Disillusioned with Ra’am, a new party wants Bedouins to have their own voice

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas and party members at the party headquarters in Tamra, on election night, March 23, 2021 (Flash90)

Baker Zoubi

+972 Magazine  /  August 17, 2022

The Islamist Ra’am has long had strong support in the Naqab. But after the party’s failures in government, Bedouin citizens are demanding a change.

The Bedouin community in the Naqab/Negev was long regarded as a stronghold of the United Arab List (Ra’am), the Islamist party currently led by Mansour Abbas, which last year became the first independent Palestinian party to join an Israeli governing coalition. But although this base came out in force for Ra’am in the last election in March 2021, it is far from guaranteed that it will do so again in the next round set for November 1.

The question of the Naqab has become one of the hot topics in the Palestinian political scene in Israel in recent years. On the one hand, the right wing, and the government in general, have made the “fight for the Negev” a central priority, inciting against the Bedouin citizens while intensifying house demolitions and establishing new Jewish settlements in the region. Meanwhile, repeated election cycles in recent years, and Ra’am’s decision to split from the other three predominantly Palestinian parties which comprise the Joint List, have generated a battle for the votes of tens of thousands of Naqab Bedouin.

Ra’am, which represents the southern branch of the Islamic movement, used to be the major political power in the Naqab (the movement’s northern branch, which was outlawed by the Defense Ministry in 2016, boycotted the Israeli elections). The party always reserved spots for candidates from the Naqab, and in the last elections, it received more than 40,000 votes from the area, which is just above the amount needed to attain a Knesset seat. The late Said al-Harumi, a resident of the Naqab who ran on the Ra’am ticket, enjoyed particularly widespread popularity.

Today, however, Ra’am’s status in the Naqab is much less secure. In August 2021, just two months after Ra’am began serving in the government, MK al-Harumi died of a sudden heart attack and left behind a huge political vacuum. In parallel, Israeli house demolitions in the Naqab rose to an all-time high, and the party’s promise to achieve full state recognition for at least three “unrecognized” Bedouin villages did not materialize due to the stubborn opposition of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a far right member of the coalition. Instead, the Israeli government decided to establish 14 new settlements in the Naqab, almost all of which are planned to be exclusively Jewish.

Then, in January, the Jewish National Fund, with the aid of state authorities, attempted to plant trees for a small forest over the lands of the village of Sa’wa al-Atrash. The resistance of the Bedouin villagers against the planting was met with violent repression by the police. The events worsened the feelings of separation and despair in the Naqab, and the ensuing lack of trust greatly hurt Ra’am.

With another election approaching, the Palestinian parties have been holding primaries to determine their candidate lists for the new Knesset. Ra’am’s reserved seat for the Naqab was taken by Walid al-Hawashlah, and there are also suggestions that the party will assign its fifth seat to another Naqab candidate in an attempt to increase Bedouin support.

Meanwhile, the Joint List — the alliance of three Palestinian parties, from which Ra’am bitterly split last year — is unlikely to have a candidate from the Naqab in the next Knesset, after the Naqab representative of the communist Hadash party, Youssef al-Atawneh, finished fourth in the party’s recent primary. The Ta’al party has no candidate from the south, while Jumaa al-Zabarqa from the Naqab was unsuccessful in his bid to gain a top three spot on Balad’s list.

‘A government that hurt the Naqab more than its predecessors’

Amidst this backdrop, a new political party was announced last month under the name “Naqab’s Future.” The party is headed by several prominent Bedouin figures like Talal al-Kirnawi, a former head of the Rahat municipality; Nayif Abu Arar, head of the Ar’arat al-Naqab municipality; and businessman Ibrahim al-Nassasrah, among others. 

Despite presenting themselves as an independent list for the Naqab, sources say that the new party was established in coordination with the Joint List, particularly with the Palestinian-Jewish Hadash party, with the idea that the new party’s representatives would be placed in a high rank in the Joint List in the coming Knesset. 

Nayif Abu Arar, one of the founders of Naqab’s Future, does not deny that there is a negotiation between his party and the Joint List, specifically Hadash. He said that it is a completely reasonable proposal, adding: “It is possible to negotiate with all sides.”

