Bedouins Protest Negev Forestation Project as Gov’t Looks for Compromise (VIDEO REPORT)
Israeli police detain a young woman as Bedouin protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against an afforestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Bedouins Protest Negev Forestation Project as Gov’t Looks for Compromise (VIDEO REPORT)

At least 80 protesters have been arrested during violent demonstrations against a tree-planting project on land claimed by Bedouin farmers

A forestation project by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) in the Negev region of southern Israel was met with protests by angry Bedouin who claim ownership of the land on which the trees are being planted.

By week’s end, following tense demonstrations that prevented workers from doing their jobs, the government announced that it would negotiate with the residents.

Former Knesset member Talab El-Sana, currently a member of the leadership of the Higher Steering Committee for the Arabs of the Negev, harshly criticized the Israeli security forces.

“The police treatment is barbaric and terroristic in manner against citizens who are carrying out a legitimate protest against illegal racist practices,” he said.

At least 80 people have been arrested so far.

One of those arrested, 17-year-old Jinan al-Atrash, who was briefly detained during a demonstration, told The Media Line that she will continue to demonstrate.

“I am angry because they want to take our land by force. This is our land, the land of the Negev, the land of al-Atrash,” she said.

They claim this land, and the government has refused to register this land for decades. There’s enough room for everybody in the Negev.

The tree-planting controversy has threatened Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s fragile ruling government coalition. With no votes to spare in the coalition of disparate political parties, the Islamist United Arab List-Raam party vowed to boycott parliamentary votes if the Negev project continues.

Meanwhile, some members of Israel’s parliament from the political right, including the Likud party’s Avi Dichter, pushed for work to continue. He was on location in the Negev Wednesday holding a sapling and saying, “May this little one become great,” before planting it.

The government estimates that the Bedouin population is more than 300,000, and that by 2040 will top 750,000.

“Bedouins say this land is theirs; that they’ve lived here for generations, and they dismiss claims by the government that the true motivation behind the government’s decision is to confiscate their land and expel them from it,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives.

Rass, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on the Negev and the people who live there, says the Bedouins need more land.

“The State of Israel and its agencies control 98% of the total land; the Bedouins are sitting on 2% and striving to register another 3%” of land in the Negev, he said.

“They claim this land, and the government has refused to register this land for decades. There’s enough room for everybody in the Negev,” he asserted.

Bedouins comprise some 20% of the country’s Arab minority.

We know that the Israeli policy since the establishment of the state has been to gather the largest number of the Bedouin Arab population in the Negev on the least amount of land

Ibrahim Al-Nasra, a resident of the Negev, told The Media Line that the police view them as enemies.

“The Israeli police treat Arabs as enemies and not as citizens, and this is what we saw from the police’s arrogant behavior,” he said.

Al-Nasra says that in the Negev they are subject to home demolitions and lack of access to basic services – including electricity, water and sanitation.

“What is happening is not a coincidence and nothing new to us. We know that the Israeli policy since the establishment of the state has been to gather the largest number of the Bedouin Arab population in the Negev on the least amount of land,” he said.

By week’s end, following tense, sometimes violent, demonstrations including road closings, rocks thrown at buses, a Molotov cocktail hurled at a police station, and the blocking of workers by police, the government announced it would negotiate with the residents.

Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen, a former mayor of Dimona in the Negev and the government official charged with Bedouin relations, brokered a temporary agreement that suspended the planting and removed the machinery pending its outcome. Cohen declined to comment to The Media Line.

The equipment and workers have left the Negev for now to yield time to negotiators, who must find a way to avert the government’s collapse. But the Bedouin pledge that the protests will continue.

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