Israel Shelves Plans That Would Harm Bedouin After Pressure From Islamist Party

Controversial proposals for a phosphate mine and tree planting by the JNF were stopped after pressure from the United Arab List, coalition sources say

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A demonstration against mining in Sde Barir in 2018.
A demonstration against mining in Sde Barir in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The government suspended controversial plans for a phosphate mine, as well as tree-planting which would have shrunk Bedouin land in the Negev, due to pressure from the United Arab List party.

The construction of the Sde Barir phosphate mine was set to take place near the town of Arad and the Bedouin community of Kseifa. Officially, the Sde Barir phosphate mine was halted after Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg appealed the plan’s approval. However, sources in the coalition speaking on the condition of anonymity said the UAL had a major role in this decision.

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The project will be frozen until government polices on this issue are reviewed, with consideration given to economic and environmental aspects. The review is supposed to take place within 180 days.

A similar review was removed in the past from the agenda of the Ministerial Committee on Internal Affairs, Services and Local Government, following a request by MK Walid Taha of the UAL. However, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who heads the committee, returned it to the agenda two months ago, in what coalition sources described as a “snap move.” This proposal has now been taken off the agenda again following the appeal by Zandberg, following lengthy consultations with Taha and Abbas.

Sources in the UAL said that they had to turn to Zandberg since only a cabinet minister can file such an appeal. They said party lawmakers had asked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid to intervene in the matter two months ago.

Taha, who also chairs the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee, said in an interview Tuesday that the forces behind the mine “see only money, not the people of Arad and Kseifa.” 

“You can’t manage a country only with economic considerations. The state exists for its people, and you have to consider them,” he added.

In October, the High Court of Justice ordered the state to complete an examination of the public-health implications of mining phosphates in the area before giving final approval for the project. Based on the findings, the possibility of canceling the mining project will also be considered.

After the phosphate mine was suspended last week, Zandberg said in a statement that it was “a necessary decision, especially in an era of climate crisis and severe ecological crisis, requiring the maintenance of open spaces and natural systems.” She added, “I welcome the decision, and we will work together to ensure that the planned policy discussion is sound, informed and responsible.”

The intervention of party chair Mansour Abbas also led to the suspension of tree-planting by the Jewish National Fund in the Yattir Forest in the northern Negev near a number of unrecognized Bedouin villages. The Israel Land Authority said the planting would resume within days.

The JNF tree-planting in Yattir Forest drew protests by Bedouin who live nearby. They claim that its goal was to take control of land in the area and push them out of the area. In an interview with the Nazareth-based Arabic-language radio station Alshams, Abbas said the planting was suspending after understandings were reached with the Israel Land Authority. Last Wednesday, there were severe clashes between residents and police at the site of the plantings.

The Israel Land Authority said the planting was not halted, but rather moved to a different area due to weather conditions. The agency said to resume the planting in the original area, more police forces will be required, and that this will happen in the coming days,

Abbas admitted that the furor around the planting led to pressure exerted on him from within the party and by its supporters, including calls to leave the coalition. In a conversation in recent days with party activists, Abbas said that despite these calls, the UAL intends to take advantage of its participation in the government to act for the benefit of the Arab public, including in the Negev. “We’re dealing with problems that have been ongoing for 70 years, so you can’t reach an arrangement on all of these. We’re [in the coalition] to influence and to serve our public. There’s a difference between slogans and action.”

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee announced a demonstration Sunday outside government offices in Be’er Sheva, to protest the tree-planting.

This wasn’t the first time the JNF suspended tree-planting in the Negev after residents protested. In July 2020, then-Economy Minister Amir Peretz, who was responsible for Bedouin communities in the Negev, halted a tree-planting project near the unrecognized Bedouin village of Khirbet al-Watan, in the wake of appeals by residents.

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