Israel's Arab community pleads for bomb shelters as war rages

In southern Israel, Palestinian Bedouins seek refuge from Hamas rockets in the open desert

A damaged Bedouin home in an unrecognised village in the Negev desert, Israel. Photo: Waleed Al Hawashlah
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Now in its seventh day, the war in Israel and Gaza has left millions of people in fear, despair and desperation as violence continues with a ferocity described by many as unprecedented in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As tensions rise on the Israeli-Lebanese border, increasing numbers of civilians in both countries fear renewed rocket fire and air strikes, with northern Israeli communities warned to evacuate. For many Arabs in Israel, however, there is no shelter to find.

In the far south of Israel, 150,000 Bedouin Palestinians have no access to a bomb shelter as missiles rain across the border from the Gaza Strip, according to figures provided by a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

“In the seven villages recognised by the government there are shelters, but there aren't enough for everyone. In unrecognised areas, there are none,” Waleed Al Hawashlah, a member of the United Arab List and head of the Arab Emergency Authority in the Negev told The National from the Bedouin village of Sawa.

“Half of the population in the Negev have no shelter at all. Since the war started on Saturday, people have been seeking shelter in schools, under bridges and in desert valleys. That's the only shelter they could find.”

Half of the 330,000 people living in the Negev, or Naqab in Arabic, live in towns and villages unrecognised by the Israeli government, meaning they have no access to services such as electricity, water, or shelter.

Most Bedouins in the 33 unrecognised areas live in caravans, temporary housing or traditional Bedouin tents, Mr Al Hawshlah said, offering no protection from missiles.

“No alarm systems warn the population when a rocket is about to hit their area. Even in a recognised Bedouin town like Rahat, with 75,000 inhabitants, there are less than 10 shelters,” Chloe Portheault from the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality told The National.

Sixteen Bedouin Palestinians have been killed since Saturday and seven are missing, revised from 46 at the weekend, Mr Hawashlah said.

Some of the dead were killed by rocket fire, while others were agricultural workers on the border Gaza and were attacked, he added.

“In the unrecognised villages in the Naqab, there are no roads, so it was very complicated to get ambulances in to evacuate the injured and dead,” Jafar Farah, director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Centre told The National.

Haifa, 42km from the Lebanese border, is in a “warlike atmosphere,” he said, with few cars on the streets and soldiers and army tanks heading north.

“We need emergency shelters, and not only in the Naqab. All over the Arab community, especially in the mixed cities, we're not protected.”

All houses built since 2006 must have a shelter. But in the Arab community, even schools are not protected.”

Mr Farah said Arab civil society leaders have sent letters to the mayors of mixed cities – including Haifa, Lod, and Akka – demanding public bomb shelters to be erected in Arab areas.

As sirens rang out in Haifa on Wednesday night, he was asked where the nearest shelter was, to which he replied: “No bomb shelters.”

The National approached the Akka municipality for comment but received no immediate response.

Mr Farah said many Palestinian citizens in Haifa were killed by rocket fire during the war with Lebanon.

“Afterwards, the state controller said they need to build and supply shelters in Arab neighbourhoods, but nothing has been done until now.”

About 50 per cent of Arab communities on the border with Lebanon and Syria have no bomb shelters, compared to 7.5% of Jewish communities in the same area, the head of the military's civil defence command told a Knesset subcommittee in 2018.

“Civilians in Lebanon and civilians in Israel should be protected. Hezbollah should not be brought into this cycle of violence,” Mr Farah added.

A shortage of bomb shelters is not a problem exclusive to the Arab community.

Last year a report by Haaretz found that a quarter of residents in the southern city of Ashkelon – hit hard in Saturday's attacks – lacked access to a shelter. Several Jewish Israelis, particularly the elderly, have died in Gaza border communities by failing to reach a shelter in time.

Some safe rooms have also proved futile, in the case of several people believed to have been taken from such rooms by Hamas militants on Saturday.

However, Arab leaders say the issue is one of systemic government neglect.

“For a long time, the government has not taken the lives of Israeli Arabs seriously.

It's a shame for a country that calls itself democratic and respectful of human rights to ignore 150,000 of its citizens just for being Arab and living on their lands,” said Mr Hawashlah.

“The government's duty, just as it cares for its citizens, to provide for Arab citizens in the Negev and provide shelters for them.”

Updated: October 13, 2023, 12:20 PM