Instead of Planting Trees, the Jewish National Fund's Negev Project Starts a Fire

Haaretz Editorial
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Police at the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sa'wa, on Wednesday.
Police at the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sa'wa, on Wednesday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Haaretz Editorial

With permission and authority the Jewish National Fund, the executive arm of the Israel Land Authority, decided to plant forests in the Negev and turn them into tinder for one of the worst confrontations between the Bedouin and the security forces.

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Only the naive can believe that planting the trees near the Bedouin villages Mulada and Sawa area was meant to celebrate Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) or to improve the ecological fabric of the Negev. In reality this is clearly a political initiative that boasts the title “Protection of State Land” – in other words, a defense against a Bedouin land grab and a display of “governance” toward them.

This isn’t the first time the JNF has used forestation as a political tool. Two years ago as well, tree planting sparked protest from Bedouin and opposition from environmental organizations. The government, then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, had the sense to stop the planting and agree to arbitration with the Bedouin. This year the Israel Land Authority tried again to deploy its brutal weapons, and was greeted by an outbreak of violent riots that included setting cars on fire, assaulting police officers and journalists, throwing stones and blocking roads and, of course – a political confrontation.

On one side were the Arab MKs, led by Mansour Abbas and Walid Taha, who threatened to boycott Knesset votes unless the planting stopped, and followed through; on the other, right-wing opposition lawmakers who decried what they called the government’s weakness and surrender to the Arab MKs’ “terror threats,” and then exploited the disagreement to advance legislation. To a large extent each side played its role, since in any event the planting had been scheduled to take just three days, and ended Wednesday.

While both sides are trying to make political hay from the forest, the practical approach of Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid is worthy of mention. He said “Israel has to plant trees on state land, but we don’t have to harm the livelihood of the area’s residents. ... We can stop even now for a reorganization. The government of change is committed to solving the problems of the Bedouin and reaching an arrangement in the Negev.”

The violent response of the Bedouin is reprehensible, and must be met by legal enforcement measures, but it does not exempt the government of responsibility for correcting the failures, neglect and disregard for their needs. The concentration of thousands of homes in organized, planned communities; infrastructure development; significant improvement in the level of services and the reduction of unemployment, together with preserving their traditional way of life, are only some of the state’s duties towards its most disadvantaged population. The afforestation of the Negev will not solve even one of these problems. It will only intensify the alienation between the state and its Bedouin citizens.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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