Arab Parties’ Fight for Political Control in Israel's Negev Reaches Boiling Point

As United Arab List chairman makes a push for a historic plan to recognize Bedouin towns, a rift deepens with the Joint List over political support and how best to oppose JNF tree-planting

Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet
Mansour Abbas, center, visiting the unrecognized Bedouin town of Sa'wa, last month.
Mansour Abbas, center, visiting the unrecognized Bedouin town of Sa'wa, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz
Nati Yefet
Nati Yefet

The Negev has become a battleground for the two Arab-majority slates in the Knesset – the United Arab List and the Joint List – with the conflict reaching a breaking point over the last month. The tensions run so deep that a committee of reconciliation was formed two weeks ago to address the issue.

At stake is UAL leader Mansour Abbas’ historic decision to lobby the Israeli government to grant legal status to unrecognized Bedouin towns in the area where the Jewish National Fund has undertaken a controversial tree-planting project. The UAL fears that the Joint List’s nationalist stance will deter Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from supporting their plan.

Meanwhile, the Joint List is seeking to cut into UAL support in the Negev. Abbas’ party has been weakened since the death of Saeed Alkharumi last August. Alkharumi was the party’s deputy chairman and the most popular politician among the Negev Bedouin.

The UAL’s political standing has also suffered from the continuation of the JNF tree-planting initiative and the party’s opposition to the demolition of illegally built homes, despite its belonging to the Bennett coalition. The party’s woes have been compounded by growing police pressure on the Bedouin community and its consent to police searches without a court order.

The chasm between the two Arab lists deepened with the appointment of former Balad Knesset Member Juma Azbarga as coordinator of the Negev Bedouin Higher Steering Committee. The committee had distinguished itself as a forum where all the political streams in the Arab sector work together, but since Azbarga’s appointment the representatives of the Southern Islamic Movement, the UAL and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev have refused to attend meetings. They claim the appointment was approved without their consent. The Joint List denies this, saying that their opponents boycotted the meeting for fear they would lose the vote.

The committee was formed in 2011 by the Higher Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel to lead the fight against the Prawer plan – a controversial five-year economic development plan for the Negev desert approved in 2011. Over the years the committee evolved into an important political institution for the Negev Bedouin, but never had a formal charter and its representatives are not chosen by vote.

Members of the Joint List visiting a site of the JNF tree-planting initiative in the Negev, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

“It was run like an open market,” says one political activist. “As long as you show up and participate, they say you’re part of the steering committee.”

Another activist said that “whoever controls the committee is regarded as mainstream by the Bedouin public. UAL opposes Azbarga out of fear that if Balad takes control of the agenda, they’ll start flying the Palestinian flag, which will mainly serve the interests of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich,” referring to the two Jewish far-right lawmakers, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. “In addition, Balad’s secular ideology isn’t accepted in these parts.”

The Joint List says in response that UAL’s Alkharumi had held the coordinator post for seven years and the time had come for another party to take over. The UAL argues that it has the right to lead the committee, given that it received four times the number of votes from Negev residents as the Joint List in the last general election.

Beyond the parties’ ongoing popularity contest among the Negev Bedouin, they are also at odds over the best strategy to counter the tree-planting project. During several recent conferences, supporters of Abbas’ school of thought deterred young people from engaging in violence, stressing the importance of conducting the fight fully along legal lines. In contrast, the Joint List has emphasized a nationalistic line, linking the struggles of the Bedouin and the Palestinians. This approach has manifested in last month’s protests called for by the follow-up committee in Jerusalem and boycotted by the UAL.

“The Joint List is playing a game of politics, cooperating with the right-wing to bring down the government,” one UAL supporter says. “Talking about Palestine doesn’t lead to solutions. Their incitement leads to violence and the ones who pay for that are those who get arrested and injured. They’re not trying to solve the problem.”

“This conflict has come close to breaking up the steering committee,” says Mohammed Saeed, a journalist and social activist who led the formation of the reconciliation committee. “Everyone is trying to gain power for themselves, especially after Alkharumi’s death. The Joint List burst onto the scene to make a splash, especially the Hadash faction. It’s a legitimate power struggle, but they can’t let the residents of the unrecognized villages pay the price.”

Bedouin residents of the Negev protesting the JNF tree-planting initiative, last month.Credit: Eliahu Hershkowitz

This approach was apparent last Saturday, when a bus of Hadash activists toured the unrecognized village of Sa’wa, which is in the area slated for forestation by JNF.

