Israel's crackdown on Palestinians in Negev threatens Bedouins and its own government
A brutal crackdown on Bedouins in south Israel's Negev this week amid a controversial forestation plan has once again cracked open tensions between Palestinian citizens and the Israeli state - providing a new and perhaps even existential challenge to the government.
Both right-wing Israeli nationalists and Palestinian citizens sit in Israel's unwieldy coalition, and attempts by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to claim land in the Negev long cultivated by Bedouins have exposed their disparate views and electorates.
Since late December, Israel has deployed dozens of police officers, military vehicles, dogs and horse units to crush Palestinian protesters and protect the JNF's workers and bulldozers in the al-Naqe area.
"The Israeli government thinks that to protect this area from invaders, meaning us the Palestinians citizens of Israel, they need to plant it with trees," Marwan Abu Frieh, a field researcher and Naqab office coordinator at Adalah centre, told Middle East Eye.
In the past two days, Israeli forces arrested around 35 Palestinians in Saawa village, where 1,881 people live, and in the area of al-Atrash, named after a prominent clan in the Negev, with 3,866 inhabitants, according to official Israeli figures. Some of the detainees were later released.
Palestinians in the Negev were shocked at the sheer force the Israeli government used to implement what they see as a project, handled by the JNF, to uproot them from their land.
'These projects, including JNF's forestation plan, are aimed at limitting Palestinian expansion in the area'
- Marwan Abu Frieh, researcher
"In the past, when JNF workers come to areas of Palestinian towns in the Naqab [Arabic for Negev], they'd be accompanied by one police vehicle, but this time, it's different. There were dozens of police officers tasked to attack and arrest the protesters," Abu Frieh said.
The JNF and Israel's Planning and Building Committee in 2016 passed a plan to plant trees over 5,000 dunams (500 hectares) in the Negev, where 300,000 Palestinian citizens live in Israel's largest region.
In December, the JNF started planting trees over almost 300 dunams in the al-Naqe area, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which falls on 16 and 17 January.
The forestation plan required tilling lands and wheat crops of Palestinians in Saawa village, which prompted clashes in one of the six Palestinian villages in al-Naqe, an area squeezed between two Israeli high roads, 31 to the north and 25 to the south.
Israel had knocked down the solidarity tent erected in the area, installed checkpoints, and prevented vehicles from accessing the villages in al-Naqe, making a foot trip for students and the elderly more arduous.
Lifeline for Palestinians
Al-Naqe, a fertile area close to the mountain range of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, has always been a lifeline to Palestinian Bedouins in the Negev.
It is an elevated terrain with green pasture - a perfect topography for Palestinian Bedouins to herd their cattle during winter and spring, and to grow wheat crops.
Streams of winter rain pouring from the Hebron ridges run through al-Naqe, before reaching the more flat, arid land in the deep south as it approaches the Red Sea.
Almost 30,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in al-Naqe, mostly in the villages of Saawa, al-Gharaa, Bier al-Mashash, Bier al-Hamam, al-Ruwais, and Khirbet al-Watan.
"This is the only area where the Israeli government doesn't have an official plan for development in the Naqab, so the JNF and planning committee stepped in to fill the vacuum and proposed the forestation plan," Abu Frieh said.
Israel had launched almost nine mega projects in the Negev since the mid-2000s near or atop Palestinian towns and villages. The most significant project is an intelligence centre, to the southwest of al-Naqe, which would house 12,000 Israeli soldiers in a bid to transform Beer Sheva city into the "cyber centre of the Western Hemisphere".
Other projects include railways, high roads, industrial and urban development, where almost 100,000 Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship live in nearly 35 unrecognised Negev villages.
Most of these villages are concentrated east of Road 40, which cuts Israel's southern territory in half.
"These projects, including JNF's forestation plan, are aimed at limiting Palestinian expansion in the area," Abu Frieh said.
However, all these projects could be challenged in Israeli courts, dragging and delaying their implementation, he explained, except for the JNF plan, as the organisation is not a government body but reports to the Israel Land Authority.
"They have not planted trees yet," Abu Frieh said, "but they spent six days tilling the land and uprooting fig and olive trees planted by Palestinians, and poured soil on it to prepare it for forestation."
'Make the wilderness bloom'
On Wednesday, notorious far-right Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir was busy rolling up his sleeves and planting a tree in the Negev, with official permission from a top rabbi during a Shmita year, which requires giving the land a rest according to Jewish sacred texts.
"Together we will make the wilderness bloom," Ben Gvir of the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party said, referring to a much-quoted statement made by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Israel has long claimed that Palestinians have no right to lands of unrecognised villages in the Negev, however, in Saawa, which is a recognised village, that did not matter.
Israel has also long deployed "Green Police" units to prohibit Palestinians from planting seasonal fruits and vegetables and limit their cattle-grazing areas in the Negev.
Unrecognised villages are denied any infrastructure or support from the government. There are no means of transportation, no roads, no schools, and Israeli authorities do not collaborate with their local leadership.
Residents say such policies are an attempt to pressure them into being internally displaced, despite the fact that Bedouins have lived on or near these lands prior to Israel's establishment in 1948.
The roaring engines of the JNF's bulldozers in the Negev have echoed in the Knesset halls in occupied Jerusalem.
The alarm was raised in the fragile Israeli government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that his coalition could collapse after four Knesset members of the United Arab List (Raam) party said they would not support parliamentary votes on future laws.
Raam, an Islamist party and part of Bennett's government, is from the Negev, where Palestinians make up its electoral base.
'It cannot be that we give them a government and they do not let us live with dignity on our lands'
- Mazen Ghanayim, Raam MK
Mazen Ghanayim of Raam wrote on Facebook: "I'm against this government until it retracts all its bulldozing works in the Negev. It cannot be that we give them a government and they do not let us live with dignity on our lands.
"The Negev is my home. The Negev is my family. The Negev is a red line," he added.
The head of Raam, Mansour Abbas, has also warned that his party will not vote in favour of the government until the forestation project is stopped.
"Trees are not more important than human beings," Abbas tweeted.
The Israel government, sensing a fragmenting coalition, with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu vying for the opportunity in the Knesset to get back to power, announced on Wednesday afternoon that, for the time being, planting work had been suspended.
The Negev protests are the second major incident in less than a year in which Israel clashed with its citizens from the Palestinian community, who constitute 20 percent of the population.
In May, during an Israeli bombardment of Gaza Strip and settlers' attempt to expel Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, clashes and protests erupted in Israel's mixed Arab and Jewish cities.
"We now see the same dynamic used in cities such as Ramle and Wadi Ara villages being used in the Naqab," Abu Frieh said. "There is a mass arrest campaign being launched here, just like after the events in May, in order to scare people from protesting."
Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli analyst, tweeted that the Negev saga was Bennett's government "gravest test yet" in the first seven months in power, adding later that although the issue was temporarily paused, "it’s a time-bomb still ticking under the government."