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Tree planting leads to coalition crisis

What happened: Last night protests and rioting erupted in southern Israel as Bedouin residents displayed their anger against tree-planting on land that is claimed by local villagers.

  • The demonstrator set a car on fire and threw stones and firebombs at other passing cars. Two police officers sustained light injuries and 21 people were arrested.
  • Large stones were also placed on the railway tracks. The conductor of a train from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva spotted the obstacle far enough in advance to allow him to brake and stop the train.
  • The rioting and stone-throwing were sparked by the controversy surrounding the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plan to plant trees in the Negev.
  • The tree-planting is being carried out ostensibly for ecological reasons and timed to coincide with the Jewish festival for new trees – Tu B’shvat, next week.
  • However, Bedouins see it as an attempt by the state to assert ownership over contested areas and prevent illegal cultivation or squatting.
  • Mansour Abbas, the leader of United Arab List (UAL / Ra’am), said: “I cannot continue living with this. I have accepted things that may have seemed worse, but when they shoot directly at your chest, you cannot survive. The Negev is Ra’am. I demand to stop the planting and expedite an arrangement in three or four places. We won’t vote with the coalition, until this is solved.”
  • Foreign Minister Lapid called for the tree-planting activity to be suspended. Lapid wrote on twitter: “Twelve years of forsaking the Negev and neglecting the Bedouin problem aren’t going to be solved in a single day. The State of Israel needs to plan trees on state land, but we don’t have to damage the livelihoods of the residents of the area.”
  • Lapid added: “The government of change is committed to solving the Bedouins’ problems and to lead to regularising the Negev. Politicians from all sides need to calm instead of stoking the fire. I condemn the violence on the ground and back up the police’s actions to restore public order.”
  • Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (New Hope) took a more hawkish position, writing on twitter, “Rioting in the Negev must not be forgiven. The big lie that unfolded here in the past decade, the loss of governance in the Negev and the Galilee, and the weakness under the Likud’s rule are no excuse. We are in power and we have no option other than to restore sovereignty to the Negev.”

Context: The crisis revolves around the status of the land. Legally it is state land, however, this is contested by local Bedouin who are also claiming rights.

  • As a result of the tree planting and subsequent anger in the Bedouin community, Ra’am informed the coalition leadership that it would boycott voting in the Knesset plenum until the tree-planting was stopped.
  • This could be the most serious threat the coalition government has faced, though no government bills are up for an imminent vote in the Knesset today, only private member bills.
  • The Knesset’s agenda is also curtailed due to several MKs contracting coronavirus.
  • In the absence of a majority, coalition MKs may fail to get some of their bills passed.
  • A similar issue over tree planting in the Negev occurred in 2020. Back then, the Netanyahu-Gantz government suspended the activity.
  • The overall JNF plan is to plant about 1,250 acres of forest. This first phase of the project includes about 75 acres, some of which local Bedouin farmers had been planning to cultivate.
  • Only last week did the Knesset pass the Ra’am backed electricity law that allowed unrecognised Bedouin communities to be connected to the national electricity grid, despite their homes being built without legal permission.

Looking ahead:  This morning the minister responsible for the tree planting, Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope), said that today would be the last day of planting “in this round”.

  • As of this morning tree planting resumed under heavy police protection.
  • Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid) the minister responsible for Bedouin villages in the Negev, said that he is speaking with both sides of the disagreement in an attempt to find a solution. He said, “After years of neglecting the Negev and trying to evade making decisions regarding Bedouin villages in the south, the current government is making great effort to establish new communities  with proper settlement arrangements….above all, while safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty.”
  • Meir added, “I implore all politicians, from all sides, to take responsibility, not to stoke the flames of discord and not to throw a wrench in the works of recognising unrecognised villages.”

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