Jewish.
“The Bedouin feel that the state recognizes them more,” says Abu Obaid. “It creates an opening for a better relationship. I hope that this will lead to more substantive and authentic dialogue between the state and the community as well as mutual trust.”