The five Israeli soldiers killed by Hamas and Fatah in the terror attack at the Rafah border crossing this week were all Beduin. They all served as volunteers in the Beduin Desert Battalion established in 1987.
Beduin are not obligated to serve in Israel's Defense Forces (IDF), and only around 400 young men from Beduin tribes are presently volunteering. IDF sources cite increasing solidarity with Palestinians as a major factor in the low enrollment. The Beduin population in Israel's southern Negev region is estimated at 145,000, with an additional 40,000 in the Galilee.
"We're not big Zionists, but we are proud Israelis," explains Ishmael Khaldi, a Beduin with a Masters Degree in Political Science from Tel Aviv University who served as a political analyst for the IDF. Khaldi is completing a training course to become a member of Israel's diplomatic corps, and has traveled far and wide to explain the status of one of Israel's significant minority groups.
Many Israeli demographers and political strategists warn that the "Beduin problem" in the Negev threatens the stability of Israel's southern region. "Prof. Arnon Soffer. chair of Geostrategic and Security Studies at Haifa University predicts that "within five years, the next intifada will break out in the Negev."
Soffer points to security problems, evidenced by the frequent stoning of Israeli buses traveling the area, the level of property theft in the Beersheva area and extortion by Beduin gangs.
The situation has deteriorated in the past decade as the once nomadic Beduin tribes have been forced into urbanization by economic reality. Current Israeli policy is to try to concentrate the majority of Beduin into seven small towns, in an effort to control the spiraling lawlessness, and to provide education to enable them to compete in a 21st century economy.
According to Haaretz, Soffer recently told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: "There is going to be a catastrophe. There will be an intifada of major proportions, beyond imagining."
Soffer wasn't just referring to the Beduin birth rate, which is the highest in the world. At 5.9 percent, the Beduin double their population every 12 years. Today, one out of every four Israelis in the Beersheva district is Beduin. The population takes advantage of Israel's quasi-welfare National Insurance Institute child benefits.
While the Beduin are Moslems, Khaldi says they observe "reform Islam." "We're more moderate, more tribal than nationalistic," he says.
Still, today there are mosques and minarets in many Beduin communities, something never seen before among the Beduin. To many observers it's evidence of growing Islamization --especially among the youth. Strict Moslem observance has replaced the more folkloric traditions, and with more and more Beduin men marrying Palestinian Arab women the connections will only strengthen.
Last April, Israeli authorities nabbed their third Beduin gang who had been smuggling arms for use by terrorists in the Palestine Authority. Israel's Shin Bet secret service says that Islamic Movement operatives have been actively discouraging Beduin men from volunteering for the Israeli Army.
Khaldi says he's noticed that over the past few years the Islamic Movement spends thousands of shekel every August to make sure that every Beduin child has shoes, books, pencils and backpack ready for school. Parents and teachers are acutely aware of where the money comes from.
For its part, the Israeli Army tries to give its Beduin recruits as much practical education and experience as possible. Many are sent on courses to become air conditioning repair workers, truck drivers or computer repair technicians.
But the issue of their boys serving in the Israeli army divides many in the Beduin community. Talal Abu Leil, the father of one of the young soldiers killed this week told Haaretz that "many in the village didn't support his step."
Another bereaved Beduin father told reporters: "We live here: we'll serve here too."
Judy Lash Balint is an award-winning Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times. www.jerusalemdiaries.com.