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Protesters clash with Israeli police over Negev forestation work

Bedouin populace see project as prelude to land seizure

Letters from Jerusalem
Israeli forces arrest 17-year-old Jinan Al-Atrash during protest in Sawa village in the Negev Desert on January 12, 2022. (Photo: Mohammad Al-Kassim/Jordan News)
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Thousands of people took to the streets last week to protest a controversial forestation project in the village of Sawa, in the Negev desert, calling the tree planting a prelude to a land grab.اضافة اعلان

The bedouin Arabs from the Al-Atrash tribe say they are the rightful owners of the land and that the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the agency behind the tree planting campaign and acting on behalf of Israel, is encroaching on their land.

The demonstrations turned violent and the large number of Israeli forces used riot gear to repel protesters away from the main roads, and back towards the village of Sawa, which is predominantly inhabited by member of the Al-Atrash tribe.

Tensions continued to mount late on Friday when Israeli police stormed the town of Tel Al-Saba and Sawa.

Eyewitnesses told Jordan News that protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at the Tel Sheva police station. Police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse them.

More than 130 people were arrested in several days of protests.

"Over the course of the whole week, the people of the bedouin village of Sawa wrote new pages in the showing their unbreakable bond (to) their land in the Negev," Juma'a Zabaka told Jordan News, "(The) Nakba will not happen again,” he said referring to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the loss of Palestine, and the expulsion of a majority of the Palestinian Arabs.

Zabarka, a member of the higher Steering Committee of the Arabs of the Negev and a former member of the Knesset (MK), said: “They want to gather the Arabs of the Negev in as little space as possible, and that's how they take over the land.”

He described the police’s treatment of the protesters as “criminality in every sense of the word. People who are in their homes are attacked in broad daylight for no reason.”

“It is the people’s natural right to protest. This is a false democracy of the first degree. They claim (they are a) democracy, and they are far from it and closest to an apartheid regime,” Zabarka said.

Among those arrested was 17-year-old Jinan Al-Atrash. She was briefly detained during the demonstration but told The Media Line that she will continue to protest.

"I am angry because they want to take our land by force. This is our land, the land of the Negev, the land of Al-Atrash."

Former MK Talab Al-Sana harshly criticized the security forces.

"The police treatment is barbaric and terroristic in manner against citizens who are carrying out a legitimate protest against illegal, racist practices."

After the Nakba, an estimated 13,000 Palestinians remained in the Negev and since then, Israel has expelled dozens of bedouin tribes from the area.

According to the Israeli government, approximately 300,000 bedouins live in the Negev today, and by 2040 that number is expected to rise to more than 750,000.

According to Thabit Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, the bedouins dismiss the government’s claims that the forestation project is for the benefit of the local Arab population.

“The bedouins say this land is theirs, ... they’ve lived here for generations,” Abu Rass said, adding that they also believe “the true motivation behind the government’s decision is to confiscate their land and expel them from it.”

He also argued the bedouins need more land. "The state of Israel and its agencies control 98 percent of the total land,” with the local population inhabiting 2 percent of the land and striving to gain another 3 percent.

The Israeli government has refused to register the land for decades despite the bedouins’ claims, but “there’s enough room for everyone in the Negev,” he said.

For its part, the JNF said the first phase of the controversial plan to plant trees in the Negev Desert was scheduled to take place over the course of three days and has now been completed. This hasn’t stopped the protests from continuing, as demonstrators stress that they trust neither the JNF nor the government.

The second phase of the project was scheduled to begin in 45 days.

Political consequences

The forestation controversy threatens Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s fragile coalition. With no votes to spare in his coalition, the Islamist United Arab List (UL), which enjoys strong support among bedouin Israelis, has vowed to boycott parliamentary votes as long as the Negev project continues.

“There’s no doubt that people here are hugely disappointed in (the UL); they are part of the government and I believe this government will not stay for long. There’s a lot of pressure from within the UL to withdraw from the government,” Abu Rass said.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers from the political right, like Likud’s Miri Regev, have pushed for work to continue.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called to halt the operation and reassess the situation.

With a population estimated to comprise 20 percent of Israel’s Arab minority, some, like Ibrahim Al-Nasra, are convinced the police view bedouins as a threat to the state.

The police “treat Arabs as enemies and not as citizens,” the Negev resident told Jordan News. “This is what we saw from (their) arrogant behavior.”

Nasra says they are subjected to home demolitions and that they lack access to basic services — including electricity, water, and sanitation.

"What is happening is not a coincidence and nothing new to us. We know that the Israeli policy since the establishment of the state has been to gather the largest number of the bedouin Arab population in the Negev on the least amount of land."

The JNF’s equipment and workers have left, for now, allowing the government to negotiate with the bedouins. For their part, the bedouins have insisted the protests will continue.

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