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One community in Israel didn't have access to rocket shelters. They say it's been deadly


Israel is home to hundreds of thousands of Bedouin, a group of people who've traveled the desert for centuries. Today those who live in Israel have full citizenship, but many lack one of the basic protections given to other Israelis - bomb shelters. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's a windy day in the desert outside the Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. A dirt track winds through a set of squat houses above our high voltage lines coming from a nearby power station, but they don't supply any electricity to these homes. Kher Albaz, the chairman of a Bedouin advocacy group called AJEEC explains why.

KHER ALBAZ: Even though you see the main lines of electricity passing by here, they don't have electricity. They would have to rely only on solar systems that they buy for themselves.

BRUMFIEL: We're literally standing under, like...


BRUMFIEL: ...A web of power lines.


BRUMFIEL: But they have no power here.

ALBAZ: No power. No power, no running water and no other services - municipal services, of course.

BRUMFIEL: When Israel was founded in 1948, many Bedouin were already living in villages in this part of the country. Some were recognized by the Israeli government, but many were not. This village is unrecognized. As such, it receives only the bare minimum. There's a small school made of modular buildings and a health clinic. Everything else, the people here must build for themselves.

ALBAZ: As you can see, it's a shanty town. It's huts and tents and temporary buildings, and when rockets fall on this thing, it's a disaster.

BRUMFIEL: For a long time, there weren't many rockets falling in this remote section of the Negev desert. It's 25 miles from Gaza, but in the opposite direction of big cities like Tel Aviv. But all that changed with the Hamas attack on October 7. Hamas fired rockets towards Be'er Sheva that day. Defenses around the city and at a nearby Israel airbase fired interceptors. And the Bedouin who live in the area suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a fire fight. Mohammad Abu Queider was at home when the rockets started falling.

MOHAMMAD ABU QUEIDER: (Through interpreter) You could hear the ground shaking. You could hear the hits close to our area.

BRUMFIEL: Throughout the country, Israelis were taking shelter in fortified rooms and underground bunkers. These shelters are required by law in every new building in the country. But in unrecognized villages, the law says the exact opposite. Israeli authorities say this land belongs to the government, and so all buildings here are temporary. If a Bedouin family builds a concrete shelter, the authorities will deem it an unlawful permanent structure and demolish it immediately. Mohammad's wife, Mayada, said there was nowhere to run on that day.

MAYADA: (Through interpreter) We don't have shelters. My children were hiding under the table. They couldn't do anything because we don't have a shelter.

BRUMFIEL: Elsewhere, Bedouin died. In one community, four boys were killed when a Hamas rocket struck their house. After October 7, Israel aid groups fanned out across the country trying to support victims of the attack. One group called IsraAid came to the Bedouin villages.

SHACHAR MAY: As always, we asked the community, what are the needs they have, and the shelters were the first thing that came up.

BRUMFIEL: Shachar May is a spokesperson for IsraAid. The group partnered with the Bedouin 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 movable and satisfy Israeli rules about permanent structures. They're not as good as a room in a house, but better than nothing. May's colleague Asaf Bir explains that these shelters can help the community move forward.

ASAF BIR: (Through interpreter) Shelters drive the economy. The second there's a shelter in a school, kids can go back to school, and then their parents can go back to work.

BRUMFIEL: But so far, IsraAid has only been able to build 42 such shelters. The villages in this area need thousands to protect the people who live here. May says the group knows that what they've done is not nearly enough.

MAY: We start where we can. We find the partners we can with whatever means and resources we've been able to do as much as we can. It's still just a drop in the ocean, but somebody has to start somewhere.

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

ABU QUEIDER: (Through interpreter) It's a huge relief to me. I can go do errands and go to work and know that I have a safe place at home. It has really contributed to my sense of safety and given me a bit of calm. For me and my neighbors and my family, it's really good.

BRUMFIEL: And then after my visit, Iran attacked Israel. Drones and missiles flew at the same airbase near the Bedouin. And Abu Queider's family was again caught in the crossfire. As the attack unfolded, he sent this voice memo.

ABU QUEIDER: (Through interpreter) It's so scary. More interceptions, nonstop sirens. We can hear things falling nonstop. The booms are everywhere. The ground is shaking. What fear. Wow.

BRUMFIEL: His family and a few others nearby huddled safely inside the shelter provided by aid groups, but others were not so lucky. In fact, the only civilian in Israel who was critically injured in the Iranian attack was a 7-year-old girl named Amina al-Hasoni . She was Bedouin and she lived in a village without shelters.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.