Inside Israel

JNF ends planting on disputed Negev lands as state seeks compromise with Bedouin

JNF workers concluded forestation work on disputed land in the Negev on Wednesday after three days of planting that infuriated local Bedouin communities who viewed the operation as part of a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets.

The planting and the violent clashes with police that it sparked turned into the latest crisis that threatened to topple Israel’s nascent, motley coalition, with the Islamist Ra’am party threatening to boycott plenum votes as long as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund’s (KKL-JNF) work continued in the Negev, where they enjoy the largest bloc of support.

Meanwhile, MKs from the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties, who campaigned on clamping down on alleged Bedouin lawlessness in the Negev, pressed for the forestation work to continue, viewing it as part of a nationalistic effort to entrench Jewish presence in the area. Authorities deem the land as belonging to the state and have contracted KKL-JNF to plant there.

While the cessation of KKL-JNF’s work was described by right-wing critics as a “surrender to terror,” the forestation was only scheduled to last three days in the first place.

Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, the government point man on the legalization of unrecognized Bedouin villages, said Wednesday that he managed to negotiate an agreement between the sides to hold negotiations starting Thursday to reach a compromise on the matter.

Earlier this week, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas said that his four-MK party would not vote with the coalition until the matter was resolved. In response, Yamina MK Nir Orbach announced Wednesday that he too would not attend plenum votes so long as Ra’am refused to do so as well. With a narrow 61-seat majority in the Knesset, the absences threatened to prevent the coalition from passing any legislation so long as the crisis continues.

 

Indeed, with the coalition lacking numbers, opposition lawmakers began submitting legislation for preliminary approval before the plenum on Wednesday evening. To avoid the embarrassment, coalition MKs left the plenum and several pieces of legislation advanced overwhelmingly, including a bill from Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi which would require police officers to wear body cameras when securing protests. The opposition’s bills are still unlikely to pass subsequent readings, but the day’s events marked an embarrassing day for the coalition.

Wednesday also saw the third-straight day of violent clashes between police and young Bedouin residents protesting the forestation work. Sixteen suspects were arrested on allegations of stone-throwing and disturbing public order. Five officers were lightly injured in the clashes, with four of them requiring brief hospitalization. For their part, local Bedouin accused police of using excessive force against the protesters.

The clashes came hours after similarly violent protests on Tuesday night during which demonstrators set a reporter’s car ablaze and blocked a main highway by burning tires. Young rioters also hurled stones at a train, causing the southern line to cease operation for the evening.

A total of 18 people were arrested during those protests.

In what threatened to add further fuel to the fire, far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir announced Wednesday that he had received special rabbinical permission to plant a tree where KKL-JNF was operating, despite it being a shemitah year, the seventh year of the biblical agricultural cycle, when the Torah mandates that Israeli farmland be left to lie fallow.

Ben Gvir arrived at the scene and ultimately went through with the tree planting with little fallout.

Negev Bedouin have a contentious relationship with the state. For decades, the government has sought to move them into recognized, planned cities, but many still live in a constellation of illegal hamlets that sprawl across Israel’s southern desert.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir plants a tree outside the Bedouin village of Mulada, in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 12, 2022 (Flash90)

Bedouins accuse KKL-JNF of seeking to displace them, but KKL-JNF says it is merely fulfilling a request by other government bodies on public land. KKL-JNF works across Israel on nature and conservation projects, but some charge the organization has a political agenda.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Tuesday that “politicians on both sides need to calm things instead of fanning the flames” and called for the planting to be halted until a solution could be found.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu issued a combative statement, saying: “No one will stop tree planting in the Land of Israel. I give my backing to the security forces and demand that Bennett immediately condemn the incitement by Ra’am, his senior government partner.”

In response to the former premier’s statement, Ra’am party chief Abbas said that Netanyahu, too, had agreed to stop such efforts when the two were discussing potential political cooperation last year.


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