JNF Tree-planting in Israel's Negev Ends After Days of Clashes With Local Bedouin

Islamist party threatened to boycott Knesset votes in protest as the Jewish National Fund plants trees on land used for agriculture by local Bedouin farmers ■ Future phases of the forestation project will be negotiated

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Police make an arrest amid clashes between protesters and officers in Sawa, in southern Israel, on Wednesday.
Police make an arrest amid clashes between protesters and officers in Sawa, in southern Israel, on Wednesday. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli government said on Wednesday that future work by the Jewish National Fund in the Negev will be negotiated by coalition partners, in a bid to ease tensions after days of violent clashes over forestation work on the land used for agriculture by local Bedouin.

The JNF's tree-planting, which began on Monday, ended on Wednesday as planned.

Labor Minister Meir Cohen, who leads the government's policy on unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, said talks on the next phase of the JNF's work will start on Thursday. The date has yet to be set for the project's continuation.

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. One of its lawmakers threatened to boycott Knesset votes over the project.

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.

Police gather at the Bedouin village of Sawa on Tuesday as locals protest against JNF forestation efforts.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Earlier on Wednesday, at least 16 people were detained in clashes with police, who bolstered their forces near the unrecognized village of Sawa.

Border Police forces joined police at the scene. Five police officers were lightly injured from stone throwing, with needing medical treatment.

Community leader Hussein Irfaiya told Haaretz that as the planting continued, police blocked residents, activists and their supporters from the area. Skirmishes continued, as people at the scene began throwing stones at law enforcement, who responded with stun grenades.

The JNF plans to plant 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of forest along the Anim stream, which flows into the Be’er Sheva stream. The first phase of the project included preparation and planting on 300 dunams, which local Bedouin farmers planted wheat on just a month ago.

Political leaders and activists have slammed the plan as endangering the livelihoods of local Bedouin families.

A coalition crisis

Walid Taha, a Knesset member from the United Arab List party, told Alshams Radio as clashes were taking place in the Negev that leaving the coalition – which would lead the government to collapse – "is always an option, but the question is how that would serve our public in the face of the alternatives."

The United Arab List is part of the governing coalition, and though Taha admits that there are those within the coalition and cabinet who would like to replace the Islamist party and see them in the opposition, they currently have no alternates.

Fellow party member Mazen Ghanayim declared in a Facebook post that he stands against the government until it ends all such agricultural work in the Negev. "It cannot be that we give them a government and they do not let us live with dignity on our lands," he wrote, referring to the crucial numbers the United Arab List gave the coalition. "The Negev is my home. The Negev is my family. The Negev is a red line," he added.

Kahanist Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Religious Zionism party tweeted on Wednesday morning that he was on his way there. Even though it is a shmita year, or a sabbatical year for working the land, Ben-Gvir wrote that he got permission from a prominent pro-settler rabbi to plant trees in order to "save the south."

"Together we will make the wilderness bloom," he added, in a reference to David Ben-Gurion's iconic remarks on the Negev.

When he arrived, people at the scene reported, Ben-Gvir was turned away from the forestation site by authorities. He planted one tree, far from Sawa and the protests, and left the area.

Labor Minister Cohen called to quell the tensions, and noted that "Aside from the supreme right of the state to plant in its land, it is important to do so responsibly, and we must reassess everything relating to forestation."

"I implore all politicians, from all sides, to take responsibility – not to stoke the flames of discord and not to throw a wrench in the works of recognizing unrecognized villages," he said.

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.

Anger at the state

Salameh al-Atrash, whose family lives in the area, told Haaretz, "What do you expect from a young person when people come to destroy his house and leave him without a roof over his head – to stand there and watch? We've been living here for over 100 years, why would they kick us out?"

He added that the show of force by the state is stoking hatred against the authorities from young people in the area. Muhammad Abu Sabit, from the same village, agreed, adding that as he sees it, the state does not want to plant trees in the Negev, terming it is an attempt at "ethnic cleansing" instead.

"We live in peace with Jewish families, and we have a lot of friends here, but the state and the government are the ones who are dividing us due to its policy," Abu Sabit said. "The whole Negev has thousands of empty dunams, and they're just dealing with our homes, on a few hundred meters [of land]."

Talib Al-Atawna, another resident, said that the police have been dealing with them violently, and that rubber bullets have entered their homes. As he sees it, he said, there are no Arab Knesset members: "We won't vote for any Arab party, and especially Mansour Abbas' [United Arab List]."

During Tuesday's protests, 18 boys aged between the ages of 13 and 15 were arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at law enforcement; two officers were lightly wounded by stones hurled by protesters.

Meanwhile, a group of some 20 protesters 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 police. The Shin Bet security service is investigating the case, as well as that of stones laid on train tracks in the area.

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