For several days this week, hundreds and as many as 2,000 Bedouins protested—sometimes violently—the planting of trees by the Jewish National Fund in the Negev. One family says the area being planted is private property—the government says it is not. The contentious relationship between Israel and the Negev Bedouin community came to a boiling point this week, and the fragile unity in the government might hang in the balance.
The Bennett-Lapid unity coalition maintains a thin majority in the Knesset—and the “kingmaker” in the deal is Arab Joint List (Ra’am) chair, Mansour Abbas. While he doesn’t hold an official seat in the government, his vote counts in every way. And he was not happy with the tree planting in the Arab Bedouin area of the Negev.
“We stand united in the cause to allow them (the Bedouin residents) to keep their land and their rights,” Ra’am leader Abbas said. “There are some 300,000 Bedouin Arabs who live in the Negev. The government claims that they are invading (land that isn’t theirs). They are not. Human life is more important than a tree.”
Another Joint List Knesset member, Aida Touma-Sliman, said the planting was being done on property owned by a Bedouin family and accused the government of a land grab. “Under a cover of planting trees, what is happening is land theft and violence toward the Arab Bedouin community.”
“The state and its agencies, including the JNF, control over 97 percent of the Negev’s geographical area. Why must forestation take place on the remaining 3 percent of disputed land claimed by Bedouin, who comprise 34 percent of the total population of the Negev?” questioned Dr. Thabet Aub Rass, part of the Abraham Initiatives NGO.
Negev Bedouins live in illegal enclaves throughout the region. Israel has tried for years to get them to move into recognized, planned communities, where water, electricity, and other services will be more accessible for Bedouin Israeli citizens. Protestors believe the tree planting is a way to force Bedouins from the land.
Bedouin protestors threw stones at police, burned tires, and uprooted many of the new saplings. Police fired rubber bullets, lobbed shock grenades, and used water cannons to break up the crowd. Authorities have arrested dozens of protestors. Police also arrested members of the family claiming the land in question.
You may be asking, “Why trees? Why now?” One major reason is that this Monday (actually starting on Sunday night) is Tu BiShvat – the fourth type of new year that Israelis celebrate—and this one revolves around ecology and planting trees. It’s kind of like Arbor Day or Earth Day in Israel. Over a million Israelis usually take part in the planting activities.
When Jews first returned to Israel, it was a barren desert in some areas and mosquito-filled swamps (malaria factories) in others. When the Ottoman Empire controlled the land prior for several hundred years before World War I, they charged taxes based on how many trees you had on your land. Needless to say, after a while, to avoid exorbitantly high taxation rates, people cut down the trees. So, the land of Israel became a desert with lots of tree stumps—you can still see some of them today as you leave Jerusalem and head toward the Jordan Valley.
Since the early 1900s and especially after Israel became a nation again, we have planted millions of trees across the land. And we have been able to make the desert bloom and the wastelands inhabitable once again.