On the desert road, the Bedouins of Israel rejoice in the course of the horses

A dirt lot next to a deserted road in southern Israel may not immediately seem like the best spot, but for years it has attracted Bedouins every week to enjoy horse racing.

There is no grandeur or fence separating the spectator area from the track – just some plastic tubing tied to the posts.

But the Bedouins, who gathered there for the most part after the sun rose, told AFP on Friday that it suits them just fine.

They met in the desert region of Visnet in the Negev, a hobby that participants describe as a central part of their wandering heritage.

Saher al-Qarnawi, standing next to the barrier after watching the race of the two riders keenly, told AFP earlier this month that Israeli police tried to shut down the event, “but the people decided to let them go.”

Police spokesman for the Negev, Zivan Freidin said the races are not illegal.

“We don’t stop these people,” he said.

“We only have a problem when they constitute a public disturbance or a danger to people, when they sometimes happen near the roads.”

Horse racing and betting typically go hand in hand, but people at Abu Tlul’s track refused to confirm reports that the prize was thousands of dollars, according to an internal website.

Zakaria Shamroukh, the owner and trainer at the track, dismissed the illegal gambling rights.

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

Freidin said the police weren’t particularly involved when the betting broke out, if it happened at all.

“I don’t know about betting, and it doesn’t involve any kind of betting,” said a police spokesman.

– Social tensions –

There are more than 260,000 Bedouins in Israel, part of the country’s Arab minority, which accounts for about one-fifth of its 9.3 million people.

A partly nomadic group that has become more and more urbanized, the Bedouins consistently rank among Israel’s poorest groups and, like other Arab people, complain of exclusion and oppression from the state.

A long-standing source of friction is that many Bedouin village officials are not recognized by Israeli municipalities and lack basic services.

Tensions are also fueled by accusations of Israeli Jews blaming the Bedouins for a disproportionately high proportion of crime, especially theft.

All the people attending the track on a recent Friday, at least one Israeli Jew, who identified himself as the owner of whose horse did not run that day, refused to give his name.

In a rare study of Bedouin leisure practices, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev explored the impact that shared social spaces could have on relations between majority and minority Jewish groups.

A 2021 study – focused on Bedouin use of Israel’s forests, not racehorses – found that Bedouins had a “positive attitude” towards Israel’s Lahav Forest, even though popular leisure is managed by a Jewish state-controlled institution.

Shamroukh said the horse race provides an opportunity to foster closer ties, calling for support from the state.

“Ludia brings together Arabs (and) Jews,” he said.

“All come to the tracks, and like them, and become avid followers, and feast on the horses.”


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