Conflict over forest work continues at disputed junction north of Beersheba

Conflict over forest wor

A semblance of calm returned to the Negev yesterday after a Beduin demonstration on Wednesday left three people injured and 20 under arrest. On Thursday, KKL-JNF afforestation work in the area of the Goral Junction north of Beersheba proceeded uninterrupted, but was monitored by a delegation of disgusted Beduin men, who in turn were being watched carefully by police from a nearby hilltop. Wednesday's demonstration erupted due to the start of the afforestation work on a disputed area called the Ambassador's Forest. A Beduin family from the region claims the land belongs to it, while the Israel Lands Administration says it is state land. Work began after the expiration of a restraining order, which prevented it from proceeding while the dispute was being discussed. "We blocked the work from taking place, because they have no right to take over this property," said Hassan Almalchi, from nearby Rahat. "This land has belonged to my family for generations. On Wednesday they came, accompanied by police and Border Police units, looking for a fight. Today the police are here again, even though we've done nothing to stop the tractors." Almalchi said that the land the workers are digging up is land usually cultivated in the winter. "We grow wheat and barley here when there's enough rain. I'd be afraid to plant fruit trees or something like that, because they would rip them out. People who rip human beings off their land would have no problem uprooting trees," he said. KKL-JNF, for its part, claim it is acting according to the law. "This land belongs to the state through the Israel Lands Administration. They just use us to do the work because of our rich experience in forestry work," said Ami Uliel, KKL-JNF's southern region director. Uliel said that his staff worked under the instruction of the ILA and according to regional development plans. "Everybody enjoys the forest, both the older, existing one and the one that our people are currently preparing," said Uliel. "I saw Beduin families having picnics in the forest during their holidays, just as we'll see Jewish families visiting it on Succot. The forests are for everybody to make use of." The calm is unlikely to last for long. A restraining order has been put in place on construction on one side of the road and the men arrested Wednesday were released on condition that they don't go near the disputed land, but the battle for the Negev is far from over. As long as the government's plans for developing the region is perceived by the Beduin as coming at their expense, these conflicts will repeat themselves, the Beduin say. "We don't hate the Jews, but the government policies are making us hate the state," said Salame El-Tur Almalchi. "Israel identifies itself as a democracy, but it is not democratic. There is law in Israel, but no justice, at least when it comes to land." Almalchi said the Beduin battle isn't with KKL-JNF, but with the government. "They are only government contractors, if the authorities tell them to leave, they'll leave," he said. When asked if he would ever agree to give up the land, Almalchi responded that he was unwilling to sell it, no matter what price is offered, but that he would agree to a settlement whereby the land would be split evenly between the Beduin owners and the state. "The state has to find a comprehensive solution instead of butting heads with the Beduin. Their current actions are seeding hate within the Beduin society." A 10-year-old boy who joined the men in the demonstration tent was asked what he thinks of Israel. He answered with a dramatic gesture and said that he doesn't like the Israelis. "They are taking our land and striking a knife in our hearts," he said. "I used to work at the nearby Jewish town of Lehavim and I used to cry with them when they held their memorial services for the Holocaust," said Almalchi. "Today, it is their behavior that makes me cry."