Hundreds of Bedouin protesters clashed with police on Thursday afternoon for the third day in a row over a controversial forestation project in the Negev Desert, despite reports indicating the government was seeking a compromise.
The demonstrators blocked the Route 31 highway near the southern village of Sawe al-Atrash, and some hurled stones at officers, according to police.
Video posted online showed officers using stun grenades and tear gas to disperse the demonstration.
At least 12 demonstrators were reportedly hurt during the clash, of whom three were hospitalized at Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center.
Police said 13 people were arrested at Thursday’s protest.
Police said that due to the demonstration, the highway remained closed from Shoket Junction to Tel Arad Junction. “We will allow freedom of protest as long as it is done according to the law, and we will act with zero tolerance against disturbance,” the police statement read.
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The demonstrations came following a Jewish National Fund planting in the region, seen by the Bedouin communities as part of a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets.
Police said Thursday morning that 21 rioters were arrested during the night in Tel Sheva, Segev Shalom and Rahat. On the previous night, 18 people were arrested.
Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday that an “unprecedented” plan was to be advanced by the government that would include recognition of 10 to 12 Bedouin villages that are currently illegal.
The report said that planned planting in the most contentious areas — where the Bedouin al-Atrash clan lives — won’t resume next week to give the negotiations a chance to progress, though it will resume elsewhere.
The planting and the ensuing violent clashes with police 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.
In response to the announcement from Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, Yamina MK Nir Orbach announced Wednesday that he too would not attend plenum votes so long as Ra’am refused to do so. And Meretz MK Yair Golan threatened to do the same too, after Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the New Hope party vowed that the tree-planting would continue.
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 that would require police officers to wear body cameras when securing protests. The opposition’s bills are still unlikely to pass subsequent readings, but the events concluded a humiliating day for the coalition.
KKL-JNF chairman Avraham Duvdevani told Kan on Wednesday that his organization was just a government contractor and wasn’t setting policy.
“We have been planting trees in the Negev for 15 years in the same format as right now,” Duvdevani said. “There was nothing different from what we have been doing all these years. We have no idea what’s different now. The instructions to halt plantings have been sporadic, and we resumed full work after a few days.
“We will continue planting in the entire Negev. This is part of the Zionist vision.”
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.