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Shin Bet probing several violent incidents during Negev riots as potential ‘terror’

Security agency looking into assault on security guard, burning of journalist’s car and rocks placed on train tracks; several cars damaged overnight from thrown stones

Bedouin protesters and Israeli forces clash during a protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Bedouin protesters and Israeli forces clash during a protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The Shin Bet security agency said on Friday it had been tasked with investigating several violent incidents that occurred over the past week during Bedouin protests in the country’s south against a controversial forestation project.

It said three cases were being probed as potential “terror incidents” with a nationalistic motive: an attack on a security guard in Tel Sheva on Thursday night, the burning of a journalist’s car in Segev Shalom on Tuesday, and the placing of rocks on train tracks leading to Beersheba that same day, forcing a passenger train to make an emergency brake.

Thursday’s attack on the guard saw several Bedouin protesters hurl stones at the man’s car, police said. The guard managed to flee and take cover in a nearby police station, as the demonstrators set fire to his vehicle.

The guard — who works at the police station — told the Ynet news site he was stopped on his way to work by the demonstrators, who had set up a makeshift roadblock. “A guy came and asked ‘Where are you going?’ I told him — to work. He calmly came over [as though] to explain something to me. Then he suddenly punched me,” the guard recalled.

“Stones were thrown at me and I started driving. My windshield was shattered. I thought I could cross the roadblock, but the car stopped. I could not see anything because of the [broken] windshield. I got out of the car and started running. I sprinted to the [police] station,” he told Ynet.

Police said Friday that several cars were damaged overnight from stones hurled by Bedouin protestors in multiple locations in the northern Negev. A police officer was lightly hurt and hospitalized in one such incident near the Nevatim airbase.

In other locations, tires were set on fire and placed on main highways.

The demonstrations came following a Jewish National Fund tree-planting program in the region, seen by Bedouin communities as a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets.

On Thursday, police said 13 people were arrested amid the protests. Several of them were brought before a court on Friday to request an extension to their remand. Over the past week, dozens of Bedouin residents of southern Israel have been detained.

Army Radio reported on Friday that JNF had not consulted with police or other law enforcement bodies prior to starting the forestation project. Unnamed police officials said that had such consultations occurred, it may have been possible to take an approach that would have prevented the violence.

Bedouin protesters and Israeli forces clash during a protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, Kan news 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 Israel’s motley coalition, with the Islamist Ra’am party vowing to boycott plenum votes in the Knesset as long as JNF work continued in the Negev, where the party enjoys its 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.

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

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 a majority, 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.

Bedouin protesters and Israeli forces clash during a protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 13, 2022. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

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

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