Leader of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages Accuses Israeli Right, Joint List of Inciting Clashes

Following days of intense clashes between protesters and police in the southern Israel over Bedouin land rights, the government agreed to negotiate future work by the JNF in the region

Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet
Tires torched in Tel Sheva in southern Israel.
Tires torched in Tel Sheva in southern Israel.
Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet

Bedouin in Israel's south threw stones at passing cars and lightly injured a police officer on Thursday overnight, as tensions continued to simmer in the Negev over the controversial planting of Jewish National Fund trees on land cultivated by the community.

Stones were thrown at vehicles in the Negev towns of Segev Shalom and Tel Sheva, and then at police cars near Nevatim Airbase. The assailants smashed the windshield of a police car and lightly injured an officer, who was evacuated to hospital for medical treatment.

A member of the council for unrecognized villages in the area, Hussein Irfaiya, said Friday that the Joint List had "exploited the roiling situation and declared [protests]. It’s a political matter, a political game. The crowd that came had real grievances, but the people who organized it were the Joint List and members of the right wing who wanted to stir things up.”

Irfaiya called on the Joint List leadership to “calm the youth.” He said, “There is incitement against us by Likud, and that doesn’t help calm things. The matter of planting trees has been political from the start, and the JNF members are connected to Likud. It was planned to bring them to the area, because they know that it’s volatile.”

Along Route 60, several drivers also reported on Friday that their vehicles were pelted with stones, but that they were not hurt. In one case, a security guard who was on his way to Tel Sheva reported that rocks were thrown at his car. Once he evacuated the vehicle to take shelter, his car was set on fire. Tires were also set alight in several locations across the south.

Israel police said on Friday morning that they would bolster their forces in the area over the weekend in response.

The JNF's controversial tree-planting project, which began on Monday, was immediately met with protests from local Bedouin residents, who use the land for agriculture and see the plan as a land grab. Hundreds of police officers were deployed to guard Jewish National Fund workers preparing the land for forestation near the Bedouin town of Hura, escalating into violent clashes.

The JNF's tree-planting ended on Wednesday as planned following days of clashes between police and protests that have resulted in numerous arrests and injuries.

That same day, the government backed down and agreed that future work by JNF in the Negev will be negotiated by coalition partners, in a bid to ease tensions after days of violent clashes and a near breakup of the government.

Protesters have continued demonstrating despite the announcement; thirteen protesters were arrested Thursday after clashes resumed for the fourth day in a row as hundreds gathered along an inner-city highway near the Bedouin village of Sawa, and were dispersed with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least three were injured, activists said.

The Israeli government came close to unraveling this week when the United Arab List, led by MK Mansour Abbas, threatened to withdraw its support over the matter.

Forty-six percent of the votes for the United Arab List in the last election came from Negev Bedouin, who's interests have ranked high in Abbas' list of demands for his participation in the ruling coalition.

On Tuesday, Channel 12 journalist Amit Segal quoted Abbas saying: “The UAL will stop voting with the government. I’ve taken some harsh blows in the past, but when they shoot me right in the chest, I can’t tolerate it. The Negev is the UAL. I demand the tree-planting be stopped, and that a process be launched to ensure Bedouin land rights.” A question mark now hangs over Abbas’ historic move of joining the government.

The JNF's afforestation plan outlines 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of forest to 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.

The Likud-led opposition has largely backed the plan, seen as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the ruling coalition parties. Several opposition MKs went down south to the site on Wednesday and took pictures holding shovels and planting trees.

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