Israel's Bedouins vote, but without much hope

Negev (Israel) (AFP) –


A pick-up truck speeds down a road in Israel's dusty, desert south, bringing Sheikh Sayeh Al-Turi and his wife back from the polling station.

"Every vote can make a difference," said Turi, a 70-year-old father of 15.

Turi was among those voting in Israel's second election in five months on Tuesday, called after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition after April polls.

Like the some 250,000 Bedouins in Israel's Negev desert, he belongs to the country's Arab minority, descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of the country in 1948.

Altogether, they represent around 20 percent of Israel's nearly nine million citizens and denounce what they say is discrimination by the Jewish majority.

Wearing a traditional white Bedouin scarf and sporting a large white moustache, Turi sits on a plastic chair near a collection of shrubs in the Negev.

He is the head of an unauthorised village in this desert that is home to most of the country's Bedouins living on the margins of Israeli society, often in poverty.

Israeli authorities have been seeking to relocate such villages to authorised towns, but in many cases, residents say they will not be forced to leave their homes.

Israel has carried out demolitions of structures it deems illegal, and Turi says his village, where he was born, has been destroyed 161 times.

In his village's case, 22 families are refusing to move.

Beyond the demolitions, they allege land theft.

- 'It's my right' -

Israeli authorities say the cannot allow illegal construction and want to regularise the Bedouins' living situations, including by improving their conditions.

"The current government is extremist and criminal," said Turi, who calls it a "state of occupation" and voted against Netanyahu.

"I don't expect anything good from this country," he said. "I only believe God can change things."

His cousin Hakma voted too.

"I have hope that there will be change, not only for me but for all the Bedouins of the Negev," she said.

"Look where I cook!" she added, pointing to a gas stove on the ground and dishes arranged in an improvised cupboard made from an unplugged refrigerator.

In the nearby town of Shaqef as-Salam, a crowd was gathered under makeshift umbrellas to register to vote.

Out of sight, men discretely distribute ballots for the mainly Arab Joint List alliance.

Saba, her face concealed by a black niqab veil like most women around her, says she votes in every election.

"It's my right. I'm a citizen like the others," she said.

To cast her ballot on Tuesday, she said she travelled some 90 minutes from Bir Haddaj, a Bedouin village recognised by Israel.

- 'I don't vote' -

Some activist groups allege attempts to limit the Bedouin vote.

On Sunday, the election committee ruled that Israeli organisation Zazim (We Move) could not run buses to bring Arab residents to polling stations since it was not registered as an organisation active in the election.

Seated on the sidewalk in front of a school being used as a polling station, Bassel Zaanoun was voting "so that they stop demolishing our homes".

He said his home has been torn down twice.

"For now, we live in a makeshift shack," he added.

According to the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality NGO, 2,326 demolition orders were executed last year, including more than 600 for homes.

In Al-Araqeeb, a man known as Doctor Awad shakes his head when the sheikh speaks of elections.

"I don't vote. Never," said the university professor, sunglasses hiding his eyes.

"Where are the Arab parliament members? They could not prevent even one demolition. It's a bogus democracy. I'm not going to help legitimise it."