The Bedouins of Israel enjoy horse racing away from the traditional tracks

AFP

Along a random sandy track, the Bedouin Arabs of Israel’s Negev desert hold a weekly horse race along a highway, in a location that may not seem ideal for such activities but which the residents hold dear.

Bedouin men gather to watch or take part in the race at sunrise, at an area called Abu Talul Racecourse, 15 kilometers southeast of Beersheba, almost every Friday.

Participants of the races told AFP that this place suits them perfectly, and that they have been meeting there for years to enjoy a recreational activity central to their culture.

This equestrian race is devoid of grandstands or even fencing separating the racetrack from the spectator area, with only rickety pegs separating them and some plastic pipes attached to the poles.

Standing at the checkpoint, Saher al-Qarnawi told AFP, after watching with interest the two horses’ race on a Friday earlier this month, that the Israeli police tried to stop the races, “but the people are determined to keep them going.”

One race consists of several runs, each of which differs in the number of competing horses.

More than 260,000 Bedouin live in Israel, mainly in the Negev desert. They are part of the Arab community that makes up nearly a fifth of Israel’s population of 9.3 million.

The Arabs of Israel are descended from Palestinians who remained on their land after the establishment of the Hebrew state in 1948, and they complain of discrimination and marginalization in favor of members of the Jewish majority in the country.

Negev police spokesman Zivan Frieden said the races are not prohibited. “We don’t ban these races,” he said. We only have a problem when they create a public disturbance or endanger people, because sometimes they happen near roads.”

Social cohesion? Horse racing is usually associated with betting ,
but those present at the Abu Tulul Racecourse refused to confirm reports that thousands of dollars in weekly betting were taking place outside the site.

Zakaria Shamrock, the owner and trainer at the track, has denied allegations of illegal gambling.

“Do you see the money here?” he told AFP. It’s just a hobby.”

Frieden indicated that the police are not in the process of cracking down on betting, if this is happening at all, saying, “I don’t know anything about bets and not every race involves bets. I don’t have a problem with people doing these races. My problem is only when it puts people in danger.”

The Bedouins are increasingly moving towards urban areas, and about 40 percent of them have long lived in villages not recognized by Israel.

They are consistently ranked as the poorest group in Israel and, like other Arabs, complain of marginalization and mistreatment from the central government.

Tensions prevail in the Negev region over the confiscation of their lands, but some of them are also motivated by accusations from Israeli Jews who blame the Bedouin for committing a high percentage of petty crimes, especially theft.

The crowd of males running the final Friday included at least one Israeli Jew who refused to be named. He introduced himself as the owner of a horse that was not participating in the race that day.

Shamrock called on Israel to support the races, believing that they provide an opportunity to strengthen relations between cultural groups.

“Sport brings together Arabs and Jews,” he said. “They all come to the race track and have become passionate followers and cheer for the horses.”

In a rare study of Bedouin leisure practices that focused on Bedouin use of a vast forest built decades ago by Israel in the south of the country, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev explored the impact of communal social spaces on relations between Jewish majority and minority groups.

The study found that the Bedouin have “positive feelings” toward the site, known as the Yattir Forest or Lahav, where they congregate regularly, even though it is run by Jewish-dominated state institutions.

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