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

In JNF forests, Bedouin see ‘soft expulsion,’ environmentalists see a key ecological interest, and right-wing politicians see a weapon against ‘illegal squatters’

Israeli police detain a man as Bedouins protest in the southern Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Israeli police detain a man as Bedouins protest in the southern Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The slender saplings, placed into soil churned up by tractors, seem far too innocuous to spark a coalition crisis. But where and how they’re planted turns out to matter on a national scale.

The Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental body that oversees 13 percent of Israel’s land, began several days of planting trees on disputed land in the Negev on Sunday. The response was immediate: protests by Bedouin residents that escalated into clashes.

Many Negev Bedouin live in unrecognized townships scattered across Israel’s southern desert. The government has sought to relocate them into planned, recognized cities, but most Bedouin have refused, insisting on the right to stay where they are.

Bedouin leaders have called the forestation work the beginning of an attempt to expel some of those living in the unrecognized villages and take over disputed land. Although this week’s planting has been limited to a small area of farmland, they see it as part of a larger plan to depopulate the area of Bedouins.

“Planting trees in this manner has a twofold effect: it prevents our towns from expanding and it means those living on the land are expelled,” said Yaqoub Dreijat, a Bedouin official in the Al Kasom Regional Council.

The JNF, also known as the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, says it is simply planting trees on state land.Some environmental experts see afforestation of Israel’s national lands as a key ecological goal — although planting trees in the desert is a highly delicate process.

“There’s no expulsion. These are national lands; we have a right to protect them for all citizens, and one way to do that is by planting trees,” said Blue and White parliamentarian Alon Tal, a long-time environmentalist who formerly oversaw forestry for more than a decade at the JNF.

Demolished homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, in the in southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

By Tuesday night, the situation had spun out of control. At least 18 Bedouins, including seven minors, had been arrested. Young Bedouin teenagers set a journalist’s car ablaze near Segev Shalom and hurled stones at a passing train.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas announced that his faction would no longer vote with the coalition. The Islamist party sees the conservative, overwhelmingly religious communities as a key electoral stronghold.

“I can’t continue to live with this,” Abbas told Channel 12. “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.”

On Wednesday, after intense shuttle diplomacy between all sides, matters appeared to be on their way to a resolution, with the planting halted and an agreement to hold talks to legalize more unrecognized Bedouin homes. But how did it come to this?

Contested land

Tens of thousands of Negev Bedouin live in villages that are illegal under Israeli law. While Israel rarely conducts mass expulsions, the government regularly demolishes homes and other structures in the villages.

Bedouins in unrecognized villages have occasionally sought to prove they own the land on which they live. Many claims were made in the 1970s, but four decades later they have made little progress. Bedouins have lost the vast majority of cases that have been resolved.

“Today, there are about 500,000 dunams of contested land. Bedouins are summoned to court and asked to prove their ownership, but other than oral tradition, they often have nothing to show,” said Haya Noach, who co-directs the left-wing Negev Coexistence Forum.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir plants a tree outside the Bedouin village of Mulada, in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 12, 2022 (Flash90)

When JNF workers arrived on Sunday in the Negev to plant the trees, they did so on land that Suleiman al-Atrash, a local Bedouin, says is his. He filed a claim to the plot in 1973 that is still pending, and the area is currently defined as state land.

“Planting is an effective tool to preserve public lands for future use for any need. In the future, the area can be transformed into industrial or residential land,” argued an Israeli government official in the south, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But experts say afforestation projects are also implemented for political reasons: to remove Bedouins from disputed land, and with them, their claim to the area. The Israeli government views the move as protecting state lands from illegal squatters.

“It’s a kind of soft expulsion. There are two major means [to do this] in the south: foresting and ecological zones on the one hand, and the declaration of live-fire zones for military training,” said Thabet Abu Ras, who co-directs the Abraham Initiatives shared society nonprofit.

Israeli kids plant trees for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in Haifa, on February 9, 2017, in a KKL-JNF forest. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The land on which the current planting is being carried out is a small agricultural plot on which nobody actually lives. Some argue that al-Atrash’s claim to the land will not be harmed by the planting, although his ability to make a livelihood from farming likely will be.

“Look, the planting won’t change who owns the land. The land will remain with those who claim to own it. The JNF also plants on private land owned by individuals across the country,” the southern Israeli government official said.

