Cops, rioters clash for 2nd straight night in protests against Negev tree planting

12 arrested in Bedouin towns as unrest continues despite promised deal; Ra’am’s Abbas denounces violence, says his party ‘suffers every day to be partners in the coalition’

Tires are set on fire in the southern Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, January 12, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter)
Tires are set on fire in the southern Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, January 12, 2022. (Screenshot: Twitter)

For the second night in a row, residents of southern Bedouin communities clashed with police over controversial tree planting in the Negev Desert that had concluded earlier on Wednesday.

Police said four residents of Segev Shalom, and another two from Tel Sheva, were detained for “disturbing the peace, throwing rocks and burning tires.”

In Rahat, another six “rioters” were arrested, police said.

“Calm has been restored,” a police statement said, which added that officers remained at the scene. “The Israel Police allows freedom of protest and deals with rioting and displays of violence with determination and with zero tolerance,” the statement added.

During Wednesday night’s violence, tires were reportedly set on fire and placed on the road near the entrance of Kibbutz Retamim, south of Beersheba. And on Route 25, a stone was hurled toward a civilian’s car, causing minor damage, police said.

In Tel Sheva, young men could be seen hurling stones at a local police station, in a video posted online.

Earlier, Jewish National Fund workers concluded forestation work on disputed land in the Negev 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 vowing 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.

Explainer: Why tree planting in the Negev sparked protests, riots and a coalition crisis

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. “We have no right to exist without the Negev. We suffer every day to be partners in the coalition,” he said on Wednesday to Channel 12 news.

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. And Meretz MK Yair Golan threatened to do the same too, after Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the New Hope party vowed to continue the tree planting.

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.

Sixteen suspects were arrested on allegations of stone-throwing and disturbing public order earlier in the day. Five officers were lightly injured, with four of them requiring brief hospitalization. Local Bedouin residents 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.

On Wednesday, Abbas denounced the violence: “Even if there is a subject that you are right about… it is not possible to understand violence, not setting fire to cars and not hurling stones. This weakens us,” he told Channel 12.

Mounted police stand guard during a protest by Bedouins in the southern village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project, January 12, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

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 the organization 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.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed