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For Arab Soldiers in Israeli Army, Fatal Attack Shows Risks, Hardships

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The Christmas decorations were still hanging in the Abu-Ghanem residence here when the unbearable news reached the family: Their son, Hanna, was among the four Arab soldiers killed last week in a Palestinian attack on an Israeli army outpost.

The joyful decorations soon were replaced with signs of mourning — the erection of a traditional mourning hut, black dresses, the silent sound of weeping and a constant flow of visitors.

Death has been a guest in too many Israeli and Palestinian homes during the past 16 months, the heavy toll of the Palestinian intifada. But it is not often that Arab soldiers die in serving the Israel Defense Force.

The four soldiers killed last week near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom near the southeastern border of the Gaza Strip served in the Desert Patrol Unit, a special unit that in recent years has been in charge of security patrols along the Gaza Strip.

The other three soldiers killed — all Bedouin — were Ashraf Mazarib, Ibrahim Hamadieh and Mufid Sawayid.

Most of the soldiers in the Desert Patrol Unit are Bedouin, members of nomadic tribes who through centuries of desert wandering have acquired special pathfinding skills.

Since its early days, the IDF has recruited Bedouin pathfinders. The unit also includes Christian and non-Bedouin Arabs.

Likud legislator Moshe Arens long has been a champion of enlisting Arabs, particularly Bedouins, in the IDF. He followed the spirit of his ideological teacher, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who believed that despite the national conflict over the land, Arabs and Jews could live in harmony under Jewish rule.

Two and a half years ago, then-Defense Minister Arens set a target of enlisting 800 Bedouin soldiers this year.

However, the intifada, the Israeli Arab riots in October 2000 — which led to the deaths of 13 Arab citizens at the hands of Israeli police — and ongoing discrimination against Arabs and Bedouin in Israel have cut that number considerably. It now is doubtful that there even 200 Bedouin will volunteer for the IDF this year.

In addition, increasingly radicalized Arab legislators and propaganda efforts backed by the Palestinian Authority are further eroding Arab citizens’ sense of allegiance to Israel.

One major force working against Arab enlistment is Israel’s Islamic Movement. The radical group — major factions of which reject the State of Israel — reportedly raised more than $30,000 during Ramadan for scholarships for Bedouin students.

Thus, when a Bedouin youth must choose between studying with all expenses paid by the Islamic Movement or enlisting for potentially dangerous military service at a meager salary, the choice is rather clear.

Arens, head of the Knesset lobby on behalf of the Bedouin, recently raised some $30,000 through the Abraham Fund for a project to encourage 20 Bedouin high schoolers to enlist, promising them help with their studies both before and after army service.

“It’s a modest effort,” Arens says. “The government has to understand that this is both a humanitarian and a political mission.”

The decreasing number of Arab volunteers also is a function of the general atmosphere among Israel’s Arabs. Last year, an Arab soldier, a resident of Acre, was killed in a clash with Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon.

The qadi, or religious judge, of Acre refused to provide religious services during his funeral, and leaders of the Arab community in Acre called the soldier a “traitor” for enlisting in Israel’s army.

While never fond of army or any other kind of national service, Arab society in Israel has become even less tolerant toward Arab soldiers in recent months.

Reserve Gen. Rafael Vardi recently completed a special report on the state of the Bedouin soldiers. Vardi reported that, rather than winning praise for going against the general anti-Israeli trend in Arab society, Bedouin soldiers suffer discrimination in the army, enjoy few opportunities for professional mobility and face difficulties in finding security-linked jobs after they are discharged.

That is only part of a general situation of neglect and discrimination against the non-Jewish segments in Israeli society. Bedouin villages suffer from a lack of land reserves and housing development projects, Bedouin towns in the Negev have the highest unemployment rates in the country and education and health projects are far below the national average.

Some Bedouin settlements even lack running water and electric power.

“Only when a tragic incident occurs do they remember us,” says Mohammad Sawayyid of Bar-Ilan University, a Bedouin from northern Israel. Sawayyid is convinced that young Bedouins join the army not as a means of livelihood but because they want to integrate into Israeli society.

“Unfortunately, they do not enjoy full civil rights,” Sawayyid said.

The attack near Kerem Shalom is hardly likely to increase the number of Bedouin recruits. Young Arabs have learned the hard way that once they join the army they face not only strong criticism from their own society, but — like all Israeli soldiers — the danger of death.

Before the intifada, patrols along the Gaza border used to be easy. Now they remind many of the deadly patrols in southern Lebanon before Israel withdrew from its security zone in May 2000.

Bedouin activists worry that the deaths of the four soldiers could further erode the already weakened will of Bedouin youth to enlist.

“Nowadays, in effect, there’s no enlistment,” says Salameh Abu Ghanem, a veteran enlistment activist among Bedouin in the Negev Desert and an adviser to National Infrastructures Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

“In another year or two, the Bedouin Desert Patrol won’t be a Bedouin unit, or will simply cease to exist, because there won’t be any more Bedouin ready to serve,” Abu Ghanem predicts.

The government at times appears detached from the political atmosphere among the pro-integration elements in Arab society, not honoring the wishes of the bereaved families from the Kerem Shalom attack. Shortly after news of the soldiers’ deaths emerged, representatives of the bereaved families announced that they did not want the killing avenged, “so that no more blood will be spilled.”

Forty-eight hours after the attack, however, the IDF demolished more than 50 houses in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp in response to the attack.

No blood was spilled, but the bereaved families’ plea for peace was ignored.

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