Israel’s Arab Minority Bedouin Officer’s Arrest for Spying Makes Room for Islamic Movement

Every now and again, the bearded, white-robed figures enter one of 30-odd Bedouin villages in the north.

The men are missionaries of the Islamic Movement, trying to enlarge the camp of the faithful — and persuade more Israeli Arabs to walk down the Islamic Movement’s path of confrontation with the Jewish state.

Having already struck significant roots among the Bedouin of the Negev, the Islamic Movement is aiming at the north.

Though none of those involved will say so, it seems to be part of a carefully planned strategy. And the recent arrest of a high-ranking Bedouin army officer on charges of spying for Hezbollah has only deepened the sense of crisis in the community, creating a golden opportunity for the Islamic movement to widen its circle of adherents.

The Islamic Movement in Israel long has set a confrontation course with the Jewish establishment. The trend has intensified in the two years since the Palestinian intifada began, with the movement urging Arabs to oppose a supposed Jewish plot to take over Muslim holy sites on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Israeli authorities recently considered outlawing the movement, but decided not to. Still, Islamic Movement leaders are determined to create a constituency so strong that the movement can’t be pushed aside.

The 40,000 Bedouin of northern Israel form a convenient target for the movement. This formerly nomadic population has established itself in what were, until a few years ago, relative prosperous villages, with many employed by the defense establishment as soldiers, pathfinders, policemen and prison wardens.

Many years ago, the Bedouin village of Frish Rumaneh even named a street after Israel Defense Force Gen. Rehavam “Ghandi” Ze’evi, considered a patron of Bedouin soldiers, for his contribution to the welfare of the Bedouin population.

Ze’evi, then the Tourism Minster and a leading far-right politician, was assassinated in October 2001 by a Palestinian hit squad in Jerusalem.

The northern Bedouin have not been a particularly devout community, but more and more mosques have been built in the community in recent years through the generosity of the Islamic Movement.

The movement’s northern core is in the cities of Umm el-Fahm, Acre and Nazareth, and the nearby village of Kafar Kana. Its grip is strong enough that the movement has continued with the construction of a controversial mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, despite worldwide protests — including from the Vatican — and the opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government.

Islamic activities in the northern Bedouin villages until now have been marginal, but new religious winds are blowing.

“So far, we have seen them very little,” Hassan Heib, mayor of the Bedouin village of Zarzir, told JTA. “Now we shall see them more and more.”

The immediate reason is the arrest last month of Lt. Col. Omar Heib, the mayor’s brother, accused of running a crime ring that spied for Hezbollah and smuggled drugs into Israel across the border with Lebanon.

Aside from some Druse soldiers, Heib was the highest-ranking Arab officer in the IDF. Never before have such serious accusations been leveled against an Arab personality of this magnitude.

Heib claims he is innocent, and is backed up by his family and the majority of Bedouin in the north.

The mayor says the Islamic Movement already has launched an information drive on behalf of Heib. If an Israeli court finds him guilty, Islamic Movement functionaries tell villagers, that will confirm the Israeli government’s alleged policy of persecuting Bedouin, and Arabs in general.

“This is a reflection of the wide rift in relations between the Bedouin population and the state,” Heib said.

One consequence of the affair, he predicted, would be a reduction in the number of Bedouin volunteering for the army.

As it is, only several score of Bedouin youth enlist annually. Yet the community is one of the few Arab groups that has identified itself with the state, and Israeli officials who fear for the future of Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel are loathe to lose its allegiance.

“This is a serious case, but one should not lose one’s cool,” suggested Amnon Barkai, a former regional council official from the nearby Jewish town of Ramat Yishai, who has had daily contact with the Bedouin.

“The Bedouin are more frightened than angry,” he said. “Some of them already toss allegations at the officer and his colleagues for having jeopardized the good relations with the authorities.”

Barkai suggested that the authorities should not hesitate to pursue legal steps against Heib. At the same time, he said, the government should make special efforts to improve living conditions among the Bedouin population, paying special attention to mounting unemployment.

For the time being, Barkai suggested, Islamic Movement activities are quite discreet and pose no immediate threat. Generally, local residents invite Islamic Movement activists to their homes for “informational meetings.”

“I am quite confident that most of these talks evolve around the usual agenda of urging people to return to the path of Islam,” he said. “But the truth is that no one really knows what is being said behind close doors.”

Despite the recent rise in the number of Israeli Arabs involved in terrorism, none of the accused have been Bedouin.

Israel’s security establishment now is concerned that increasing religious incitement among the Bedouin not only will decrease the number of volunteers to the army and create a rift with the state, but also could create a hotbed of hostile activities.

Abdul Hakim Mufid, a senior Islamic Movement activist, downplayed such concerns.

“Things are changing,” but not in the way of open confrontation with the state, he told JTA.

“It is simply that more and more people choose to return to Islam, including the Bedouin. They no longer settle for naming their streets after Ghandi,” he said, referring to Ze’evi.

The intifada and the poor economy in Israel have caused a spiritual vacuum in Bedouin society, Mufid suggested.

“They’re trying to fill this vacuum with their heritage,” he said, “and their heritage is Islam.”

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