‘Between two flames’: the Bedouin family that came to embody tragedy and courage on Israel’s darkest day | Israel-Hamas war

todayNovember 4, 2023 5

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When Hamas militants launched a murderous attack on southern Israel on 7 October, three branches of the Zeadna family experienced very different fates.

Abdul Zeadna, 29, was taking a weekend break from his factory job and camping on Zikim beach, two miles from Gaza. He was shot so many times that his corpse looked like it had been “smothered” in bullets, said a relative.

Yosef Zeadna, 53, a dairy farmer, was abducted from a kibbutz with his daughter Aisha, 16, and sons Hamza, 21, and Bilal, 24, and taken to Gaza. Hamas posted a photo of Hamza and Bilal lying on the ground, stripped to the waist, guarded by armed men.

A Hamas video showing Hamza and Bilal Zeadna and two other abducted men. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Observer

Another Yosef Zeadna, a 48-year-old minibus driver, had been due to collect seven young women from the Supernova music festival that afternoon. Alerted by their texts and calls to an unfolding massacre, he raced to the scene, packed 31 people into his 14-seater and sped away through fields, avoiding gunfire from Hamas death squads. Other festival-goers in their own cars followed him and also reached safety.

One family member murdered, another four taken hostage and one transformed into a hero – the Zeadnas are a remarkable embodiment of the tragedy, angst and courage of Israel’s darkest day.

The family, however, do not fit neatly into the binary narrative of Israel’s conflict with Hamas, and the faces of the four who were abducted do not appear among the posters of hostages that have been seen around the world.

The Zeadnas are Israeli citizens, but as Muslims and Bedouin Arabs they are also part of a marginalised minority, about 4% of the population, that has a fraught relationship with its Israeli identity and the state of Israel.

“We are stuck in the middle between the racism of the Israeli state and brutality of Hamas,” said Ata Abu Mdegem, the mayor of Rahat, a sprawling Bedouin city of 76,000 people in the Negev desert that is 20 miles east of Gaza. A sculpture of a Qur’an marks the entrance. The Israeli flags that line other towns are fewer and less visible here, though there is one in the mayor’s office.

Man sits at a desk in front of a large map and beside two flags, one an Israeli flag
Ata Abu Mdegem, the mayor of Rahat, said the Bedouin city was left vulnerable by Israel’s failure to build rocket shelters. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Observer

Since its foundation, Israel has harassed and neglected Bedouins, seizing their lands, demolishing homes and failing to build rocket shelters, said the mayor. “We were left naked. And then Hamas attacked. What they did to us was unforgivable – it was a stab in the heart.”

At least 19 Bedouins were among the more than 1,400 people killed in the Hamas onslaught. Most were believed to be members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which has a tradition of using Bedouins as scouts and trackers.

The anger and grief are visceral but Bedouins are not cheering the reprisal airstrikes and ground offensive that have laid waste to Gaza and killed more than 9,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Many Bedouin families have relatives in the enclave, and Gazans are fellow Arabs and Muslims.

Daham Zeadna said Bedouins want security and to live in peace. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Observer

For the Zeadna family, whose name can also be spelled Alziadna, the dilemma is agonising. While mourning Abdul, they must walk a political and public relations tightrope that balances Israeli acclaim for Yosef’s courage with an appeal to Hamas to free the four relatives held hostage.

“We are between two flames,” said Daham Zeadna, 35, a brother of Yosef the van driver. “If you do things the Israeli way, you are Jewish in the eyes of Hamas. If you do things the Palestinian way, you are Hamas in the eyes of Israelis.”

The festival-goers rescued by Yosef thanked him on social media, and Hebrew-language newspapers lauded his courage. President Isaac Herzog visited Rahat last week and embraced him as “an Israeli hero” and part of “the beautiful face of the state of Israel”.

Yosef said his action was simply humane and that he was happy to have saved lives. He is, however, paying a price: Hamas has threatened him and he is suffering anxiety, requiring medical help, said his brother.

Montage of three pictures showing an older man and two younger men
Handout of photographs of Yosef Zeadna, a dairy farmer, and his sons Hamza and Bilal, who were abducted by Hamas. Photograph: The Observer

The Zeadnas think the best chance of saving their abducted relatives is to discreetly cast them as a different category from the Jewish Israeli hostages. They have not joined other hostage families at rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem nor added Yosef, Aisha, Hamza and Bilal to the posters that have become a global campaign.

However they hesitate to make direct appeals to Hamas via Arabic media lest they join those Palestinians who have been detained or sacked for social media posts expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza, said Daham.

Bedouins are trapped in a vice, he said. As Israeli citizens, they pay taxes and serve in the IDF but suffer abuse from Jewish settlers and prejudice from the state, which has ignored requests for shelters, despite their city’s vulnerability to Hamas rockets.

Bedouins feel solidarity with Gazans – before the conflict, a relative used to obtain medical treatment for people in the enclave – yet some Gazans accuse them of betraying Arab identity, said Daham. “They shout at us that we are Israelis, but we were here before Israel. Where do they want us to go?”

The family want the conflict to end and for their abducted relatives to return home, said Daham. “There shouldn’t be a need for heroism. We want security and to live in peace.”

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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