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Out of Israel: Bedouin on wheels guard their heritage

RAHAT - They told me Rahat was 'somewhere in the Negev', but exactly where, nobody seemed quite sure. The place is not to be found on a map of Israel. 'Rahat, you don't want to go there, it's full of Arabs,' blurted the Jewish garage attendant when asked for directions. An Arab at the roadside was more helpful. 'Over there,' he said, pointing across a vast expanse of rolling hills. A little further on was a sign in Hebrew pointing to a 'bedouin heritage centre'. Nearby were rows of police vans. And then came a turning, off the paved road, on to a rough track, leading to a sizeable cluster of buildings around a mosque.

Rahat is where many of the Negev bedouin live. This was 'Land Day', when bedouin, and other Israeli Arabs, remember the seizing of their lands by the Israelis and mourn their 'martyrs'. Today about 95,000 bedouin live inside Israel proper, largely descendants of the tribes who roamed the Negev before the state was founded in 1948. The total number of Israeli Arabs is about 1 million, one-fifth of the population.

This year Rahat was to be the centre of Land Day celebrations and the police feared trouble. After the Hebron massacre in February, the normally docile bedouin of Rahat took to the streets to show solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters in the occupied territories. Mohamed Abu Jame, 22, was shot dead by police, the first Israeli Arab to die in clashes since 1976.

The government saw the protests as a disturbing sign that Israel's 'loyal' bedouin - who serve in the army and police - might be becoming 'political'. Sociologists instantly concluded that the bedouin were finding a new identity as Palestinians. That there is restlessness among the bedouin is undoubtedly true. But, by Land Day, a month after the massacre, these pragmatic folk seemed as ambivalent as ever about 'Palestinian identity'.

'We are the original Palestinians,' says Hassan el- Hozayel, grandson of Sheikh Salaman el-Hozayel who headed one of the Negev's most famous tribes. 'My tribe used to have 300 camels and 5,000 sheep. We had land all over the Negev. But now we have no camels, only Peugeots. In 1970 when the Israelis moved us here to Rahat they sold us cheap Peugeots. The Peugeot is better for us than the camel. It is cheaper to run. Life here is very dynamic and the camel is very slow.'

Mr Hozayel has a photograph showing the Sheikh as a proud leader dressed in elegant headdress, festooned with magnificent guns. The Sheikh built an arabesque villa as his Negev base, and took 36 wives.

His grandson wears jeans and a T-shirt, has one wife, and lives in a corrugated iron shack in the grounds of his grandfather's villa on the edge of children to the desert in the

Peugeot for the weekend. He is Rahat's representative for Meretz, the liberal Israeli political party.

'The bedouin like space,' he says, standing on his quarter-acre of land, littered with rusting metal, and plucking something yellow and unpleasant out of a plastic bag, to show us what camel hair used to look like.

Most residents of Rahat have large 'traditional' tents in the gardens of their brick homes, where they welcome visitors on 'traditional' mats. Mr Hozayel is hoping soon to open his own bedouin museum because he objects to the existing heritage centre. 'It was built by the Jews for the Jews - to make money,' he says. 'It shows the bedouin as if they are history or something, as if we are already dead.' Israeli schoolchildren sometimes come to Rahat in buses to visit the centre and peer at the bedouin.

Mr Hozayel says the Hebron massacre stirred something inside the bedouin soul. 'Over the years we resented being treated like Red Indians in America. After the massacre all our anger spilt out. I don't think bedouin will serve in the army anymore.'

As the people of Rahat readily admit, however, they like a quiet life. The Turks, the British, the Jordanians and now the Israelis - the bedouin have seen them all come and go, and learnt to serve them all. Mr Hozayel's uncle - now head of the family - served as a policeman under the British mandate.

For all the talk of their 'Palestinian identity' the bedouin are happier as Israelis than as Palestinians. They appear to feel superior to the Arabs who live under occupation across the green line. 'I don't like the Jewish,' says Sultan el-Hozayel, 14, 'but I don't want to live in a Palestinian state. I am an Israeli citizen. The Jewish cannot kill us here because we live among them.'