Arab leaders voice their protest as KKL-JNF plants trees in Negev

Disputed land claimed to belong to a Bedouin family in the Negev has been in the spotlight due to KKL-JNF's act to plant trees on it.

 Ra'am head Mansour Abbas at the Knesset plenum, December 15, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ra'am head Mansour Abbas at the Knesset plenum, December 15, 2021.

Ra’am (United Arab List) MKs protested a round of tree planting by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund in the Negev on Monday, claiming the saplings were planted on the property of the al-Atrash family.

MKs from Ra’am and the Joint List boycotted Monday’s Knesset plenum session and flocked to the disputed land to protest.

No. 7 on Ra’am’s list, Ata Abu Madiam, warned that the party could not be part of a government that carries out plantings in the Negev.

Journalist Yasser Okbi was arrested during clashes with police at the site of the planting. Meretz MK Gaby Lasky called on the police to release him immediately, claiming he was merely doing his job, and that his arrest was a severe violation of press freedom and of the public’s right to information.

“We stand united in the cause to allow them [the Bedouin residents] to keep their land and their rights,” Ra’am head Mansour Abbas said at the protest in the Negev.

“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,” he said.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) claimed the planting was being carried out on private land owned by the family.

“Under a cover of planting trees, what is happening is land theft and violence toward the Arab Bedouin community,” she said.

“The Bedouin are in favor of a clean, green environment,” said Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives NGO. “The state and its agencies, including the JNF, control over 97% of the Negev’s geographical area. Why must forestation take place on the remaining 3% of disputed land claimed by Bedouin, who comprise 34% of the total population of the Negev?” he said.

On the other hand, the right-wing NGO Regavim said the land where the trees were planted belongs to the state and not to the Bedouin.

The relationship between Ra’am and the rest of the coalition has been strained in recent weeks due to disagreements about the Electricity Law which passed last Wednesday, providing electricity, water and telephone access to thousands of illegally built Arab homes. While the rift seemed to have been abated by the bill’s passing, Ra’am did not hesitate to threaten the stability of the coalition on the issue.

On Tuesday, a number of Likud MKs visited and participated in the planting.

Police on Tuesday entered the town of Saawa, home to the al-Atrash family, and arrested 11 people between the ages of 13 and 35, including three underage girls and five underage boys, Okbi reported.