Exploring the complex relationship of Jews and Muslims in southern Israel
By Ziv Israeli
For many people around the world, Israel’s southern district is probably imagined as a combination of Arab villages mixed with Jewish settlements and towns in the middle of the desert where it constantly rains missiles.
Luckily, this harsh and unrealistic image that we often get from people that are depending on mainstream media mostly, has nothing to do with reality.
In this article I will try to explain some surprising facts about Israel’s southern area – a region that for over ten years has been exhausted by almost constant warfare; but is also surprisingly flourishing, developing and refusing to abandon its natural coexistence and hope for peace.
So let’s start, shall we?
First, here are some basic facts:
- Israel’s southern district is the largest of all six, spreading around 14,185 square kilometers (approx. 5,476 squared miles).
- The district is populated with approximately 75% Jewish, 20% Muslims and 5% other religions.
- The largest city is called Ashdod, but the district’s capital city is called Be’er Sheva (“the seventh well” by loose translation!)
- Even though the town of Sderot is usually a news star because it is the closest city to the Gaza Strip and usually the first in the line of fire, it’s actually one of the smallest towns in Israel.
- Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel on a daily basis, and thousands of them come from the infamous area called the Gaza Strip.
Gazans working in Israel?
Yes! You are reading it right.
Let’s try to explain this awkward fact – and understand what it means, from both sides.
Despite the fact that the Gaza Strip is being held hostage by Hamas and other terror groups committed to the destruction of Israel as part of their jihad against the Jewish state, there is another side to the story!
Hardly known and never appearing in the foreign media, Israel hands out permits allowing the entry of thousands of citizens from the Gaza Strip to provide them with work on a daily basis.
As reported in The Times Of Israel on November 1st, It appears “that Israel has expanded a program in which it had long provided hundreds of permits to business owners to travel to Israel and the West Bank for commerce. Palestinian officials say it is now providing some 5,000 so-called merchant permits and awarding them to Palestinians working as laborers in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.”
This is positive news of improving relations for the benefit of all.
Sadly, before Hamas took over Gaza, there was a time when around 60% of Gaza’s work force was employed in Israel. Then came Hamas and with it – executions, wars, unemployment and despondency. Today there are older brave voices from Gaza revealing the truth – how people are missing the “good old days” of working in Israel. Peace, security, employment and trade with Israel has given way under Hamas to frustration and misery.
However, all this does not detract from the coexistence of Jews with over 300,000 Muslims in Israel’s southern district.
Here are some lesser known facts:
- Most of the Muslims in our southern district are Bedouin living a traditionally pastoral nomadic lifestyle.
- Israel is investing huge sums of money any resources in opening doors and closing gaps for the Bedouin, including, but not limited to – funding education, health care, affirmative actions and ease of entry to higher education.
- As a result, an ever-increasing number of Bedouin students are attending Israeli colleges and Be’er Sheva’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) – the only university in the south of the country.
- In 2016, the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, dedicated a special student center serving Bedouin women students. It was the first of its kind, a social center and “warm home away from home” for Bedouin women students who study at the University.
- Bedouin are employed in all type of professions and jobs from doctors, lawyers, pharmacists to working in education and the police force.
- Another cool fact is a city named Rahat. With a population of approximately 70,000 – Rahat is the largest Bedouin city in the entire world!
And where in the entire western/eastern/Muslim world would you find such a city?
Only in Israel!
But what about the military?
Can you find Bedouin in the IDF and are they allowed to join?
Although Bedouin are not obligated to join the IDF, many choose to join voluntarily!
And they’re a huge asset.
They’re some of the world’s best trackers, and an Israeli combat soldier will tell you that they trust them even if they were blindfolded.
Many soldiers have stories of military operations that would’ve gone completely wrong without their Bedouin commerades-in-arms.
Wait, Muslims that are being integrated completely in Israel?
Isn’t Israel supposed to be an apartheid state…?
Well, now you know that the facts on the ground tell a different story.
But is it all sweets and roses besides for Hamas?
Unfortunately it is not.
Let’s look at a more complex example, shall we?
Take for example a small Palestinian town called Idna.
Just a few minutes’ drive from my hometown, called Qiryat Gat.
Many people from Idna have work permits, because they’re living on the other side of the Green Line border, which means that they are actually under the jurisdiction of the Palestinians.
As a result, many Palestinians are working with us every day – for years – in our area that contains mainly agricultural fields, farms and various types of factories.
We know them well, and deep friendships have formed over the years.
There’s even a local hero in my town – a guy that works as a construction contractor from Idna inside Israel that became famous for pulling a woman out of a car after witnessing a car accident. There was an article about him in our local newspapers!
I know him and his sons personally.
Palestinians working in Israel again?
I Bet you didn’t hear that on any mainstream news channel!
Although you should have.
You should probably be asking yourself:
“Why didn’t I?”
But that’s a different topic again.
So what happens to the coexistence when horrible incidents actually happen?
Beside barrages of missiles from Gaza that may indiscriminately kill everyone, that is.
Well, to be honest, it’s not easy.
It’s never easy, the feelings are heavy on both sides.
Let’s describe a real incident that actually happened – right outside my house.
One Friday night, my wife and I were watching Lord Of The Rings for the who knows how many times.
Suddenly I heard something that sounded like a woman crying.
I put on my shoes, told my wife that I’ll be right back and went outside.
I found two women – one in her 20’s and one in her 40’s, wearing jogging clothes, sitting and crying, holding their necks. They had been stabbed.
What would you do?
I ran back to my house, told my family to lock the doors, that there’s a terrorist around somewhere and went to assist the two victims, not knowing who’s the attacker and where he was. I just hoped that he wouldn’t return.
Since we’re still talking about Israel, in about five minutes the place was swarming with armed people.
Policemen, soldiers on vacation, other security forces – my quiet neighbourhood turned into a war zone in minutes.
And all because of one brainwashed young man from Idna.
The same town we have trusted to send him in from, with a permit.
About 30 minutes later they captured him hiding in my neighbour’s yard.
Because that specific terrorist chose to surrender when the security forces found him and since Israel is a law abiding democracy, he was arrested.
Unfortunately, even in towns like Idna, extreme Jihad brainwashings by radical Muslims may affect people, usually the young ones.
But how did this incident influence the coexistence between the folks in Idna and in Israel?
Well, the first few days were hard, especially for the workers that came from Idna.
Israel did the right thing to allow them in despite of that incident.
But the feelings were difficult.
Most of them looked ashamed, the moment we started talking about it they’d start sounding apologetic, and that kept going for about 3-4 days.
After all, most of the people on both sides don’t want or care about any wars.
Certainly not about a made up lie about Israel being an apartheid state or another lie – that all Muslims want a pointless Jihad.
To sum up this tip of the iceberg article about the incredibly resilient coexistence in Israel’s southern area,
Let me ask you one thing:
Is anyone still surprised why our southern district, even after years of horrible terrorist attacks and barrages of missiles is refusing to lose hope in peace?
And why should we?
When the other side still has hope as well?
Missiles, Jihad, air raids, violent demonstrations and terror might be a part of our lives here – but it’s definitely not the only narrative in our area.
Every obstacle to our coexistence with our neighbors, as cruel as it may be, is only a milestone in our continuous striving for peace and normalization.
Israel will never lose the hope for peace,
And nothing will change that.
About the writer:
Ziv Israeli is a family guy from Israel,
A proud Zionist with a passion for accurate journalism.