Israel’s fragile governing coalition faced a crisis on Wednesday after Bedouins staged violent protests against tree planting on disputed land in the Negev desert.
The Jewish National Fund continued to plant trees near the Bedouin village Mulada under heavy police protection in the morning hours after mass violent riots that took place in the area hours earlier.
However, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen later brokered a temporary agreement that saw the planting halted while all involved would enter negotiations. Authorities withdrew heavy machinery from the area as the tensions appeared to ease.
Local residents who arrived at the scene on Wednesday threw stones at the police, which responded with stun grenades and arrests.
On Tuesday evening, protesters hurled stones at vehicles on a highway near Be'er Sheva, blocked the railway line, and torched a vehicle. Police said two officers were injured in the violence and at least 18 people arrested were reported.
The conflict over planting trees in the Negev in southern Israel - home to Bedouin villages unrecognized by the state - has divided the government.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called for halting the planting and reassessing the situation while the Islamist Ra’am party has threatened to withhold its votes in parliament in protest. Both are members of the fragile eight-party coalition that runs the government.
Ra’am, the Islamist party, secured four seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in last year’s elections, with strong support among Bedouin citizens of Israel. Party leader Mansour Abbas wrote on Twitter that “a tree is not more important than a person.”
The Jewish National Fund has been planting in the Negev for years, and in July 2020, former Economy Minister Amir Peretz ordered to stop the planting near Yatir Forest because he was also accountable for the authority that regulates Bedouin settlement in the Negev.
The protests appeared to have broken out due to a dispute between the al-Atrash Bedouin tribe and Israel. Soliman Atrash, a tribesman, appealed in November 2020 to the Be'er Sheba District Court for a declarative judgment that he owns the land.
The Jewish National Fund acts as a contractor on behalf of Israel, and it plants the trees according to the Israel Land Authority (ILA) orders. In Atrash's appeal, he demands to claim some 105 dunams on which the ILA 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. The ILA argued, "a claim memo is merely a claim that does not establish a right of ownership."