Bedouins argue that planting trees on the disputed property is meant to create facts on the ground in favor of the state. And this week’s planting project is just one piece of a large-scale, NIS 150 million ($48 million) plan by the Israel Land Authority that would see large swaths of publicly owned land afforested, including residential areas of six unrecognized villages, local Bedouin officials said.

This land is not part of the master forestation plan by Israeli environmental authorities, said Tal.

The JNF referred questions on the matter to the Israel Land Authority, which did not respond to requests for comment.

“The Israel Land Authority wants to hold land, which is their job. Bedouins are squatters, and one way to make them stop doing that is by planting trees. They subcontract the JNF to then carry out the work,” said Tal.

Blue and White MK Alon Tal at the Knesset on June 30, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Fear of expulsions and demolitions: these are highly charged issues for many Negev Bedouin. Once clashes began between Bedouin and police — including scenes Monday night of 10-year-old children being carried off by armed officers — the situation quickly escalated.

And the forestry projects also strike a deeper historical nerve. After the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the JNF planted trees on the ruins of deserted Palestinian villages in an attempt to efface their memory, Tal said.

“This takes us back to the 1950s. It evokes bad memories for everybody, and it’s not where the JNF needs to be right now,” he said.

The battle within

The result for Israel’s coalition government was chaos, putting its right-wing factions and the Arab Islamist Ra’am party at loggerheads. With only a one-vote majority keeping it in power, the government has precious little wiggle room.

The Israeli right supports a swift, harsh response to what it calls rising lawlessness in Israel’s south. Right-wing parliamentarians have decried a growing lack of personal security, with much of the blame falling on the Bedouin.

For Israel’s right-wing politicians, including many in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, restoring law and order to Israel’s neglected periphery was a significant campaign promise. Ending what they consider the source of the crime — illegal Bedouin activity — is important to their voters.

At the same time, Ra’am desperately needs more tangible achievements for its core constituency, especially in the Negev. Given the intense opposition by the coalition’s right flank to moves that would fulfill their campaign promises to Bedouin, the Islamists have made little progress.

MK Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am party in the Knesset, November 2, 2021. (Noam Moshkavitz/GPO)

Mansour Abbas had promised that with an Arab party in the coalition, more Bedouin illegal townships would be recognized. But so far, while Abbas has managed to bring home billions of shekels in funding, the big-picture issues of land and recognition have taken a back seat.

Only three new Bedouin villages have been recognized since the coalition took office in June and demolitions of illegally built Bedouin homes have continued apace. A Ra’am law intended to bring electricity to Arab Israelis living in illegally built homes bypassed the Bedouins almost entirely.

Intra-Arab political battle

Ra’am’s struggle is as much with its rivals in the mostly Arab Joint List bloc as with its right-wing coalition partners. The Islamists have found themselves newly weak in the Negev, making it far harder for them to control matters.

In the March election, Negev Bedouins overwhelmingly voted for Ra’am. But while Ra’am’s conservative social program undoubtedly appealed to the southern Arab communities, the figure of Sa’id al-Harumi towered over the vote.

Negev-born, al-Harumi had a long history in the Islamic Movement. He personally ran a network of activists that reached every town and unrecognized village. Many Negev Bedouin saw him as their voice on the national stage.

“You meet many people here who’ll tell you, I didn’t vote for Ra’am. I voted for Sa’id al-Harumi — he’s the one who represents me,” Najib Abu Bunay, a resident of Wadi al-Na’am, told The Times of Israel following the elections last year during an extended conversation.

Al-Harumi passed away last August from a sudden heart attack as he drove through Beersheba to his home in Segev Shalom. He was 49. His funeral drew more than 10,000 mourners.

Lawmaker Said al-Harumi during an interview at his office at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

When the dust settled, activists quickly returned to party politics, with a new realization: al-Harumi’s tragic death had left a yawning void in Ra’am’s electoral strength.

Two weeks ago, the late al-Harumi’s post as leader of the Negev’s main political committee was filled — by Joint List member Juma’a Zabarqa (Balad). Ra’am bellowed at being outmaneuvered, but there was little it could do.

“The Negev is the soft underbelly of Arab politics. It’s also Ra’am’s soft underbelly. They promised the Bedouins so much, and expectations were high — but they have not been able to deliver on those promises,” said Abu Ras.

The resulting, many-layered struggle — between the Bedouin and the state, the right and left sides of a fractious coalition, Ra’am and the Joint List — will likely continue to shake Israel’s frail government.

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