Controversial tree plantings on disputed land to resume

Government okays NIS 5.2b. plan for Bedouin communities in the Negev

 Israeli police officers clash with Bedouins during a protest against tree planting by the Jewish National Fund, outside the Bedouin village of al-Atrash in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 13, 2022. (photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)
Israeli police officers clash with Bedouins during a protest against tree planting by the Jewish National Fund, outside the Bedouin village of al-Atrash in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 13, 2022.
(photo credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

Tree planting by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund near the Negev lands of the Atrash clan, which Israel says belong to the state, will soon resume, coalition sources said Monday.

The initial dispute nearly brought down Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government in January and resulted in the Ra’am (United Arab List) Party boycotting votes in the Knesset, which were consequently lost by the coalition. Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, with uncharacteristic hyperbole, compared planting trees in the Negev to getting shot in the chest.

Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope) approved the resumption of the planting because Ra’am cannot hurt the coalition during the two-month Knesset recess that began on Sunday, KAN News reported. Right-wing parties in the coalition felt now would be an opportune time to make up for backtracking on the tree planting amid violent protests, the report said.

Some 2,000 Bedouin citizens demonstrated against the tree planting in January, blocking Highway 31 near Bedouin encampments. At least 13 protesters were arrested, and at least three were lightly injured. They threw stones at police, who responded with anti-riot rubber bullets, shock grenades and a water cannon.

There was no guarantee Ra’am would vote with the coalition when the Knesset reconvenes on May 9, Ra’am faction chairman Waleed Taha told the Knesset Channel on Monday. Such decisions would be made at that time, depending on developments, he said.

 Ra'am head Mansour Abbas at the Knesset plenum, January 4, 2022 (credit: NOAM MOSKOVITZ/KNESSET) Ra'am head Mansour Abbas at the Knesset plenum, January 4, 2022 (credit: NOAM MOSKOVITZ/KNESSET)

“Trees, which are symbols of peace, should not cause hatred and rifts among citizens of the country and between the state and its citizens,” Taha said. “The state is foolish for letting trees become a focal point of discord.”

In an effort to placate Ra’am, the cabinet approved a five-year, NIS 5.2 billion plan for Bedouin communities in the Negev on Monday. The funding will go toward economic development, employment and helping Bedouin students go to college and study technological fields.

The cabinet also took a step to help haredim (ultra-Orthodox) on Monday, approving a new haredi town in the Negev called Kasif, with 20,000 housing units for more than 100,000 people.

The move was a bluff, haredi politicians said, adding that their constituents would never end up living there.

“For years, they have been trying to throw the haredim at the Bedouin like meat,” United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler said. “There is no sense in putting us near Kuseifa, the poorest town in the country, when they are not letting us build in the city of Arad, 10 kilometers away.”