Just hours after it became apparent that the perpetrator of the Oct. 18 attack in Beersheba was Mohannad Khalil Salam al-Okbi, a Bedouin from an unrecognized village near the locality of Hura, the forum of Bedouin mayors held an emergency meeting in Rahat, the largest Bedouin town in Israel. They realized that the entire Bedouin community might be stigmatized as supporting violence against Jews. At the end of the meeting they issued a strong condemnation: “The terrorist that perpetrated the attack today does not represent the Bedouin community, which supports coexistence and a shared life in the Negev.”
Okbi is the first Bedouin to carry out an attack against Israelis, although this is not the first time that Bedouin residents have been charged with security offenses. In July 2015, for example, the Shin Bet reported that six Hura residents, four of whom were schoolteachers in the Negev, had been arrested on suspicion of disseminating Islamic State doctrine in the locality and in schools there. They reportedly even planned to join the radical Islamic organization.
This week, Bedouin leaders rejected out of hand any link between the attack in Beersheba and the dire condition of the Bedouin population in the south of Israel. They even tried to downplay the tension between the southern Bedouin community and the Israeli establishment and law enforcement agencies against the backdrop of the demolition of illegally constructed houses and the wide feeling of disenfranchisement in their community.
“What we have here are good neighborly relations and friendships that have been fostered for years, and no one will ruin this,” Muslach Abu Assa, the director-general of the al-Kasom Regional Council, which incorporates several recognized and unrecognized villages in the Negev, told Al-Monitor. “No policy will drive the sector to such acts, and no one will have a hand in this.”
That being said, Okbi's relative Nuri al-Okbi, who lives in the mixed city of Lod and has been engaged for many years in social and legal battles against the demolition of houses in the Bedouin sector, claimed, on the other hand, that the leaders of the community are throwing dust in everyone’s eyes. “It’s a charade. The leaders condemn [the attack] but fail to mention a possible motive,” Nuri Okbi told Al-Monitor. “I do not justify any kind of violence, certainly not against innocent civilians, but unfortunately the situation is very difficult, and is getting worse by the day, because we — the Bedouin — are not considered [equal] citizens. I know exactly what the leaders are saying in other circles. Off the record, they all say that Israel ignores us and doesn’t treat us equally with the rest of the population. Undoubtedly, this could drive young people to radical acts.”
Asked whether this inequality motivated his relative to carry out the attack, he replied, “I have long been saying that if the State of Israel continues its behavior, I won’t be surprised if there’s violence. Let me add one more thing: Although [Muhannad Okbi's] mother is from Gaza, from the Nuseirat refugee camp, in 1948 the family was very well-to-do. They used to live in Al-Muharraqa, not far from where [the house of former Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon — Havat Shikmim — is located. They moved to Gaza after being attacked by Israeli forces, who killed my uncle Ibrahim and wounded several other family members.”
Nuri Okbi added that he does not know for sure whether his relative carried out the attack. “Maybe he was killed by the security forces, just as the young Eritrean was, and in order to disguise their act they say he was a terrorist.”
Nuri Okbi’s razor-sharp words illustrate that even now, as the leaders of the Bedouin sector try to paint a picture of idyllic coexistence, some from the Bedouin community feel a total disconnect from Israeli society.
Shortly after giving his testimony to the police and security forces, Muhannad Okbi's uncle, Saed al-Okbi, talked to Al-Monitor. He said he asked that the investigation be thorough and that the family and the entire Bedouin sector be provided with proof that it was indeed his relative who carried out the attack.
“There are security surveillance cameras everywhere,” he explained to Al-Monitor. “We want to see with our own eyes that that’s what happened. This young man graduated from high school about a year and a half ago and wanted to go on studying. We all live in an unrecognized village under unbearable conditions. We were taken away from our lands in 1956 and since then we’ve been suffering here. But we are citizens of the state and I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that everyone from the family or the village thinks that such lines should not be crossed. It’s OK to demonstrate and protest, but it’s not OK to hurt civilians and be involved in violence.”
Sami Amarna, a resident of the Bedouin Segev Shalom locality, told Al-Monitor that he was very surprised by the attack. However, according to him it is a well-known fact that young Bedouin are exposed to IS incitement and are influenced by it. “We have to work very hard to prevent deterioration. It’s very easy to persuade and incite a young Bedouin from the sector,” he noted, adding, "Our youths have a very negative opinion of the police. The police come to demolish a house and humiliate [the locals] while doing it. This atmosphere drives a handful of radicals to recruit young adults. They say to them; ‘Look, you served in the military; you made your contribution to the state and in the end they show up to destroy your homes.’ It has an influence on them." He went on, "The danger is that the Jews will start thinking of every Bedouin as a potential terrorist, an enemy of the state. That would be a mistake. The majority of us — almost all of us — are loyal citizens despite the problems."
Amarna noted that since the attack, he travels to Beersheba only when work requires him to. "We all keep our distance from the city, avoiding flash points as much as possible. My 19-year-old son was in Beersheba this week. He was approached by a Jew who started cursing him. Luckily, there was someone from the Bedouin community there who took him away before things started going south. At home I explained to him that we can understand what the Jews are feeling; we don’t agree, but we understand that the situation is sensitive. Today I could have an argument with someone from the Jewish sector — nothing out of the ordinary — and someone might think I’m a terrorist. I say: Inshallah, let this be the first and last terrorist and let there be no more Bedouin who will carry out an attack. I have two daughters who are now doing their national service. We have soldiers serving in the military. Unless we stop this now and unless we handle this correctly, disaster will strike. Both for us and the Jews.”
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