A Crisis Is Brewing in the Negev, and the Israeli Government Is on the Verge of Losing Control

With the UAL being outflanked from the left and Bennett's Yamina from the right, the coalition has found itself in a tricky situation that risks spilling into greater violence

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli security forces detain a Bedouin man during a protest against forestation in the Negev
Israeli security forces detain a Bedouin man during a protest against forestation in the NegevCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The riots that broke out in the Negev reflect a dangerous combination of a growing political crisis and an internal security threat. As usual, venomous propaganda from the right, notably MK Itamar Ben-Gvir and, regrettably, MK Benjamin Netanyahu – has added fuel to this fire.

Throughout Wednesday, attempts were made to reach a compromise and douse the flames. But if the government doesn’t come to its senses quickly, it may find itself facing the most serious security threat the country has had since the violence in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May.

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The atmosphere among the Bedouin in the Negev has been heating up gradually over the past few weeks, especially due to fear of renewed house demolitions. On Tuesday the violence rose a notch over the tree-planting affair. The Jewish National Fund is using afforestation, with government authorization, to keep Bedouin residents from taking over state land and turning it into agricultural areas. On Tuesday stones were placed on the railroad tracks to try to derail a train, and the car of Haaretz’s correspondent in the south, Nati Yefet, was torched.

Due to the severity of the incidents and their security implications, the Shin Bet security service became involved in both investigations— a rare occurrence. The security establishment believes that these clashes have clear political motivation, although some of those involved in the violence are common criminals. Videos posted on social media, especially TikTok, incite further violence.

The riots coincide with the political storm. Clashes over tree-planting are not new in the Negev, but for the first time this is happening while an Arab party is a key member of the coalition. Forty-six percent of the votes for the United Arab List in the last election came from Negev Bedouin, and the last thing party chairman MK Mansour Abbas wants to do is leave those voters feeling abandoned. A senior member of the party told me back in June that the south was bound to be a source of problems. The greatest threat to the stability of the government, he said, is the Negev, and more specifically- the issue of house demolitions in the Bedouin community.

Israeli police face local Bedouin farmers during protests in Sa'wa, on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Abbas himself warned that tree-planting in particular could destabilize the coalition. On Tuesday, Channel 12 journalist Amit Segal quoted him 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 government has run into a pincer movement by its adversaries in the Negev. The Joint Arab List is outflanking Abbas and the UAL on the left, and demanding that the Bedouin be protected. Likud is outflanking Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on the right, and demanding that afforestation continue and a hard line be taken.

But there are at least three more elements stirring this cauldron. One is the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which opposes Abbas, a member of the southern branch. (The northern branch’s leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, has been spending a great deal of time in the Negev lately.) The second is Hamas, which calls directly for violence, and the third is the Bedouin crime families, who are interested in anything that draws police attention away from them.

Not only are Ben-Gvir and his pyromaniacs playing with fire, so is Likud. On Wednesday, Likud lawmakers went to the Negev for their own tree-planting ceremony, whose sole purpose was to maintain the tension. Later, WhatsApp texts were published between the lawmakers that expressed enthusiasm for the media interest they sparked.

Netanyahu, not surprisingly, did not bother to go to the Negev himself, but he is working hard now as an agent of chaos. This is especially prominent in his approach to the growing coronavirus crisis – undermining the reliability of the tests, flirting politically with an anti-vaxxer – but also in his efforts to ramp up tensions in the Negev. If the crisis deepens, the visit to the region by Knesset members will be reminiscent of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount before the outbreak of the second intifada.

On Tuesday, against the backdrop of pictures of the riots, an extreme lack of coordination could be seen between Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who called for an arrangement to stop the planting. Bennett, shackled by the remnants of his image as a right-winger, is more hesitant. But the government’s continued stability hinges on the restoration of balance, so it seems he doesn’t have much choice. The prime minister will find it hard to function in the midst of a public rift with the UAL chairman. Thus, efforts are now underway to stop the planting and reach a long-term solution. Unless and until this happens, a government crisis is looming.

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