The Negev's Bedouin demonstrations first re-erupted on January 9 in opposition to an afforestation (tree planting) project by the quasi-governmental body called the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in what Israel calls "disputed lands." They quickly turned violent as Bedouin residents of nearby villages confronted what they saw as a drive to displace their communities. Israel's police forces, domestic intelligence service (Shin Bet), and, as of last Thursday, the Israeli military, were all deployed to help put down the growing movement. The clashes that ensued resulted in tens of Bedouin Palestinians being arrested and injured. Additionally, stones were thrown at an Israeli train and an Israeli journalist's car was torched.
The JNF project is just the beginning of a larger $48 million project set forth by the Israel Land Authority, which threatens to cover residential areas where six unrecognized Bedouin villages are located. While Israeli environmentalists argue that the project is geared towards cleaning up the land, Bedouin villagers see the push as a means of displacing them and taking away their agricultural lands, which is where the JNF began planting trees last week. Although the tree planting has been frozen as of an Israeli government concession, following pressure by Israeli lawmaker Mansour Abbas's threat to pull out of the coalition government, the projects for construction in the Negev are still under way.
Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced in late December the construction of four settlements in the Negev, as part of a project to establish 12 new settlements there and raise the Jewish population to 2 million over 10 years. Shaked is part of Israeli Premier Naftali Bennett's right-wing Yamina Party, and this is where the issue begins to get more complex for the current Israeli administration, and poses a major threat to its political establishment.
Just days before the surge of protests, on January 6, the Israeli government was pressured to freeze plans for a phosphate mine project in the Negev, which threatened to displace 36,000 Bedouins living in al-Fura'a village. This came after Israeli lawmaker Mansour Abbas' 'Ra'am Party' pressured the government to halt the plan. Abbas, leader of the 'United Arab List', made history by becoming the first Palestinian-Israeli to enter an Israeli coalition government. Bennett and Yair Lapid, who negotiated a power-sharing agreement - meaning both would share serving as prime minister - did so to oust former PM Benjamin Netanyahu and received criticism for aligning centrists, right wingers and an Islamic party in order to do so. This now also means that if Mansour Abbas pulls out of the government, he could effectively cause the fall of the Bennett-Lapid coalition as it would not hold a majority in the Knesset.
When it comes to the issue of Bedouin in the Negev, Mansour Abbas understands that a large portion of his voter base (60%) comes from that region and so on this issue he is willing to throw his weight around. Attempts have been made to secure the establishment of four Bedouin villages in the Negev by Abbas, although Israel's plan is to have three major newly constructed Bedouin areas, where 70% of the Bedouin community would live, which would pave the way for communities to be forcibly transferred to these segregated Bedouin areas.
On this issue I spoke to a Bedouin Palestinian protester, present at the al-Atrash village demonstrations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that "most of us reject this plan and seek to remain on our lands." He told me he feels the "oppression we face, especially with our homes being destroyed," which has led to a rise in Palestinian nationalism and political activism amongst the Negev population. "If you look at the demonstration, whose flag do you see held high? [The Palestinian flag]," he said.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid seems to prefer a pragmatic stance here, but his coalition partner Bennett cannot afford to abandon his base by appearing weak on popular right-wing causes. Netanyahu's Likud Party has also gotten into the mix with the party's spokesperson, Jonatan Urich, stating, "The Bennett government mulling to stop planting due to violence against police is a continuation of it selling out the Negev to the Islamic Movement," hitting out at Bennett from the right. For the Israeli opposition, led by Likud, if the government loses its majority over this issue, it paves the way for their possible, gradual, return to power.
Riya al-Sanah, an activist from Lakiya village in the Negev, says "Israel has pursued a policy of displacement through what they call infrastructure and national priority projects, this includes laying railways or roads, industrial areas, or in this case forestation."
"Of course in a settler colonial context the majority of the project, and certainly this context, described as being in the interest of the population comes against the direct interests of the Palestinian population, so what Palestinians are saying here on the ground is that you are planting trees and uprooting people... this is not a new strategy, this is a project the JNF has led even prior to 1948."
"Planting trees is a method to hide the presence of Palestinian communities. So, for example, a lot of Israel's national parks are constructed on the remains of Palestinian villages. Forestation is also a mechanism that is used to stop Palestinians returning to their land once they are actually displaced," says al-Sanah, elaborating on why planting the trees has caused such a strong response. "It's a step towards displacing the communities, it's not just about planting the trees, people see that as a way of taking their land."
Riya also stated that the displacement of Bedouins in the Negev and the West Bank are very much interlinked. In the Negev, she explained, "as well as facing systematic house demolitions, they [Bedouins] are disconnected from the water, electricity and any infrastructure which enables a reasonable standard of living." She also believes the demonstrations of solidarity taking place throughout the country are "a continuation of what we saw in May of last year, when Palestinians everywhere rose up against Israeli policies of displacement in Sheikh Jarrah [in East Jerusalem]."
In 2020, a report put together by the Israeli NGO called the 'Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality', indicated - using statistics from 2017, 2018 and 2019 - that an average of 2,000 Bedouin homes had been destroyed yearly in the region. The Bedouin population is estimated to be around 300,000 in the Negev (al-Naqab in Arabic), and they are the most impoverished community inside Israel, with the majority lacking basic welfare, education and health services. Whilst Israeli settlements and Kibbutzim communities stand at 114 for Israeli Jews, all recognised by the state, only seven of 53 Israeli-Bedouin villages are currently fully recognised.
In 1948, the population of around 100,000 Bedouin that lived in the Negev were reduced to 11,000, due to Israeli expulsion efforts. The remaining group of Arab Bedouin were displaced to an area called al-Siyaj, which was placed under military rule. In 1965 the Israeli Knesset adopted the 'Planning and Building Law', which then made most of the Siyaj area "agricultural lands," making building homes there illegal. This even meant homes built there prior to the law taking effect would also be considered illegal. Al-Araqib is an example of a village, demolished 186 times, that has fallen victim to Israel deeming building in such areas illegal.
Riya al-Sanah says, of the current demonstrations, "it is not just the question of recognition of the existing residential areas... the demands are recognition and ownership of the land in the Naqab [Negev], which Israel has consistently refused to do." She went on to say that "the demands [of the demonstrators] are not just about recognition, because the card of recognition is often waved by Israel and historically has not happened... recognition has only happened in partial areas of the land and there are villages with partial recognition, which has meant there's still home demolitions going on in villages recognised since 2000."
In 2017, due to rising tensions over Israeli government neglect of the Bedouin community, a five-year plan was adopted by the Knesset to tackle the socioeconomic disadvantages faced by Bedouins in the Negev. But, due to a lack of implementation, Mansour Abbas has criticized the government and urged them to fulfill their obligations. Israel clearly sees economic benefits in constructing infrastructure in the Negev; the area is also a key portion of the country for the military and its bases.
Palestinian citizens of Israel in areas like Umm al-Fahm, Haifa, Kufr Qassim and elsewhere have now mobilised to confront Israeli construction plans in the Negev, uniting with the Bedouin of the south and protesting for their cause as their own. Hamas, the PFLP, DFLP, PIJ and other political parties have come out to urge their supporters to confront Israel in the Palestinian occupied territories over the Negev issue also. If the issue goes too far and Israel's government cannot agree on concessions, this could potentially lead to the most serious threat to the state's stability since May last year, a very bad prospect for Bennett and Lapid.