Bedouin Leaders Urge Unity, Non-violence as Talks on JNF Negev Project Continue

Lawmakers from Mansour Abbas' party are set to arrive in the Negev for discussions with Bedouin leaders, as clashes subside after days of violence between locals and Israeli police over a controversial forestation plan

Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet
Clashes in the Bedouin village of Sawa in southern Israel on Wednesday.
Clashes in the Bedouin village of Sawa in southern Israel on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet

Bedouin leaders in the south seized on a lull in clashes between residents of the Negev and Israeli security forces to hold a mass meeting on Saturday, and called for a non-violent and unified approach to their struggle to achieve rights for unrecognized townships.

In a meeting in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Bir al-Hamam, nearly 100 representatives and community leaders concurred that they must work to prevent further violence, after days of confrontations in the wake of forestation work by the Jewish National Fund last week as part of a plan seen by Bedouin as a land grab.

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They also criticized Israeli opposition parties on both the Jewish right and the Arab left for harming their strategy on unrecognized villages by painting it as a national struggle.

The United Arab List, an Islamist party that is part of Israel’s ruling coalition and has a strong supporter base in the Bedouin community, is expected to send representatives to the Negev later on Sunday to update local leaders on negotiations on moving forward with the JNF’s contentious tree-planting project in the area.

The Jewish National Fund made preparations over the past three weeks to plant a grove of about 300 dunams (30 hectares) in an agricultural land near the village of Sawa. This is the first step in a project to plant some 5,000 dunams in the area, in an attempt to push the Bedouin living in unrecognized villages to move to recognized urban communities.

Representatives from 35 unrecognized villages and 11 recognized villages agreed in their Saturday meeting to emphasize that their opposition to the JNF’s project and demands to recognize the villages was not based on a national ideology. Some supporters of the United Arab List accused the Joint List – a three-way coalition of predominantly Arab parties, which sits in the opposition – of fanning the flames to destabilize the government, by using nationalistic language that undermines the legitimacy of the Bedouin's claims.

Hussein Irfaiya, a member of the council for unrecognized villages in the area, told Haaretz that his community “shouldn’t be dragged into” political fights. According to him, members of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir “who came to plant at Sawa, wanted to destabilize the government, and drove our youth crazy.”

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

“We are citizens and we want our rights. Nothing else,” he added. “It’s important that all the leaders and family heads tell young people that the struggle must not be perceived as nationalistic. It is an entirely civic struggle.”

Irfaiya said he had spoken over the past days with some 200 clan leaders to urge them to convey the message that the council condemns violence in no uncertain terms, giving the example of stones thrown at vehicles by local youth.

Atiya al-Asem, the chairman of the council of unrecognized villages, called to avoid “unnecessary” actions. “The struggle must be measured and wise to achieve [our] goal,” he said.

The forestation plan outlines 5,000 dunams 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. That phase 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.

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