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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bedouin who serve in Israel's army

Many Bedouin Arabs serve in the Israeli army and security forces.

The traditional view of the Arab-Israeli conflict is of Jews fighting Muslims. But that image does not always reflect the truth.

In fact, there are thousands of Muslim Bedouin who serve in the Israeli army, or IDF, and even bear arms against their fellow Muslims in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

They do so although it is not compulsory for them to serve in the Israeli military, as it is for most Israeli Jews, and sometimes military service comes with a price tag.

"I will do whatever is required from me to do the job with the full faith in the service of the Israeli state," asserts Maj Fehd Fallah, a Bedouin from the village of Saad in the Israeli occupied Golan.

He is happy to perform his duty, whoever he may have to fight against.

"Yes, I have fought against Muslims in Gaza," he says. That includes Israel's three-week Operation Cast Lead which began in December last year.

"And I would fight again if I had to," he added. "Israeli Muslims who don't serve in the IDF should be ashamed for not serving their country."

Israel's Bedouin are a Muslim, Arabic-speaking group. Although these formerly nomadic people were once considered part of the Palestinian nation, most of them are now proud to call themselves Israelis.

Co-operation between Jews and Bedouin began before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.

In 1946, tribal leader Abu Yusuf al-Heib sent more than 60 of his men to fight alongside Zionist forces against their Arab neighbours in Galilee.

More than 60 years on, Maj Fallah's devotion to the Jewish state was unequivocal. He even refused to be interviewed by me in Arabic, insisting: "I have better command of Hebrew."

Military service is a family tradition in many Bedouin villages, especially those located in the north of Israel.

During my conversation with Maj Fallah, two men were standing listening to us. They were his cousins and both wore the uniform of the IDF.

"It's a legacy - it's something that has been passed on from generation to generation in my family," Maj Fallah explains.

"My father and his father served in the army too."

Potential conflict

The Israeli army does not publish statistics about the exact number of non-Jewish enlisted soldiers, although it says hundreds of non-Jewish Israeli citizens - Muslims, Christians and Druze - join up every year.

Their numbers have grown rather than decreased since the controversial military assault on Gaza.

The Israeli military official responsible for minorities is Col Ahmed Ramiz.

He is Druze, another Arabic-speaking ethnic group with a presence in Israel and other parts of the Middle East.

He told me that the main obligation for any citizen of Israel "is to defend his country and to serve in the IDF".

How does this square with Israel's status as the world's only Jewish state? Why should Muslims apply - and why should Israel accept them? He explained the compromise in the following terms.

"We have decided that, due to the potential conflict between the Muslim person's national identities and their status as Israelis, we don't make it compulsory for Muslims to join the IDF," Col Ramiz said.

Muslims could work in every unit of the army, even elite units.

Bedouin Scouts Help Israeli Law Enforcement

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Life in the desert has helped the Bedouin tribesmen of the Middle East develop very sharp senses of eyesight and intuition. This is what makes them especially efficient in helping Israeli security services track down
smugglers infiltrating the Egyptian -- Israeli borderline. Here's our Israeli correspondents with more.

Ramat Hanegev is the biggest district in Israel, spreading over 4 million and 300 thousand acres. Moti Zana is the head of the local security services.

Moti Zana, Security Chief, Ramat Hanegev:
"The Egyptian borderline is close to here and it is not very well guarded. There is a lot of illegal activity -- trafficking of women, drugs and weapons, terrorists and illegal aliens. It's very complicated and the Israeli army and police cannot handle it all by themselves, so we have to help them".

Volunteers help the local authorities enforce the law. Amongst them are Bedouin tribesmen.

One of them is Saliman Abu Gardor, who has been scouting the deserts ever since he was a little boy . He later went to serve in the Israeli army as a professional scout. He shows us all the tricks the smugglers use to conceal their tracks - like wearing strange shoes and instruments on their feet or erasing the footprints by wiping them with a cloth or blowing air on them. But that's not all, they have other methods too:

Saliman Abu Gardor, Bedouin Scout:
"If there are two smugglers, they will try to make us believe that they are just one person. One of them will carry the other on his back in order to leave just one set of footprints. But the footprints are very deep, because of the heavy weight, so I already know that this cannot be just one person".

It is estimated that over the past few years IDF patrols have reduced terrorist and criminal activity along the border by 50%.