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When rockets fall, Bedouin Israeli citizens have nowhere to hide

A relative points to a hole in the roof of Mohammed al-Hassouni's family home. It was caused by an Iranian missile fragment that injured his 7-year-old daughter on the night Iran attacked Israel.
Ahmad Gharabli
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AFP via Getty Images
A relative points to a hole in the roof of Mohammed al-Hassouni's family home. It was caused by an Iranian missile fragment that injured his 7-year-old daughter on the night Iran attacked Israel.

Late in the evening of April 13, Mohammed al-Hassouni and his family were sleeping in their home in southern Israel, when he was awoken by the sounds of sirens and explosions.

Iran was launching a massive strike against an airbase near the family's village. Al-Hassouni rushed his children to the car. As he tried to load them in, a fragment of a missile fell near the house with a thud. Terrified, his 7-year-old daughter Amina ran back inside.

Moments later another missile fragment crashed through the roof and fell on her.

Today, Amina remains in intensive care in a coma, al-Hassouni says. He doesn't think she'll wake up.

Amina was the sole Israeli civilian critically injured by Iran's attack, but her wounding wasn't entirely by chance.

Amina al-Hassouni, 7, remains in intensive care and is in a coma following the Iranian missile attack on April 13.
/ Mohammed al-Hassouni
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Mohammed al-Hassouni
Amina al-Hassouni, 7, remains in intensive care and is in a coma following the Iranian missile attack on April 13.

Throughout Israel, houses and buildings are equipped with fortified rooms and bomb shelters. These shelters are required by law and designed to protect against the exact kind of falling debris that severely injured Amina.

But al-Hassouni can't build such a shelter in his house. He is a member of the Bedouin community — a group of people who have lived in villages in southern Israel since before the state was founded in 1948. In the intervening years, some villages have been officially recognized, but others have not. The village in which the al-Hassouni family lives is called al-Fura. Even though its existence predates the state of Israel, it remains unrecognized.

As a result, any shelter he builds is deemed to be an unlawful permanent structure under Israeli law. It would be immediately demolished by the authorities.

"They come and destroy anything we build to protect ourselves from danger," he says. "I think that if we were treated as citizens and had access to a shelter, my daughter would not be in the intensive care unit right now."

A concrete shelter, which was installed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A concrete shelter, which was installed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.

Nowhere to run

Israel is home to hundreds of thousands of Bedouin citizens, and an estimated one-quarter to one-third of them live in unrecognized settlements in the Negev Desert. The Israel Land Authority, which manages most of the land in the country, says that these unrecognized villages are built on land owned by the state. The authorities regularly issue demolition orders for Bedouin houses in unrecognized settlements — a practice that has drawn intense criticism from human rights groups.

Earlier this year, NPR visited several Bedouin villages to learn more about why bomb shelters were hard to come by, and what it meant for the people who live there.

The lack of services in these communities is striking. In the unrecognized village of Wadi al-Na'am, a web of power lines from a nearby generating station stretches overhead. Kher Albaz, the chairman of a Jewish and Bedouin advocacy group known as AJEEC, points out that they don't supply any of the homes they pass over.

"They have to rely only on solar systems they have to buy for themselves," Albaz explains. It's among the many things that Wadi al-Na'am lacks.

The residents have "no power, no running water, and no municipal services," he says.

The state only provides a small school, set up in modular buildings, and a health clinic.

Kher Albaz, chairman of the board of AJEEC, an organization promoting Arab-Jewish equality and cooperation in the Negev Desert, stands in a concrete shelter in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Kher Albaz, chairman of the board of AJEEC, an organization promoting Arab-Jewish equality and cooperation in the Negev Desert, stands in a concrete shelter in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.

Despite the lack of services, many Bedouin residents choose to remain. For some, it's about a claim to the land, which the state of Israel also claims to own. For others, Albaz says, it's about keeping tight-knit families together. Still others simply can't afford to move to the recognized communities.

Their homes are basic — often powered by a few solar panels, and, if they're lucky, supplied by water siphoned off of a main line.

"As you can see, it's a shanty town, it's huts and tents and temporary buildings," Albaz says. "And when rockets fall on this thing, it's a disaster."

For a long time, there weren't many rockets falling in this remote section of the Negev Desert. It's 25 miles from Gaza, in the opposite direction of big cities like Tel Aviv.

But all that changed with the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7.

