Bedouin Women Unite to Provide Support and Aid Amidst Crisis, Defying Traditional Norms

BEERSHEVA, Israel – Attorney Hanan Alsanah, the director of the Center for Bedouin Women’s Rights at Itach-Ma’aki: Women Lawyers for Social Justice, was preparing for a family picnic on her day off when she received a series of WhatsApp messages on October 7. These messages, usually inactive on Saturdays, alerted her to an imminent attack. Alsanah initially hoped that the authorities would intervene and stop the violence, but as time passed, it became clear that they were not taking action. Alsanah felt unsafe and considered leaving the area with her children. However, after receiving messages from both Jews and Bedouins who had survived the attack and were seeking help, she changed her plans.

Alsanah began coordinating efforts to assist those affected by the attack. Unrecognized Bedouin villages were particularly vulnerable, and women there sought protection in bomb shelters as well as coverage by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Alsanah abandoned her plans to leave and instead focused on mobilizing support. She reached out to contacts in the field who could help, including individuals who were familiar with the desert terrain and could search for those who had escaped the massacre at the Supernova music festival.

In the following days, Alsanah and her Jewish colleague, Shir Nosatzki, established an emergency situation room in the Bedouin city of Rahat. Recognizing the urgent need to help Bedouin families affected by the attack, as well as families from the Gaza border communities that had been evacuated, they brought together a network of activists, NGOs, and public representatives. Their efforts proved successful, and the emergency situation room continued to operate six months later, supporting single-mother families in unrecognized Bedouin villages and families in the Jewish communities of Yeruham and Dimona.

Today, the emergency situation room is staffed by 37 female Bedouin women volunteers working alongside female Jewish volunteers, providing assistance to approximately 1,000 needy families. Alsanah emphasized that women leaders played a crucial role in establishing the room and continue to lead the local movement for supporting families; however, there are now many male volunteers as well.

Alsanah’s commitment to advancing women’s rights and serving her community stems from her upbringing. Helping her father shepherd sheep at a young age exposed her to the men’s world, which girls are traditionally not permitted to be part of. These early experiences cultivated her independence, determination, and resilience, qualities that have enabled her to advocate for women’s rights in her traditional Bedouin community while staying connected to her roots.

Overcoming societal barriers, Alsanah pursued a law degree at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. Despite facing opposition from her family, who traditionally does not support women receiving academic education, Alsanah prioritized her personal growth and independence. Her ambition now extends to becoming a judge, and she is proud that her nieces have followed her example, with one of them even becoming a lawyer.

While her work for women’s rights often faces resistance from male leaders in unrecognized villages, Alsanah persists in her efforts. Though initially rejected, she continues to engage with these leaders, gradually winning their support and gaining access to the women in their communities. Through her perseverance, she has empowered the women in these villages, enabling them to become leaders themselves and ensuring that their voices are heard.

Beyond her work in women’s rights, Alsanah has been involved in promoting civil equality and human rights for Arab-Bedouin communities. She has advocated for basic services in unrecognized villages, challenged discrimination through legal petitions to Israel’s Supreme Court, and documented human rights violations. Her involvement with various Israeli NGOs and collaborations with international forums, the UN, and government officials have been instrumental in bringing attention to the challenges Bedouin communities face.

Alsanah’s efforts have also focused on addressing the lack of childcare in the villages, which hinders young mothers from finding employment. By advocating for the establishment of childcare frameworks and supporting educational opportunities for women in Bedouin towns, unemployment rates have decreased significantly over the past decade.

Amidst the ongoing conflict with Gaza, Alsanah acknowledges that Bedouin Israelis, like their Jewish counterparts, experience increased depression and a sense of helplessness. She emphasizes the importance of providing professional emotional support to mitigate these struggles. Despite the difficulties and divisions caused by the conflict, Alsanah finds hope in the cooperation she has witnessed between Bedouin and Jewish volunteers. By fostering unity and refusing to let extremists dictate the narrative, she believes that the caring individuals who strive for a shared society ultimately hold the key to a brighter future.