Clashes Erupt in Israel's South Over Forestation Plan; Haaretz Reporter's Car Set Ablaze

Foreign Minister Lapid calls to stop forestation after clashes in Israel's south erupt over plan to plant on land used by local Bedouin for farming

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Tires set on fire during a protest against a JNF forestation plan in southern Israel, Tuesday.
Tires set on fire during a protest against a JNF forestation plan in southern Israel, Tuesday.

Two police officers were wounded on Tuesday evening during a protest in southern Israel against Jewish National Fund plans for forestation on land used by Bedouin farmers, law enforcement said.

Police said they had received a report of stones being thrown at a bus, and that a train had braked near Be'er Sheva after the conductor noticed that stones had been placed on the tracks. An investigation into the incident has been launched, police said. The protest also caused a stretch of highway in the area to be closed off.

Meanwhile, a group of some 20 people assaulted Haaretz reporter Nati Yefet as he was covering the events. One of the attackers stole his car and set it ablaze while the others attacked him. He managed to escape and was rescued by a police force.   

Earlier in the day, police arrested 18 people, including boys aged 13-15, protesting at the site of the planned forestation. During the protests a 10-year-old boy was also detained and released. According to the police, the protesters were arrested on suspicion of throwing rocks at law enforcement.

The entrance to Segev Shalom, on Tuesday.

The JNF's forestation plan is especially significant for the United Arab List, as Bedouin constitute a substantial portion of the party's voter base. Even before the current government was formed, Bedouin in the area said that the works occupy their farming zones and demanded that the plan be halted.

Hundreds of police escorted JNF workers preparing the land for forestation on Monday, and the forestation works are expected to continue on Wednesday, with police supervision. A protest tent erected on the site on Monday night was demolished by JNF tractors.

According to the plan, 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of forest will be planted along the Anim stream, which flows into the Be’er Sheva stream. Out of the 5,000 dunams, the first phase of the project includes preparation and planting on 300 dunams, which locals planted wheat on just a month ago.

Politicians and NGOs have slammed the plan as endangering the livelihoods of local Bedouin families.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called to halt the works on Tuesday. "Like the Netanyahu government stopped the forestation works in 2020, we can stop [it] and reassess," Lapid tweeted on Tuesday. 

Hassan al-Rafia, a local activist and former chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, said Tuesday that police are trying to inflame tensions. He claimed that three young women who had nothing to do with the protests were also arrested. "This makes the people angry," he said. "If they remain in custody tonight this will lead to an explosion."

Police officers arresting a protester in Sa'wa, on Tuesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This week, United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas threatened that his party would not vote with the rest of the coalition until the issue was resolved.

Members of the Joint List party appealed to Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev to release the demonstrators Tuesday night, writing that "police forces at the scene documented acts of violence including harming civilians with vehicles and the arrest of a 10-year-old minor." The lawmakers added that the JNF began "plowing the land and planting trees for a clear political purpose – to establish facts, take over the land and expel the original inhabitants."

Meanwhile, a police checkpoint has been placed near the site of the planned forestation, blocking residents from accessing the area by car. Rabia Agbaria of Adalah sent a letter to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Southern District Commander, Maj. Gen. Peretz Amar, and Attorney Genertal Avichai Mandelblit regarding the matter. “Preventing the free movement of local residents, including schoolchildren, along an artery vital to their place of residence, violates their constitutional right to free movement,” he wrote, adding that “The placing of these checkpoints is utterly unauthorized.”

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