Both sides dig in after violence against Bedouin relocation plan

Peres backs plan as Arab leaders condemn fighting but call for continuation of protests against scheme to resettle Negev Bedouin in cities

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Police and protesters clash at a rally where around 1,200 demonstrators gathered in the southern Israeli town of Hura during a protest against the government's plan to resettle some 30,000 Bedouin residents of the Negev desert Saturday. (photo credit: David Buimovitch/Flash90)
Police and protesters clash at a rally where around 1,200 demonstrators gathered in the southern Israeli town of Hura during a protest against the government's plan to resettle some 30,000 Bedouin residents of the Negev desert Saturday. (photo credit: David Buimovitch/Flash90)

Israeli officials and opponents of a controversial Bedouin resettlement plan each indicated that they would not be backing down from their stances Sunday, a day after protests against the plan turned violent.

President Shimon Peres, speaking from Mexico where he is on a state visit, threw his weight behind the Prawer Plan, which would move much of Negev’s Bedouin population from unrecognized villages to cities.

“Millions of shekels were invested in this plan and I’m sure the intentions are good. Backing down would mean a step back for the Bedouins as well,” Peres said, according to Ynet. “The government does not mean any harm and talks must be held with patience and while maintaining the law.”

At least 40 people were arrested and 15 police officers were injured Saturday during clashes that broke out at a demonstration at Hura function against the plan.

Bedouin leaders promised Sunday that the violence was just the start of their campaign against the plan.

“When there is rage and anger, it is okay to block a road,” former Arab MK Talab Abu Sana told Channel 2. “This is part of expressing an opinion, not a crime. The police should have shown understanding; they never prosecute a settler or Haredi or any Jew who blocks roads — but the police treats us as an enemy.”

A Bedouin Knesset member, Talab Abu Arar of the United Arab List, was to be brought in by police to clarify his role in the violent demonstration Saturday.

Talal Al-Krenawi, mayor of the Bedouin city of Rahat north of Beersheba, condemned both the violence and the plan, which he called an attempt to remove Bedouin from their lands.

Demonstrators threw stones at the security forces deployed to the organized protest, which attracted over 1,500 people Saturday. Police responded with stun grenades and water cannon to disperse the demonstration.

Saturday was marked as an International Day of Rage against the plan with protests also taking place in Haifa, Jerusalem, the northern Triangle area and in the West Bank near Ramallah and Hebron. Protests were also held in several European cities.

Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud), speaking to Israel Radio, said the government had to push through with the plan, though he said he thought it gives the Bedouin too much in compensation.

MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) condemned the violence, but said the Arab community would continue to fight the plan.

“We will conduct a fierce fight: strikes, protests, blocking roads. But without violence on our side,” he said, according to Maariv.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the violence Saturday evening, saying a “vocal and violent minority” was trying “to deny a better future to a large and broad population.”

“We have — and will have — no tolerance for those who break the law,” said the prime minister, vowing to advance the plan for “a better future for all residents of the Negev.”

The police commander of the Southern District, Yoram Halevy, said that the protest at Hura junction in the Negev was “an attempt to start a war.” Halevy said the protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police and set trash cans alight as police attempted to disperse them.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) criticized the protesters and leaders of the Bedouin community, framing the events in the context of a land dispute.

“We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people and there are those who intentionally try to steal them and take them over by force. We must reexamine this plan and consider a comprehensive plan that would cancel any benefits the Bedouin were supposed to receive. If there is no acceptance of the plan [on their part], there will be no benefits,” he declared in statement posted to Facebook on Saturday.

MK Miri Regev (Likud), who heads the Knesset Interior Committee, said the Bedouin were lending a hand to the “incitement against the state and its delegitimization,” adding that “the current situation in the Negev cannot continue.”

The Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, also known as the Prawer-Begin Plan, calls for Israel to officially recognize and register the vast majority of Bedouin settlements throughout the south, and compensate the residents of 35 unrecognized villages — some 30,000 to 40,000 people — who are to be moved off state-owned land into towns built for them.

The government says the plan will give the Bedouin the services and economic opportunities they currently lack. But where the government sees investment, Bedouin and human rights activists see a land grab tinged with anti-Arab racism.

The plan was drawn up by former Likud minister and Knesset member Benny Begin and approved by the cabinet in January.

Critics have called the plan a forced population transfer, with some even referring to it as an “ethnic cleansing” scheme.

Around 200,000 Bedouins live in the Negev, most concentrated in an area around the city of Beersheba.

They lived under military rule until the 1960s, and have since resisted government efforts to move them into seven larger, recognized communities. Bedouin say those towns are rife with crime, poverty and the same lack of basic services they currently face.

The urban setting also makes their traditional occupation, raising livestock, much more difficult.

The Prawer Plan has sparked several protests in Israel over the past year, and has drawn condemnation from international bodies.

The Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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