Jewish group’s tree planting sparks coalition turmoil, violent protests in the Negev

Bedouin demonstrators see KKL planting program as a land grab; Ra’am vows to stop voting with coalition; 2 police injured, cars torched in riot

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

The head of the Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, vowed to stop voting with the coalition on Tuesday to protest continued forestation work in the Negev region by Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund.

The planting program has set off violent protests by Bedouin in southern Israel, who view the Jewish organization’s initiative as a means of expelling those who live on the land. Ra’am’s voter base is among Arab communities in southern Israel.

Government infighting over the forestation drew in coalition and opposition leaders on Tuesday, as rioters torched cars, blocked trains and scrapped with police in the south.

In comments to Channel 12 news, Abbas said, “We will not vote with the coalition until the plantings in the south are stopped.”

“I can’t continue to live with this,” Abbas said. “I can’t continue like this. I have absorbed more difficult things in the past, but when they shoot straight in my chest I can’t stand it anymore. The Negev is Ra’am.”

He also demanded an “accelerated process” for resolving the matter.

However, the network said Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the New Hope party, whose ministry oversees the tree planting, was opposed to halting the work. Coalition lawmaker Yoaz Hendel also lashed the protests and vowed to “exert our sovereignty in the Negev.”

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

Following the threat by Abbas, Hebrew media reported that the coalition instructed all its members to be at the Knesset on Wednesday to take part in plenum votes, except for those infected with COVID-19.

The controversy over the planting began a few weeks ago, when KKL began its foresting in a region settled by Bedouin from the al-Atrash tribe.

The Israeli government has determined that land is publicly owned, but the local Bedouin residents claim that the land belongs to them.

“As part of this work, they have destroyed tin homes of those living in the area and planted the land with trees — all so as to take over the land,” said Yaqoub Dreijat, a political adviser in the Al-Kasom regional council.

Negev Bedouin have a contentious relationship with the Israeli state. For decades, the Israeli government has sought to move the Bedouin into recognized, planned cities, but many still live in a constellation of illegal hamlets that sprawl across Israel’s southern desert.

Bedouins accuse KKL of seeking to displace them, but KKL says it is merely fulfilling a request by other government bodies on public land. KKL works across Israel on nature and conservation projects, but some charge the organization has a political agenda.

“This is a kind of soft expulsion in the guise of ecological work,” charged Thabet Abu Rass, who co-directs the Abraham Initiatives shared society nonprofit.

Meanwhile, police reported several acts of violence suspected of being linked to the protests against the tree planting.

In one incident, a passenger train was forced to brake after the conductor noticed stones were placed on the tracks, according to police.

The stones were removed and an investigation was opened, as officers called to the scene scoured the area for possible suspects.

Police also said there was rioting along Route 25, parts of which were temporarily closed.

According to a police statement, rocks were thrown at a bus and a car, the causing damage. Videos and pictures showed tires and garbage bins on fire in the road. A car belonging to a reporter from Haaretz was set on fire at the entrance to Segev Shalom.

Police later said officers had “gained control over the incident” at the Segev Shalom Junction, where two cops were lightly injured by a rock and firecracker.

“The police operations at the scene are continuing, while showing zero tolerance toward rioters,” the statement said.

“Officers will allow freedom of protest so long as it is within the confines of the law and with no tolerance for those who break it,” a separate statement said.

The rioting came after clashes between police and Bedouin at a KKL-JNF planting site earlier in the day, during which 18 protesters were arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace, seven of them minors.

The suspects’ defense attorneys asked for their clients to be released, a request rejected by the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court.

“The police simply didn’t want there to be a protest, so they took down their protest tent and locked down the region. In the end, they attacked them and dragged them across the ground and beat them,” Shahda Ibn Beri, a lawyer for the detained Bedouins, said in a phone call.

Ibn Bari claimed one of the protesters’ legs was broken from the confrontation, and he was taken to a local hospital bound hand and foot.

Earlier, a delegation of Knesset members from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party took part in a tree-planting ceremony in the KKL-controlled Yatir Forest in the south. Separately, the MKs faced criticism for planting trees during the shmita sabbatical year.

“No one will stop the planting of trees in the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday evening. “I give full backing to the security forces and demand [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett immediately condemn the incitement by Ra’am.”

Abbas said in response that Netanyahu had agreed to halt the forestation programs during coalition negotiations with Ra’am last year, along with other concessions to Negev communities.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Bennett’s chief political partner, hit back at Netanyahu, slamming “12 years of abandoning the Negev and neglecting the Bedouin problem” during the former premier’s tenure.

Lapid also called for a halt to the forestation and condemned the rioting, voicing support for police.

“Just as the Netanyahu government stopped the plantings in 2020, it’s possible to stop now to reorganize,” he said in a statement. “Politicians on both sides need to calm the streets instead of fanning the flames.”

Hamas declared its support for the protests in a statement late on Tuesday night. Following an attempted ramming of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian in the West Bank, the terror group sought to tie the two instances together.

“The demolitions and violation in the Negev and the mounting crimes by the occupations and settlers will be met by more such heroic operations,” Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou said in a statement.

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