NITZANA, Israel — Ahmed Abeltef joined the Israeli army two months ago and says he is proud to be serving his country. But when he goes on leave, Abeltef makes sure to change out of his army greens and into civilian clothing before reaching home.
The fear of wearing military fatigues in his home town stems from the fact that he is one of Israel’s approximately 260,000 Bedouins — a subgroup of the country’s Arab Muslim minority with its own distinct culture.
“This is my country, and I want to give something back. But there are some people and families in my town who don’t think I should be in the army,” said Abeltef, 19, who lives in Rahat, the largest Bedouin city.
He is in basic training with about 44 other Bedouin soldiers, sleeping head to toe in makeshift tents pitched amid sand dunes along the Israel-Egypt border.
Although not required to serve like Jewish citizens, throughout Israel’s history many Bedouins have volunteered for army duty, some becoming military legends. According to the army’s statistics, there are about 1,000 Bedouin men serving in the army. About300 are drafted annually, though this number fluctuates depending on the security situation. Among those who do join, motivation is high and many are drafted into one of the two special Bedouin battalions or other highly decorated combat units.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing unease among the Bedouin population about serving in Israel’s army. The fact that they are Muslim Arabs — as most of Israel’s enemies are — is only part of the reason for this dissonance. Poverty and marginalization also are factors. And today, community elders are less enthusiastic about encouraging their sons to sign up, while some spiritual leaders reject the notion outright. For the younger generation, meanwhile, the question is what exactly they will gain from the experience.
“You can’t hide the fact that these men are Arabs and Muslims, they speak Arabic, and there are definitely influencing factors and organizations that are trying to prevent the youth from signing up,” said Col. Wajdi Sarhouan, head of the minority’s administration in the army’s manpower directorate.
He also noted the community’s widespread poverty and lack of future prospects as deterring factors.
The majority of Israel’s Bedouins live in the southern Negev desert, either in specially built towns or in unrecognized, ramshackle villages where basic amenities are scant and socioeconomic levels are low. A smaller number of Bedouins who live in northern Israel are more integrated in society.
Despite the challenges, Sarhouan said that the number of new recruits for this year is slightly up and that there is a push in the military to encourage Bedouin soldiers to become officers, as a way to set an example for those who may consider joining in the future.
For the army, Bedouins are particularly valued for their navigational and tracking skills. Despite Israel’s technological advances, Bedouins’ familiarity with the desert and their ability to track suspicious movements are seen as irreplaceable.
“There is only so much technology sees. It can’t see what is going on inside the wadi [valley],” said Sheik Ibrahim Abu Afash, 71. He served as a military tracker during the 1973 Yom Kippur war under the command of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
“We helped monitor the border. We listened in to the Egyptian army’s broadcasts and tracked down any enemy soldiers that tried to infiltrate,” he said. “I served in the army for three years, but today I would not encourage my children to join.”
“When I joined, I did not think about it — I served for the honor of the Bedouins. They told us we would get benefits and it would improve our conditions, but socially nothing got better,” he said.
Afash said that after his time with the army he could find work only in a nearby factory, and he worked in low-paying jobs until he retired a few years ago. Like many of the Bedouins in this area, he has witnessed the growth of abject poverty and the constant demolition of people’s homes by Israeli authorities.
Wadi Alna’am, where he lives, is a collection of mismatched shacks made of corrugated iron. It is among the approximately 46 unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev that the Israeli government would like to see dismantled.
“Every building here has a demolition order on it,” he said, gesturing to the humble structures around him. “The home demolitions really effect the children — it really is the worst thing to see. If the state wants the Bedouins to join the army, they should not destroy people’s homes.”
At a nearby gas station, a Jewish-run coffee shop has become a popular hangout for young Bedouins. Mohammad al-Atrash, 29, and his cousin, Salah al-Atrash, 28, both completed three years of military service.
“I didn’t get anything out of it. I can’t even get a gun permit now if I want to work as a security guard,” said the older cousin, although he couldn’t explain why.
Both are unemployed, and both said they told their younger friends and siblings that serving is not worth the time and effort.
“It’s nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or our identity — it’s purely a civil issue,” said the younger cousin. “We don’t get treated like citizens. It’s like we don’t even exist in this country.”
The deputy company commander of Abeltef’s unit training on the border said he is acutely aware of the complexities facing Bedouin soldiers, especially those from the southern region.
One of his men said the commander — who cannot be named, in keeping with military protocol — has to walk more than four miles from a bus stop to his home because there is no public transportation.
Shami Shami, 23, from Jadeidi-Makr north of Haifa, said that his family encouraged him to enroll. He is following in the footsteps of his brothers and father, who were all soldiers. His father, who served for 25 years, is now the mayor of his town.
“There is pressure from the Islamic Movement for us not to serve. I have heard people talking like that, but it’s my choice,” said Shami. “I want to improve my life, like my father did.”
“It feels great to be here — it feels like home. We volunteered to help the state of Israel, and that is what we are doing,” said Mustafa Heb from the town of Tuba-Zangaria on the border with Lebanon. “In my village, everyone signed up.”
Asked how he might feel being told to fight against a fellow Muslim if another war erupts either with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza or with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Heb said that it was his duty to fight.
“They have to fight to protect their country, and I have to fight to protect my country,” he said. “I don’t see any conflict in that.”