Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the southern village of Hura, the northern city of Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa Saturday evening to protest a government plan to resettle some 30,000 Bedouin residents of the Negev desert. While the protests began peacefully, those in Hura and Haifa grew violent, resulting in a total of 34 arrests and 15 wounded police officers.
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The demonstrations were organized as part of an International Day of Rage against the proposed Law for Arranging Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, more commonly known as the Prawer-Begin Plan.
The demonstration began peacefully at around 3 P.M., with protesters carrying signs accusing the government of turning against the people and chanting slogans demanding the elimination of "Fascism." But at around 4:30 P.M. things started riling up. The demonstrators and the large police force – which included the Yasam Special Forces unit of the Israel Police, cavalry and helicopters – began clashing. The demonstrators threw stones, while the police used stun grenades, tear gas and water hoses.
Some protesters claimed that it was the police who started the clashes, only after which demonstrators began throwing stones. However, not everyone agreed to this version of the events. "We did not want the protests to turn violent," one protester said at the site, "but there were a handful of people who began throwing stones. We don't ascribe to the notion that the police are against the Bedouin," he said.
After the clashes erupted, some protesters began setting tires on fire, and Highway 31, at one intersection of which protest took place, was closed to traffic. Police were injured and a number of police vehicles were damaged by stones, and dozens of protesters were detained. Minors were apparently among them.
According to Southern District Police Commander Yoram Halevy, protesters torched trash cans and fields, and a firebomb was hurled toward police officers in Hura. In addition, protesters set an industrial wooden cable spool on fire and rolled it toward the police. Firefighters managed to stop it and put out the blaze.
In Haifa, clashes also broke out between protesters and police. Cops used stun grenades and other means of crowd control, and several demonstrators were arrested there too. The protesters in the northern Israeli city called out various chants: "Prawer will not pass," "Negev land is Arab land," and "We will not leave our homes."
Another, smaller, protest took place in Jerusalem. Dozens of protesters gathered near Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City. One demonstrator was arrested and the rally dispersed.
A total of 34 people were arrested in Haifa, Jerusalem and Hura, while 15 police officers and two fire fighters were wounded.
Dozens of protesters gathered peacefully in Jaffa later in the evening.
Additional demonstrations were expected to take place in Ramallah, Gaza, Berlin, The Hague, Cairo and other cities around the world, after organizers spent weeks drumming up support for a series of simultaneous rallies.
“The state treats us like an object that can be moved from place to place,” Huda Abu Abed, a university law student and activist against the plan had said prior to the commencement of the protest. “They are denying us the basic right to decide our own fate, to decide where we will live, what we will do with our property and our basic right to a home.” She added that the activists would continue to protest non-violently along roads.
At the protest, Abu Abed said the turnout was encouraging, because it evidenced opposition to the bill. "We want to show everyone who has the ability to impact the bill that it is the simple people who will be affected by it," she said.
"The bill differentiates between two regions: one where Bedouin are allowed to settle, and another where they are not," Abu Abed continued. "Highway 40 is going to serve as a separation fence for us."
Abu Abed lamented that there was no dialogue on the matter between the Bedouin community and the government. She further insisted that the Bedouin are being "expelled for security reasons."
Another protester, Haia Noach, of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, expressed hope that the rally would alert Israelis to the consequences the plan may have for the entire region.
"It’s important that the Israeli public understand the Prawer plan's problematic nature, and the harm that it will cause to the Negev," she said, adding that the damage will not only affect Bedouin, but also Jews.
"People here are showing solidarity," she added. "We still haven't given up on the Jewish public, which must understand that the plan threatens everyone."
In addition to expressing opposition to the implementation of the Prawer-Begin plan, demonstrators pointed to the severe steps that have already been taken by the government against residents of the Negev. Last week, protest erupted following - among other things - the arrest of Sheik Siah Abu Mada'am al-Turi from al Arakib who is considered symbol of the struggle for the unrecognized villages.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the protests Saturday evening with Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino. According to the Prime Minister's Bureau, Netanyahu lauded the police force's efforts and its "steadfast work in the face of the protesters."
Netanyahu said, "We will not put up with such unruliness" and that lawbreakers would be held to account. "There has not been and will not be any tolerance of lawbreakers. The attempt of a loud and violent minority to prevent a better future for a large and wide population is severe. We will continue advancing the bill for a better future for all residents of the Negev," he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also responded to the protests. In a post on his Facebook page, Lieberman criticized the protesters.
"We are fighting for the national land of the Jewish people, and there are those who are trying to steal [this land] and take it over by force," he said, adding that he initially opposed the Prawer-Begin bill but eventually decided to support it because he was told that the Bedouin leaders had consented to the plan.
"Just like we had feared, the Bedouin are only interested in the 'carrot' – the benefits and the alternative land – while making every effort, even through violence, to oppose the 'stick,'" he continued. "They must leave the land on which they reside illegally."
Lieberman also called on the government to rethink the entire plan and nix the benefits that were promised to the Bedouin.
The a bill for Arranging Bedouin Settlement in the Negev would move thousands of Bedouins into government-recognized villages. Opponents charge the plan would confiscate Bedouin land, but Israel says the moves are necessary to provide basic services that many Bedouins lack.
Officials say the plan calls for the vast majority of Bedouin to live where they are, while allowing them to preserve their traditions in a modern state.
With reporting by The Associated Press.