Saeed doesn’t hide his stand on the issue: “Demonstrating in front of the Prime Minister’s Office and shouting ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ isn’t acceptable,” he says. “That’s a slogan that seriously hurts the struggle. I’d like to remind those young people that the PLO reached an agreement in principle with Israel on the basis of 1967 borders. The committee’s job is to cool things off as much as possible, especially on social media.”

Something to look forward to

At a meeting in the unrecognized village of Alruis, Abbas told the hundreds of attendees, “patience is necessary. We’re hard at work. We’ll make announcements soon.” He visited the area again last Saturday, this time in the unrecognized villages of al-’Ara and al-Fura’a, where he reiterated the same message.

Haaretz has learned that Abbas is lobbying within the government for a four-point plan that involves recognizing six villages in the Be’er Sheva Valley, a designated planting area and the establishment of a regional agricultural council that will unite them; expansion of the municipal boundaries of Bedouin towns so they can absorb residents now living just outside city limits; expansion of the boundaries of the Al-Kasom and Neve Hamidbar regional councils for the same purpose; and the inclusion of settlements adjacent to the towns of Arad and Dimona in Jewish local authorities.

A senior government official confirmed to Haaretz that decisions on the matter will be made soon but declined to state categorically they would be based on the Abbas proposal.

Police and protesters at a demonstration against JNF tree-planting, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

“I’ve heard from Mansour Abbas that he wants to present a plan,” says Hussein Irfaiya of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages of Negev. “He began working on the plan a month or so ago, perhaps a little more. We met a few times and everyone talked about their own area. We wanted to have a joint paper. If the politicians would stop making declarations to get votes, this paper would solve the Negev’s problems.”

In the short term, Abbas is looking to surprise everyone by advancing a historic government decision. But he also has his sights set on the next general election, hoping that his party can find another candidate who is as popular as Alkharumi was and ensure a large voter turnout.

Balad and Hadash are also on the hunt for a star candidate – a pragmatic politician who can get things done, which is what Bedouin voters are looking for.

The UAL is courting Muhammad Al-Nabari, a Ph.D. chemist with 12 medical patents to his name. “There’s a lot of pressure on him,” says one source in the know. Al-Nabari, 51, served on the Hura Municipal Council for 13 years starting in 2005, spearheading a revolution in city affairs The rate of municipal tax collections grew from just 4 percent to 86 percent and the municipal budget expanded from 29 million shekels ($9 million) to 190 million shekels, which enabled Hura to undertake an impressive list of educational, social and economic projects.

Today, Al-Nabari is the CEO of the nonprofit organization Yanabia, which seeks to close the socioeconomic gaps between Israeli and Bedouin society and turn these communities into the “growth engine of the Negev.”

A close associate of Al-Nabari says he prefers to work behind the scenes, so the chances that he will run for office are slim. Another leading candidate to succeed Alkharumi is Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Sahiban, who is due to step down from his post as part of a rotation agreement.

Rahat Mayor Fayez Abu Sahiban, in 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Two prominent Bedouins are likely to be joining the Hadash list. The first is Al-Kasom Regional Council Chairman Salame Alatrash, 46, who faces a major challenge: Convincing as many members of his tribe in the town of Sa’wa to vote for the Joint List. In the last election the slate won just 6 percent of the vote, compared with 84 percent for the UAL.

The second candidate is the 40-year-old entrepreneur and social activist Ibrahim Nsasra, who took his brother’s three minivans and built a hugely successful bus company called Lahav Tours. Nsasra has since established a number of social and business enterprises under the aegis of the Tamar Center. In 2018, he ran for chairman of the Laqiya local council but lost. “He’s a doer, knows how to talk and has millions,” says one man who knows him.

Two other sources knowledgeable about Bedouin politics says Nsasra could take everyone by surprise and run for office on the Yesh Atid list. Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, is popular among Negev Bedouin and is seen as someone who understands their plight. Last month, Lapid called for a stop to the JNF tree-planting in the south and last year visited the bereaved family of Alkharumi without being accompanied by a huge security detail. In doing so, Lapid sent a message that he regards Bedouin towns as safe. In addition, Lapid’s remarks at the time made a deep impression.

Lapid, Negev activists say, is looking for a Bedouin candidate for his list, and Nsara may answer the call. Nsasra believes that he can have the biggest impact by joining a party that represents a wide segment of the Jewish public.

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