According to Abu Arar, the first reason for founding the party is the feeling that the Naqab’s biggest concerns were greatly neglected by the last Israeli government, of which Ra’am was part. “Ra’am received tens of thousands of votes from the Naqab, but all we got from it were slogans,” he said.

Ra’am’s campaign in the last election, Abu Arar remembers, was very focused on Naqab issues, but then it “became part of the government that hurt the Naqab more than the governments that preceded it.” Former MK al-Harumi, Abu Arar continued, “was a good man, admired, and very reliable. His death caused a big political vacuum in the Naqab. We feel that no one is representing us in the Knesset, and those running now in Ra’am from the Naqab are not as popular as al-Harumi.” 

Abu Arar argued that even if other Knesset members from Palestinian parties were to address their priorities, they would not be as familiar with the issues as a Naqab resident. “The people of Mecca know its small streets best,” he said.

After al-Harumi’s death, the Naqab essentially disappeared from Ra’am’s agenda, Abu Arar said. “Ra’am did not succeed in implementing its promises, and we saw that we need a new way. We founded the party and we are enjoying wide admiration from the residents who are thirsty for presence and immediate, real influence. The cause of the Naqab is a complicated subject, one the hardest and most important out of all of the subjects in Palestinian society. In every negotiation, we will demand a secure place for the Naqab to be able to achieve the desired effect.”

In a process that is likely to further complicate the question of political representation, a large conference took place on July 23 in the unrecognized village of A’asloj, in which hundreds of residents of unrecognized villages participated, to discuss choosing a candidate to replace al-Harumi. The Al-Azazmeh clan — one of the biggest clans in the Naqab, to which al-Harumi belonged, organized the meeting. The participants selected Salman bin Hamid to represent the clans, and they intend to ask the Palestinian parties to allocate a place for him on their lists. 

The civics teacher troubling Ra’am on Facebook

Another phenomenon weakening Ra’am’s position is the Facebook page “Al-Mokhtas [The Expert]” which is managed by the teacher and activist Adel al-Hamamdeh. On his page, Al-Hamamdeh wrote several posts that embarrassed the Islamist party, among them a translation of news published in Hebrew regarding the involvement of seniors from Ra’am in Israeli telecommunication companies that collaborated with the Ministry of Communications.

Members of Ra’am contacted members of Al-Hamamdeh’s family asking that he stop publishing the news, and the activist later received a letter from a lawyer threatening to sue him because of his posts. The news of the harassment has irked many Bedouin supporters of the party, which Abu Arar of Naqab’s Future agrees has damaged Ra’am’s standing.

“For years, the southern Islamic movement tried to convince us that they teach us religion and politics and that they are the compass to everything, but today that changes,” Al-Hamamdeh said. “I’m a regular resident, a teacher of civics and political science. I started a while ago writing on my personal page about some issues to explain to people the political situation, and then some friends advised me to create a public page.”

Al-Hamamdeh adds that many Bedouin citizens were especially disappointed when Abbas did not participate in protests organized by Naqab residents, including the prominent ones in January. “He stayed silent about the attack on Sa’wa, and the Electricity Law [which was supposed to hook up thousands of Bedouin homes in unrecognized villages to the national power grid] did not serve a single house in the Naqab or any Palestinian house.” Al-Hamamdeh explains.

Add to that Abbas’ controversial statements last December, in which he told a conference held by Channel 12 that “Israel was born a Jewish state, that was the decision of the people, and the question is not what is the identity of the state — it was born this way and it will remain this way.” 

“People ask what forces Abbas to make such statements,” Al-Hamamdeh wonders. “If in exchange he would have received significant accomplishments, we would understand. But if it is only to satisfy the Jewish Israeli street, let the Jewish street vote for him.”

Al-Hamamdeh believes that his Facebook page had an impact. “It is the first page from the Naqab that writes clearly and critically,” he said. “I gained the trust of many people, and when Ra’am threatened to sue me after I translated things that were published in the Israeli media, it hurt Ra’am’s image dramatically. It showed that it does not represent any values and religion.”

Baker Zoubi is a journalist from Kufr Misr currently living in Nazareth