Negev tree-planting to resume despite violent Bedouin rioting

Months after JNF tree-planting efforts were suspended due to violent rioting by local Bedouins, the activity is set to resume.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Tree-planting efforts led by the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) will resume in the Negev in the near future, months after the activity was suspended due to violent opposition from local Bedouin communities, Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope) said in internal government talks last week.

In January 2022, tree-planting by JNF officials and volunteers near Bedouin communities were violently disrupted by widespread rioting over the course of several days.

Although the tree-planting took place on state land, Bedouin leaders and activists have expressed their vehement opposition to the practice, which they claim encroaches on their territory and will lead to their eventual displacement.

In one massive demonstration, some 2,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel attacked people planting trees and police officers. The scuffles  ended with some 12 reported injured and evacuated to a hospital in Be’er Sheva.

A journalist from the left-wing daily Haaretz, who was covering the riots, was surrounded by a group of Bedouins, who set his car on fire and beat him. He was eventually extracted from the fray by Israeli police.

Hebrew-language news station Kan Bet reported that Elkin made the decision to continue the tree-planting efforts at this time because the Knesset has entered its Passover recess.

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Coalition kingmaker MK Mansour Abbas of the Islamist Ra’am party, which enjoys significant support from Bedouin voters, had boycotted critical votes should the tree-planting continue.

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

Because the Knesset is now on break, Ra’am’s threat to boycott votes is no longer a challenge for the coalition.

Right-wing activists and NGOs slammed the Israeli government for what they called a capitulation to Bedouin violence, saying at the time that it set a negative precedent for Israeli sovereignty in the Negev.

The Bedouin aren’t actually concerned about the tree-planting, Dr. Edy Cohen (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan University), who specializes in inter-Arab relations and terrorism, told JNS.

“It’s just an excuse,” he said. “They claim that this [the planting] is a move to Judaize their lands, meaning that the premise is that the lands of the Negev are the lands of the Bedouin, and there is now an attempt by Israel to turn them into Jewish lands. That’s the whole story.”

Previous tree-planting efforts were ignored by Bedouins for decades, Cohen noted.

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Now, “they have backing, they have MKs on whom the coalition rests. They have power.”