From our special correspondent in Hura, Israel – The victims of the October 7 Hamas attack included at least 19 civilians and Israeli military personnel from the Negev Bedouin Arab community. The loss has sparked a volunteer service to provide community aid to a minority that has often suffered state discrimination, as well as calls for a return to peace negotiations to end the deadly cycle of violence.
Mazen Abu Siam’s face furrows with worry lines as he recalls the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and its deadly toll on his community.
“Fortunately, it happened on a Saturday, the Sabbath. If the attack happened during the week, there would have been many more Bedouin victims in the kibbutz, perhaps even dozens. This is unprecedented in our history,” explains Siam.
The Hamas attack inflicted a heavy toll on the Negev Bedouin Arabs, an ancient, traditionally pastoralist nomadic people now settled mostly in Israel’s southern Negev desert. Twelve members of Siam’s community were killed, seven are currently being held hostage and dozens more were injured in Saturday’s attack.
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“The first rocket fired by Hamas fell here, in Hura. It killed a five-year-old boy. Another killed four children two kilometers away, wounding the rest of the family. The third killed a woman and her grandmother,” says Siam, reclining on embroidered cushions in a Bedouin tent propped by a modern metal structure seemingly at odds with the traditional interiors.
His quiet recounting of death and hostage tolls is suddenly cut short by the deafening roar of F-16 fighter jets overhead. The veterinarian and Bedouin activist, who is also a member of the municipal council of the nearby town of Rahat (population 80,000), barely raises an eyebrow. The Gaza Strip is barely 40 kilometers away. He’s grown accustomed to the sounds of war.
‘Unrecognised’ Bedouin settlements
The Negev Bedouins were particularly vulnerable to the Hamas attack, according to Siam. “These people were living in makeshift houses. They have no shelter to protect themselves, nowhere to run. Unlike our towns, they have no sirens to alert them when rockets are fired. So, they don’t even know that an attack is taking place,” he explains.
Israel’s Negev Bedouin Arabs have long suffered state discrimination, according to human rights groups. Since the 1970s, they have been pushed off of and denied access to their pastoral lands and crammed into settlements, many of which are officially “unrecognised” and subject to evictions, unlike those built by Jewish citizens, according to Human Rights Watch.
Many of the illegal settlements, which are built with whatever materials are at hand, do not have access to running water or electricity. Residents rely on solar energy in the absence of state-provided electricity.
“Bedouins are an integral part of Israeli society. Many work in agriculture, particularly on kibbutzim, but also in construction, technology, medicine, justice… But if you live in an unrecognised place, you don’t have the same rights as others,” says Siam, who is campaigning for Bedouin access to basic services.
Family room turned makeshift warehouse
The deadly Hamas attack has galvanised volunteers and community leaders. “Faced with the urgency of the situation, we committed ourselves to helping the poorest people in the community,” explains Siam.
Community volunteers include residents like Farhan Abu Riach, who spearheaded a private humanitarian initiative, transforming part of his house into a makeshift warehouse.
Under bright neon lights, Riach’s children are hard at work securing cardboard cartons with tape and filling the boxes with packets of flour, chickpeas, infant milk powder, stuffed toys… the donations are varied. “We want to show these people, who are the most deprived in socioeconomic terms, that we haven’t forgotten them,” says Riach.
All the donations come from Jewish friends in Tel Aviv. In this arid region of southern Israel, this is not a new phenomenon. “We should all be united and work together to find long-term solutions and keep the peace,” says Riach simply.
Message of peace ‘amid the horror’
Oday Samanah, an energetic young man, manages the operation in this town of around 20,000 inhabitants. “Hura is the logistics headquarters. Here, we’re making sure that everyone gets what they need. We’ve set up a special team of volunteers to deal with any emergencies in the community, whether it’s food, shelter or anything else. We also make sure that information from the Israeli army, such as security announcements, are brought to everyone,” he explains.
The young municipal employee, a volunteer on this mission, prefers not to dwell on the horrors of a crisis that has dragged on for decades and hit his community particularly hard. “We’re in the middle of this horror, but I want to convey a message of coexistence and peace. Arabs, Jews. Extremists on both sides want us to fight. We can still live together. I think we have to seize the opportunity of this crisis to be stronger together,” says Samanah.
That message of peace is also hammered home by Siam. “I’m an Arab, a Muslim, an Israeli. I am heartbroken by all the violence I have seen on both sides. We must never attack women, children, those who are not involved in a conflict. On either side. War is never the solution to anything. We need to talk to each other to find solutions,” he says.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, people of different faiths have always coexisted in this ancient land, notes the activist. “We will continue to live side by side. This is not a religious war. Only the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah want to destroy the State of Israel. The Palestinians, especially those in the Gaza Strip, have suffered a great deal. With each escalation of violence, their living conditions have worsened, even though they have been issued many work permits. Most Gazans want to live in peace. No one wants to grow up under bombs,” he says.
For the Negev Bedouin Arabs, it’s impossible to pick a side between their Jewish and Palestinian brothers. Like many in the community, Siam has family and commercial ties with the Palestinians of the West Bank.
“The situation is different in Gaza, which is under blockade. We’re not allowed to go there as Israeli Arabs, and we’re attacked like any other Israeli,” says Siam, noting that authorities in Israel and Gaza have never entered into “negotiations” despite several eruptions of violence over the past few years.
For this pacifist, dialogue is essential for breaking the cycle of violence. “The world has looked the other way for far too long. I hope that the United States, China, Europe… everyone tries to find a long-term solution,” he says. “The Palestinian people must be free in their country and obtain rights. Stop fighting and negotiate.”
This is a translation of the original in French.