Bedouin protests and violence, coupled with a threat from a government coalition partner, halted initial plantings for a new state forest in the Negev Desert on Wednesday while negotiations take place between the sides. The disturbances stirred up existing concerns about Israel’s control of its southern region and the government’s reliance on Ra’am, an Arab-Israeli party without which it doesn’t have a majority.
The worst of the rioting took place on Tuesday in protest against Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) tree-planting ceremonies ahead of the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, to be celebrated on Jan. 17. The riots turned into a coalition crisis when Ra’am Party leader Mansour Abbas announced Tuesday on the Channel 12 evening news that he wouldn’t vote with the coalition until the planting was stopped.
When Ra’am first joined the government, many analysts and pundits were hopeful that the move would lead to reconciliation between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. The party was praised for its pragmatic approach. Others warned of the danger of allowing not only an Arab party, but an Islamist one, to be given leverage over the government.
Naomi Kahn, director of Regavim’s international division, told JNS that her group warned that letting in an anti-Zionist party (Ra’am’s charter calls Zionism “a racist, occupying project”) is “giving people power who really are working at cross purposes and who support a completely different vision for this country and this part of the world.”
“It’s never been done before that an Israeli government has given an Arab party and an Islamist party this kind of control and this kind of power and made it the kingmaker and the swing vote,” she said.
Ra’am’s support of the Bedouin position in the Negev is an example of it working at cross purposes to the state, said Kahn. “Traditional Bedouin law says ‘anywhere that my father and my grandfather raised sheep is mine, and no one else can use it.’ Now, no country in the world—not even a Muslim country—can function in that manner. There’s no registration of land, there’s no deed, there’s no title.”
‘It’s going to be a big test’
David May, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agreed that “a big impetus for all this friction is the fact that there’s been a disparity between the Bedouin’s perception of their property rights and Israel’s view of Bedouin property rights. … It’s an inherited system from the Ottomans, in particular, that didn’t recognize Bedouin land claims. Bedouin simply don’t have, for the most part, deeds to the land that they claim to be theirs.”
“This seems to be the first real challenge to the coalition. It’s going to be a big test,” May told JNS. Knesset member and Ra’am Party leader Abbas “is threatening to boycott the coalition, not to participate.”
“The members of this coalition are kind of a hodgepodge of the Israeli political spectrum; they all have different interests. And right now, this is where Ra’am’s interest—particularly for the core of its base, the Bedouin of the Negev—comes into question,” he said.
Although the area to be forested is on state land, the Bedouin see it as belonging to them. At a demonstration in the Negev on Monday prior to the riots, Abbas endorsed the Bedouin view: “We stand united to protect the lives, property and rights of the Bedouin residents of the Negev. … It is their right to preserve their land, to live here and to earn a decent living from these lands. Whoever talks today about the environment, about the landscape of the area and comes to plant trees, we tell him … a tree is not more important than a human being.”
‘Acquiescence attracted a lot of political fire’
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told JNS that “there is a worthy effort by Israel to identify certain areas that should be registered so people do not live in permanent limbo. It is unclear if there will be a consolidation of these areas to avoid chaos.”
Still, he views Abbas as an improvement over other Arab-Israeli leaders. “Unlike those rivals, Abbas is not challenging the Jewish character of the State of Israel. He made a historic statement at a recent public conference saying the character of the state will remain Jewish. This acquiescence attracted a lot of political fire within the Arab sector, but he did not back down.”
Kahn, however, said Abbas and his party have “made things worse for everyone”—both the state and the Bedouin—by demanding the legalization of illegal settlements and structures. She said that the Bedouin may benefit in the short term by having their illegal encampments recognized but lose out in the long run because it’s impossible to build infrastructure after the fact.
May said that in order to solve the problem, a way has to be found to bring the Bedouin into the Israeli system. He acknowledged that it’s “a pretty complex question of how that can be done, especially because Israel as a state has an issue with people building without permits on land that they don’t have a claim to. … It’s always going to be a problem unless there’s a major overhaul to revise the discrepancy between the two different perceptions of property rights.”
He declined to forecast whether Israel’s new forest will take root. He noted that in 2013, large protests took place against Israel’s Prawer Plan to relocate Negev Bedouin. The plan was eventually scrapped. “If we’re talking about how this might go, that’s probably the most direct example of how Israel’s foresting plan will end up,” he said.
Kahn was more blunt. “From what the government has done up till now, it doesn’t look good,” she said, and even less so for new communities. “There are approved plans for new communities—for Jewish communities—in the Negev. They have been shelved over worries about the Bedouin and illegal construction.
“While the Jewish communities are in limbo, the very first thing that this government did was to approve new Bedouin communities—essentially legalizing illegal construction,” she stated. “It’s certainly a double standard, I would say, a tragic double standard.”