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11 arrested in clashes as Negev tree-planting resumes, then pauses in climbdown

Working to ease coalition crisis, minister brokers temporary deal to halt forestation program pending negotiations

Israeli police detain a man as Bedouins protest in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Israeli police detain a man as Bedouins protest in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Eleven people were arrested Wednesday morning amid clashes with police, as a controversial tree-planting program resumed in the south of the country, inflaming tensions and throwing the coalition into crisis.

However, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen later in the day brokered a temporary agreement, easing the political crisis, under which the planting was halted while all involved would enter negotiations.

Officials from the Ra’am party, heavily invested in stopping the work, were expected to join the talks brokered by Cohen. Reports said all heavy machinery involved in the forestation program would be removed from the area while the discussions were held.

The reported climbdown came after dozens of protesters clashed with police during a third day of demonstrations against tree plantings being carried out by the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).

The planting resumed under heavy police guard after 18 people were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of disturbing the peace during demonstrations and riots by Bedouin, who view the work as an encroachment on their lands.

While a delegation from the Likud party planted trees on Tuesday, far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir attended the planting on Wednesday.

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

Ben Gvir said in a tweet that he had received special rabbinical permission to plant a tree 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.

The planting program set off a coalition crisis, with the Islamist Ra’am party threatening to stop voting with the coalition while the work went on. The right-wing opposition has been pointing to the events as proof that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government is weak in the face of pressure from Arab legislators.

The reports of a compromise came after Mansour Abbas, the head of the Ra’am party, whose base of support lies among Arab communities in southern Israel, vowed on Tuesday that he would cease voting with the coalition in protest of the continued forestation work in the Negev.

With a razor-thin parliamentary majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the coalition is reliant on Ra’am’s support.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy told the Ynet news site on Wednesday, in response to Abbas’s coalition-straining announcement, that “there will be ups and downs, there is a natural disagreement on certain issues.”

Ra’am MK Walid Taha, denounced the tree plantings on Wednesday and said a solution needed to be found.

“What is required of us is to exhaust all the existing methods and tools in order to stop the plantings and prevent this crazy policy from happening again in the coming year,” Taha told Ynet.

MK Walid Taha (R) and Mickey Levy (L) during a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The controversy over the planting began a few weeks ago, when KKL-JNF began foresting in a region settled by Bedouin from the al-Atrash tribe. A local Bedouin municipal official estimated that thousands of people live on the ground intended for foresting and were in danger of expulsion as the planting continued.

The government has determined that the land is publicly owned, but the local Bedouin residents claim that it is theirs.

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.

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.

A car set on fire in southern Israel during protests over a KKL-JNF tree planting program, January 11, 2022. (Screenshot)

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.”

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

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