Land protests in Israel’s Negev draw attention to Bedouin plight

Rallies sparked a political crisis that threatened to topple the government

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Muddy fields have become a stage for protest and political turmoil in southern Israel, where Bedouin residents are facing off against state-backed bulldozers.

“The residents here won’t stand by and do nothing,” said Saja Al Atrash, 18, in Sawa.

The rural Bedouin village appears calm, with children trundling home from school while a cockerel crows in the distance.

But this month, the area was cordoned off as riot police confronted demonstrators.

“There was brutal treatment,” said Ms Al Atrash, a keffiyeh wrapped around her shoulders.

“They were using tear gas, they were using stun grenades and they directly hit protesters. People were wounded.”

The police force said officers were also hurt and that some demonstrators threw stones.

Protesters had gathered at the entrance to Sawa because bulldozers were digging up land surrounding the village.

Israel says the land belongs to the state, while Bedouin residents say they have owned it since before the country was established in 1948.

The Sawa case has thrust the decades-long dispute into the spotlight, sparking a political crisis that has threatened to topple the government.

Ra’am, an Arab party that relies on votes from the Negev, is the linchpin of the coalition and threatened to withhold its votes over the affair.

The bulldozers withdrew within days, leaving churned earth where one resident said crops had recently been sowed.

Reassurances were reportedly given that negotiations over future plans would involve villagers, but the Bedouins are still waiting.

Residents “have repeatedly declared that there is not any official understanding, and the only state bodies that contact them are actually the police,” said Amir Abu Koider, a local activist.

The Jewish National Fund, an organisation contracted by the government for the tree-planting project, declined to comment on the matter.

The status of the afforestation plan remains unknown and Mr Abu Koider warned that the situation could escalate unless the government changes tack.

“The street is somehow boiling,” he said. “This anger is accumulating due to the different policies and we are probably heading for additional confrontations soon.”

Demonstrations have moved to a nearby city, Beer Sheva, whose office blocks are visible across the plains from Sawa.

Rallies are held regularly outside the courthouse, to protest against the detention of about 150 children and adults accused of breaking the law during the village demonstrations.

Marwan Abu Freih, a lawyer representing some of those arrested, said the failure to resolve the land disputes historically is having a tangible impact on the community.

“The conflict began with land but today it’s our life. Many people, many children, many women in unrecognised villages are without any infrastructure,” said Mr Abu Freih, who works with Adalah, an Israeli organisation for Arab rights.

As well as rejecting Bedouin claims of land ownership, dozens of villages are deemed “unrecognised” because previous administrations refused to give them legal status through planning legislation.

Sawa was legalised in 2010, although the move did not incorporate the surrounding land, and the village still lacks amenities.

“We don’t have the minimum necessities of life on this land,” said Ms Al Atrash, beside a dirt track connecting the homes.

Arab Israelis shout slogans and wave Palestinian national flags as they stage a protest in the mostly Arab city of Umm Al Fahm in northern Israel in solidarity with Bedouin communities in the Negev desert against an afforestation project by the Jewish National Fund. AFP

Ra’am has pledged to grant many more villages legal status, but there has been little progress since the party came to office in June.

Bedouins who live in “unrecognised” areas are under pressure to move to towns, as well as being at risk of having their homes demolished.

While the recent protests focused on one tract of land, they have drawn attention to the broader situation faced by Bedouins in the Negev.

Adan Alhjooj, 18, from the nearby village of Lakiyya, said “more of a movement” has appeared in the community.

“Even people who don’t own land there, I think it’s the first time there was solidarity over all,” she said.

Scores of young Bedouins, including Ms Alhjooj and Ms Al Atrash, took to social media to broadcast the recent events.

They have drawn international attention to the Negev, galvanising them to revive the protests if the bulldozers return.

“For the first time ever, people are actually learning about who we are and they are seeing what is happening to us,” Ms Alhjooj said.

“It is giving me more courage.”

Updated: January 26, 2022, 1:30 AM