'We haven't seen anything like this for years'

How a Negev police operation nearly foiled establishment of the new government

Hours before the coalition was confirmed, a large patrol announced demolitions in a Ra’am party stronghold, prompting an MK to abstain in the key vote. But who ordered the move?

A police enforcement operation against illegal Bedouin construction in the Negev desert on Sunday, June 13, 2021 (Courtesy: Salman ibn Hamid)
A police enforcement operation against illegal Bedouin construction in the Negev desert on Sunday, June 13, 2021 (Courtesy: Salman ibn Hamid)

A sudden show of force by police inspectors in one of Israel’s southern Bedouin communities nearly toppled the new Israeli government before it was formed earlier this week, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site Zman Yisrael reported on Wednesday.

State authorities offered contradictory explanations about the timing of the incident, which almost broke apart the tenuous political alliance — led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid — that on Sunday became the 36th government, removing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power after 12 consecutive years.

The new coalition includes the four-seat Islamist Ra’am party, much of whose base is scattered among the many recognized and unrecognized Bedouin villages in Israel’s southern Negev desert.

Ra’am’s entry into the coalition was nearly unprecedented. For decades, Arab Israeli parties remained firmly in the opposition. Jewish parties have boycotted them for their anti-Zionist and non-Zionist views, and Arab parties have also eschewed governing coalitions over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

Ra’am, however, took the plunge and agreed to join the government to advance policies and secure budgets benefiting its supporters. Ending home demolitions and legalizing Bedouin villages in the Negev were key campaign goals for Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas.

Though ultimately promised generous funding for his constituents, Abbas managed to wring relatively few major concessions from the new Bennett-Lapid coalition. Many in his party, however, hoped their presence in government would advance Bedouin interests in the future.

A Bedouin man in the village of Umm Al-Hiran in the Israeli Negev desert. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

‘Like a military operation’

Just a few hours before the so-called change government was set to be sworn in on Sunday with Ra’am’s crucial support, police officers descended on the legal Bedouin township of Bir Hadaj to warn residents that 30 structures that had been built without permits would soon be demolished. The scale of the announced demolitions shocked residents.

“We haven’t seen anything like this for years — so many inspectors and police officers,” said former Bir Hadaj town council member Salman ibn Hamid, who now serves as director-general for the Neve Midbar Regional Council.

Ibn Hamid said that inspectors occasionally patrolled the neighborhood to crack down on building violations, but not like this. “This was like a military operation,” he said.

At least 80,000 Bedouins in Israel’s southern Negev desert live in villages unrecognized by the Israeli government. The townships are illegal, and the residents often do not receive basic utilities such as water and electricity.

The Israeli government says Bedouins in unrecognized villages are squatters on public land, while Bedouins have long insisted on their right to remain where they are.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas, seated, at the swearing in of the new Israeli government, in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Much of the construction in these villages is illegal, as the towns do not exist in the eyes of the law. Even in recognized Bedouin villages such as Bir Hadaj, however, home demolitions are a regular occurrence due to a lack of updated urban master plans.

The show of police force and promise of imminent home demolitions in Bir Hadaj caused residents to call Ra’am MK Said al-Harumi to tell him to vote against the new coalition, Zman Yisrael reported.

A few hours later on Sunday, ahead of the nail-biting vote, al-Harumi said he would not vote in favor of the new coalition unless more concessions were made to his Bedouin constituents.

If al-Harumi had voted against the new coalition, the government could have been thwarted.

MK Said al-Harumi. (courtesy)

Following pressure by Ra’am and other members of the “change bloc” that toppled Netanyahu, al-Harumi abstained, which allowed the new government to come to pass with a 60-59 vote in the Knesset. (Three members of the predominantly Arab Joint List waited until all other votes were counted before entering the chamber to vote against the new government. Had al-Harumi voted against, the Joint List MKs were apparently ready to abstain in order to provide a safety net for the new coalition.)

Political or coincidental?

Key questions remain over why the show of force was scheduled on one of the most politically sensitive days Israel has seen in years.

Zman Yisrael contacted numerous government bodies involved in regulating Bedouin affairs, but was given contradictory answers. Most were unwilling to take direct responsibility for the patrol in Bir Hadaj or explain its timing.

The Public Security Ministry, which administers the police, is charged with coordinating such patrols. Until this week, the ministry was controlled by Netanyahu confidant Amir Ohana of Likud, who was often attacked by his political opponents for his alleged politicization of the ministry’s work.

But the ministry told Zman Yisrael that it had not coordinated any such police action in Bir Hadaj, or received any such permits to do so.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in Tel Aviv on May 6, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Parks and Nature Authority, whose inspectors were present on the scene, said it had worked with a branch of the Public Security Ministry to implement the planned patrol. The Public Security Ministry declined to comment on the matter further.

Yair Maayan, who directs the Bedouin Affairs Authority, said he had been made aware of the planned patrol two weeks in advance of the swearing-in. Maayan said the patrol did not fall under the authority of his agency, however, which handles regulation rather than enforcement.

“I wouldn’t fall off my chair at the thought that this was a political maneuver at this unusual time,” an Israeli government official involved in regulating Bedouin affairs told Zman Yisrael on condition of anonymity.

The official pointed to what they deemed to be anomalies in the police operation in Bir Hadaj that day. He directly blamed Netanyahu and Ohana.

“It was not an ordinary procedure that would lead to the eviction of residents. Such procedures take months, and they are done with court approval and with all the possible paperwork to back them up,” the official said.

“There was no court approval here. Such a huge convoy of cars suddenly appears, inspectors measuring 30 houses and it’s not clear why now and who even ordered them? It reeks of being a show with a hidden purpose,” the official said.

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