Police in the Negev this week arrested 17 members of a Bedouin tribe that has been locked in a dispute with the state over claims over ownership of land near the town of Lakiya.

Authorities say the Bedouin repeatedly threatened Jewish National Fund workers with violence and vandalized state property over the course of the past six months. The suspects face charges of attempted murder, arson, extortion, assaulting a public official and vandalism.

The arrests come as the Talalka tribe is in the throes of a legal battle with the state over the status of land in the nearby Goral hills in the northern Negev. The tribe says that it owns the land, while the state counters that the area is public.

"We will not sit idly by while crimes are being committed by the Bedouin population," said police Southern District commander Yohanan Danino. "We are completing a series of successful law enforcement operations in the south. During recent months the Southern District units acted with determination, both undercover and overtly, in order to apprehend the suspects and gather evidence against them.

"[These arrests] prove to those who think that through violence and gross lawbreaking, terrorizing public workers and seriously harming state properties they will be able to wreak havoc. The police will find the perpetrators and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law."

With the aid of the Shin Bet security service, police investigators launched an undercover probe that led the authorities to the tribesmen.

"They threatened JNF workers repeatedly," said one official with intimate knowledge of the investigation. "They threatened contractors who worked in the area. They tried to set alight a car belonging to a JNF employee while he was inside the vehicle. They set fire to thousands of trees that were planted by the JNF. They burned tractors, and threatened security guards and subcontractors. Basically, they thought they were allowed to do whatever they wanted."

A large police contingent of 400 officers raided the suspects' homes early yesterday morning.

In the past year, Negev police have encountered increasingly frequent incidents of violence against state workers committed by local Bedouin. Often these cases occur against the backdrop of land disputes between local tribes and established municipalities, including the Tarabin tribe's opposition to the expansion of the Be'er Sheva suburb of Omer.

Police also said that Bedouin youths have hurled firebombs at passing vehicles along Route 40. Danino has even met with top Bedouin sheikhs and community leaders in an effort to rein in the escalating violence. "We are enforcing the law without compromise," a police official said, "while trying to bring the community closer to the police through dialogue."

A member of the Talalka tribe assailed the arrests. "Now it is obvious that the police have gone too far and they will depict us as criminals," he said. "This land [near the Goral hills] has been ours for dozens of years. They are simply depriving us of what is rightfully ours. Nobody here [among the Bedouin] tried to murder or kill anyone."