Bedouins clashed with Israeli security forces on Thursday in a violent protest against tree planting on disputed land in the Negev desert.
Over 2,000 people took part in the unrest, blocking Highway 31 near the southern city of Be'er Sheva and hurling rocks at police.
Police used riot control measures to push the protesters back to the neighboring Bedouin al-Atrash tribe. Twelve people were reportedly injured during the clashes, including two who were taken by ambulance to Soroka Medical Center in fair to moderate condition.
Members of the crowd claimed that the police demanded they disperse after ten minutes, infringing on their right to protest.
"This is unacceptable. The cry of the Bedouins must be heard. The behavior of the police and arrests will not deter anyone. We will continue to fight to the end and without hesitation, even if we die as martyrs," said one protester.
Meanwhile, other Bedouin communities across Israel also called to raise a hue and a cry.
The Bedouins are a historically nomadic Arab minority that numbers around 230,000 individuals in Israel.
The protests have broken out on Tuesday due to a dispute between the al-Atrash Bedouin tribe and Israel. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) — a contractor on behalf of Israel — sought to plant trees on land claimed by tribesman Soliman Atrash. The group has been doing forestation work all across Israel, and in the Negev in particular, for over a century.
Soliman Atrash, a tribesman, appealed in November 2020 to the Be'er Sheva District Court for a declarative judgment that he owns the land. In Atrash's appeal, he demands to claim some 105 dunams (26 acres) on which Israel asked to plant the trees.
According to the Atrash filing, a claim prosecution memo to the settlement clerk in southern Israel is enough to stop the work. Israel argued, "a claim memo is merely a claim that does not establish a right of ownership."
During the protests that broke out Tuesday evening, protesters hurled stones at vehicles on a highway near Be'er Sheva, blocked the railway line, and torched a journalist's car. Police said two officers were injured in the violence and at least 18 people were arrested.
The JNF continued to plant trees on Wednesday near the Bedouin village Mulada under heavy police protection.
The unrest subsided when Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, who oversees Bedouin affairs in the government, brokered a temporary agreement that saw planting halted as the parties involved entered negotiations. Authorities withdrew heavy machinery from the area as the tensions appeared to ease.
The issue sent shockwaves across Israel’s fragile governing coalition as the Islamist Ra'am party, which enjoys strong support among Bedouin Israelis, said it will boycott votes in the Knesset in protest until the issue is resolved.
Party leader Mansour Abbas wrote on Twitter that “a tree is not more important than a person.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called to halt planting and reassess the situation.
In July 2020, then-economy minister Amir Peretz ordered to stop forestation work near Yatir Forest due to a similar dispute with Bedouin citizens.