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When rockets hit, Bedouin Israeli citizens have nowhere to hide

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

Iran launched a massive attack on an air base near the family's village. Al-Hassouni rushed to the car with his children. As he tried to invite them, a rocket fragment hit with a bang near the house. Frightened, his seven-year-old daughter Amina ran back into the house.

Moments later, another rocket fragment pierced the roof and fell on them.

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

Amina was the only Israeli civilian critically injured in the Iranian attack, but her injury was not purely accidental.

/ 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.

Across Israel, houses and buildings are equipped with fortified rooms and bomb shelters. These shelters are required by law and designed to protect against the very falling debris that seriously injured Amina.

But al-Hassouni cannot build such a shelter in his house. He is a member of the Bedouin community – a group of people who lived in villages in southern Israel before the state was founded in 1948. Meanwhile, some villages were officially recognized but others were not. The village where the al-Hassouni family lives is called al-Fura. Although its existence predates the founding of the State of Israel, it remains unrecognized.

Therefore, any shelter he builds is considered an unlawful permanent structure under Israeli law. It would be demolished immediately by the authorities.

“They come and destroy everything we build to protect ourselves from danger,” he says. “I think if we were treated as citizens and had access to housing, my daughter wouldn’t be in intensive care right now.”

A concrete shelter built after the October 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 built after the October 7 Hamas attacks is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.

No way to escape

There are hundreds of thousands of Bedouins living in Israel, 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 country's land, says these unrecognized villages were built on state land. Authorities regularly order the demolition of Bedouin homes in unrecognized settlements, a practice that has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups.

Earlier this year, NPR visited several Bedouin villages to learn more about why bomb shelters are so hard to find and what that means for the people who live there.

The lack of services in these communities is striking. In the unknown village of Wadi al-Na'am, a network of power lines from a nearby power plant stretches overhead. Kher Albaz, the leader of a Jewish and Bedouin advocacy group called AJEEC, points out that they do not deliver to any of the houses they cross.

“They only depend on solar systems that they have to buy themselves,” explains Albaz. It is among the many things that Wadi al-Na'am is missing.

The residents have “no electricity, no running water and no communal services,” he says.

The state only provides a small school housed in modular buildings and a health clinic.

Kher Albaz, CEO 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, CEO 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 stay. For some, it is about a claim to the land that the State of Israel also claims to own. For others, says Albaz, it's about keeping close-knit families together. Still others simply cannot afford to move to the recognized communities.

Their homes are simply furnished – often powered by a few solar panels and, if they're lucky, supplied by water drawn from a main pipe.

“As you can see, it’s a slum, there are shacks and tents and makeshift buildings,” Albaz says. “And if missiles fall on this thing, it’s a disaster.”

For a long time, not many rockets fell in this remote part of the Negev Desert. It is located 25 miles from Gaza, in the opposite direction from major cities such as Tel Aviv.

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

Mohammad Abu Queider stands near his home in al-Zarnuq, an unrecognized Bedouin village in southern Israel.  His family was caught in the crossfire twice: first during the Hamas attack and then during the Iran attack.

/ 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 was caught in the crossfire twice: first during the Hamas attack and then during the Iran attack.

That day, Hamas fired rockets at Beer Sheva. Defenses around the city and at a nearby Israeli air base fired interceptors. And the Bedouins living in the area suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a firefight.

Mohammad Abu Queider was at home in the unknown village of al-Zarnuq when the rockets hit.

“You could hear the ground shaking, you could hear the impacts near us,” he said in an interview in a large room decorated with traditional rugs and cushions where the family receives guests.

Mohammed's wife Mayada said there was nowhere to walk that day. “My children hid under the table,” she says. “They couldn’t do anything because we don’t have a place to stay.”

Bedouins died elsewhere in the desert on October 7th. In one community, four boys were killed when a Hamas rocket hit their home.

Mayada Abu Queider stands in her kitchen.  She says her children hid under a table during the Oct. 7 attack because the village had no missile shelter.

/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR

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Tamir Kalifa for NPR

Mayada Abu Queider stands in her kitchen. She says her children hid under a table during the Oct. 7 attack because the village had no missile shelter.

Find shelter

After the attacks, Israeli aid groups spread across the country to support victims of Hamas' rampage. A group called IsraAid came to the Bedouin villages.

“As always, we asked the community what their needs were, and housing was the first thing that came up,” says Shachar May. a spokesman for IsraAid.

The group joined forces with the Bedouin Jewish group AJEEC and eventually received permission from Israeli authorities to set up missile shelters in some of the unrecognized villages. They are simple rectangles made of reinforced concrete. This is partly because they can be considered “movable” and meet Israeli rules for 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 built after the October 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 built after the October 7 Hamas attacks is seen in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Wadi al-Na'am in southern Israel.

“Housing drives the economy,” he says. “As soon as there is accommodation in a school, the children can go back to school and their parents can then go back to work.”

However, so far IsraAid has only been able to build 42 such emergency shelters, each of which can accommodate around 20 people in an emergency. The villages typically have several thousand residents each – meaning this area in total would need thousands of emergency shelters to keep everyone safe.

May says the group knows what they have done is far from enough, but they can afford to make such a contribution.

“It’s still just a drop in the ocean, but someone has to start somewhere,” she says.

Mohammad Abu Queider spends time with his daughter Maryam (left) and his niece Zahara Abu Queider in his house.

/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR

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Tamir Kalifa for NPR

Mohammad Abu Queider spends time with his daughter Maryam (left) and his niece Zahara Abu Queider in his house.

Mohammed Abu Queider was one of the lucky ones: he got shelter in front of his house.

“It really added to my sense of security and gave me some peace of mind,” he says. “It’s really good for me, my neighbors and my family.”

During the recent Iranian attack, Abu Queider's family and several others who lived nearby huddled safely in shelters provided by aid groups. But they were among the few Bedouins who lived in unrecognized villages and 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 their daughter's life-threatening injury. 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 everything we build to protect ourselves from danger,” he says. “It is unfortunate to live in a country where the safety of its people is not a priority.”

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Anna Harden

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