RAHAT, Israel (AFP) – In Israel’s vast Negev desert, an Orthodox rabbi is helping impoverished Arab Bedouins with money collected from American evangelical Christians.
When a violent storm swept away the encampment of the al-Amrani clan on the side of a hill near the town of Rahat on December 27, the 250-strong tribe, including 110 children, lost everything.
Six weeks earlier, the Bedouin family lived near Dimona 55 kilometers (34 miles) farther south, but had to quickly flee their homes, abandoning most of their possessions, after armed clashes with a rival more powerful clan.
“These types of problems, disputes over land purchases, have been going on for 10 years,” says Nasar al-Amrani, 45, one of the clan heads. “But this time people were killed. The Israeli police advised us to leave.”
With their houses burned down and many of their belongings stolen, they took refuge near Rahat after getting authorization from city hall, and erected large tents for shelter.
But their new homes did not last long — driving rain and raging winds from the December storm destroyed everything, injuring one woman and her six children. The clan was evacuated by Israeli rescue services and housed in a school, temporarily vacant because of the holidays, in Rahat, a poor and dusty town in central Negev.
“I contacted the government but did not receive a response,” says Rahat Mayor Talal al-Kirnawi. “It was urgent because I needed the school for January 7” after the holiday break, he says.
“So I thought of Rabbi Eckstein… I know he has a big heart.”
Rabbi Eckstein heads the “International Fellowship of Christians and Jews”, a non-governmental organization founded in the United States in 1983. In this role, he raises funds from the staunchly pro-Israel evangelical Christians in the US “largely to support Israel”.
Last year, he raised 75 million dollars (58 million euros) from half a million donors, most of them regular contributors of modest means.
“We have 200 projects running in Israel,” says Eckstein. “Our guidelines are — help the people of Israel. All the citizens of Israel, regardless of their religion.”
“We don’t help Palestinians,” he says, referring to those living in occupied Palestinian territories. “But we do help Druze, (Israeli Arab) Muslims, Bedouins.”
“And I never had any complaint (from a donor) because we’re helping Arabs,” he adds.
A few hours after talking to Rahat’s mayor, Eckstein gave the green light to unblock 148,000 dollars to help the al-Amrani clan.
And last Friday, in rain and freezing wind, dozens of volunteers were bustling about outside Rahat, welding metal girders and covering them with metal sheets as they put up 56 solid — though not necessarily the most comfortable — shelters.
The clan is preparing for several years there or even longer, as they wait, without too much hope, for other land to be allocated to them.
“It’s Christian money? So what?” smiles Nasar al-Amrani, pulling off his work gloves. “We need help, they are here. Jews, Christian, Muslims, it’s all the same God. What I understand is that the rabbi is doing this so that God sees it and knows it.”