Mohammad Abu Queider stands near his home in al-Zarnuq, an unrecognized Bedouin village in southern Israel. His family has been caught in the crossfire twice: first during the Hamas attack and then in the Iranian strike.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Mohammad Abu Queider stands near his home in al-Zarnuq, an unrecognized Bedouin village in southern Israel. His family has been caught in the crossfire twice: first during the Hamas attack and then in the Iranian strike.

Hamas fired rockets toward Be'er Sheva that day. Defenses around the city and at a nearby Israeli air base fired interceptors. And the Bedouin people living in the area suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a firefight.

In the unrecognized village of al-Zarnuq, Mohammad Abu Queider was at home when the rockets started falling.

"You could hear the ground shaking, you could hear the hits close to our area," he said in an interview in a large room decorated with traditional carpets and pillows, where the family receives guests.

Mohammed's wife Mayada said there was nowhere to run on that day. "My children were hiding under the table," she says. "They couldn't do anything because we don't have a shelter."

Elsewhere in the desert, Bedouin people died on Oct. 7. In one community, four boys were killed when a Hamas rocket struck their house.

Mayada Abu Queider stands in her kitchen. She says her children were hiding under a table during the Oct. 7 attack because the village did not have a rocket shelter.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Mayada Abu Queider stands in her kitchen. She says her children were hiding under a table during the Oct. 7 attack because the village did not have a rocket shelter.

Finding shelter

In the aftermath of the attacks, Israeli aid groups fanned out across the country trying to support the victims of the Hamas rampage. One group, called IsraAid, came to the Bedouin villages.

"As always, we asked the community what are the needs they have, and the shelters were the first thing that came up," says Shachar May, a spokesperson for IsraAid.

The group partnered with the Bedouin-Jewish group AJEEC, and eventually got permission from Israeli authorities to place rocket shelters in some of the unrecognized villages. They are simple rectangles made of reinforced concrete. That's in part so they can be deemed "moveable" and satisfy Israeli rules about permanent structures.

They're not as good as a room in a house, but they're better than nothing. May's colleague Asaf Bir explains that these shelters can help the community move forward.

A concrete shelter, which was installed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A concrete shelter, which was installed after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.

"Shelters drive the economy," he says. "The second there's a shelter in a school, kids can go back to school and then their parents can go back to work."

But so far IsraAid has only been able to build 42 such shelters, each of which can hold about 20 people during an emergency. The villages typically have several thousand residents each — which means that in total, this area would need thousands of shelters to protect everyone.

May says the group knows what they've done is not nearly enough, but this is what they can afford to contribute.

"It's still just a drop in the ocean, but somebody has to start somewhere," she says.

Mohammad Abu Queider spends time with his daughter Maryam (left) and niece Zahara Abu Queider at his home.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Mohammad Abu Queider spends time with his daughter Maryam (left) and niece Zahara Abu Queider at his home.

Mohammed Abu Queider was one of the lucky ones: He got a shelter outside his home.

"It has really contributed to my sense of safety and given me a bit of calm," he says. "For me, and my neighbors, and my family, it's really good."

During the recent Iranian attack, Abu Queider's family and a few others who lived nearby huddled safely inside the shelter provided by aid groups. But they were among the few Bedouin people living in unrecognized villages who had access.

Mohammad Abu Queider and his wife Mayada walk through al-Zarnuq.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Mohammad Abu Queider and his wife Mayada walk through al-Zarnuq.

Not far from Abu Queider's village, Mohammed al-Hassouni's family is still trying to recover from the critical wounding of their daughter. He says his home no longer feels safe, and he blames not just Iran but the Israeli state.

"I want to protect my children, but they come and destroy anything we build to protect ourselves from danger," he says. "It's unfortunate to be in a country that doesn't prioritize the safety of its people."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Majd Al-Waheidi
Majd Al-Waheidi is the digital editor on Morning Edition, where she brings the show's journalism to online audiences. Previously, Al-Waheidi was a reporter for the New York Times in the Gaza Strip, where she reported about a first-of-its-kind Islamic dating site, and documented the human impact of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war in a collaborative visual project nominated for an Emmy Award. She also reported about Wikipedia censorship in Arabic for Rest of World magazine, and investigated the abusive working conditions of TikTok content moderators for Business Insider. Al-Waheidi has worked at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, and holds a master's degree in Arab Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. A native of Gaza, she speaks Arabic and some French, and is studying Farsi.