United Arab List leader threatens to boycott Knesset deliberations on Jewish National Fund work on land used by locals for agriculture

Jack Khoury Deiaa Haj Yahia Nati Yefet Jan. 10, 2022

Police and protesters next to Sa'wa, Monday.
Police and protesters next to Sa’wa, Monday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hundreds of police officers were deployed to guard Jewish National Fund workers preparing land for forestation near the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev on Monday – land used by locals for agriculture.

Several people were detained after residents gathered to protest the work, including Nas Radio journalist Yasser Okbi. He was detained on suspicion of interfering with police, despite the fact that he had presented his press card. One person was reported to be injured.

Political leaders and activists criticized the forestation plan. The United Arab List, a member of the governing coalition, issued a statement saying the work was not coordinated with it and threatening to boycott a Knesset debate on the proposal set for later on Monday.

A protester who fainted during an attempt to detain him in Sa'wa, Monday.
A protester who fainted during an attempt to detain him in Sa’wa, Monday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“We condemn and reject the work and damage to the source of income of the Arab families in the area,” the party said. UAL Chairman Mansour Abbas visited the area on Monday alongside other lawmakers from the party, as did Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, which is in the opposition.  

Odeh said that the Israeli government want “as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible. These bulldozers are the true face of [Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett, [Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked and this racist government.”

The Union of Journalists in Israel said it “harshly condemns” Okbi’s detention, calling on Israel’s police commissioner to “immediately intervene and bring about his release.” The I’lam Arab media research and policy group called Okbi’s “brutal attack” a “proof of the police’s attitude toward Arab citizens.”

The work was being carried out on two plots of land farmed by area residents, each about 150 dunams (37.5 acres) in area. The head of Al-Kasom Regional Council, Salameh al-Atrash, said the land has been farmed for decades and that wheat was planted there less than a month ago. The, the JNF also did work in the area two weeks ago, when police blocked access to the plots until the work was halted following a demand by Abbas.

UAL lawmaker Mazen Ghanayim, who also visited the site, said: “We have the power to make hard decisions. All the options are on the table. Whoever ordered two weeks ago to remove the tractors seems to be the one who ordered them to come back today.”    The area planned for forestation is not included in the map of forests that was set in National Master Plan 22, the master plan for forests. However, it is included in National Master Plan 1, which was approved two years ago and which aggregates a number of earlier plans into a single document. The plan also includes land in the area on which residences were built decades ago.

“These people, they have no alternative land, and they have been on their land since even before the country was founded,” said al-Atrash, adding that authorities are doing whatever they want without listening to locals’ objections. “The country needs to look at the Bedouin with a wider view – how to invest in the villages and not just to concentrate them inside [residential areas], but to give them public areas too, shopping centers, educational and health systems.”

Haia Noach, the executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, said: “Preparing forestation plans on houses in historical Bedouin villages will only bring to the sharpening of relations with the Bedouin community in the Negev. If the JNF insists on foresting, it should prepare plans for lands where groups have not lived for hundreds of years. It seems the JNF is insisting on reaching a confrontation with the indigenous population of the Negev. There is no reason at all to prioritize trees over people.”

Atiya al-Asam, the chairman of the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Arab Villages in the Negev, said: “A civil struggle is needed against the policy, and if it does not bear fruit – civil revolt is needed. To not pay taxes. They are pushing us to that point. We have suffered for 70 years, we absorbed all the insults that exist, [they] plowed the lands, uprooted trees, and now they have started running over people. Today we saw it totally clearly. We are shouting but they don’t hear. Our struggle is a struggle of be or not to be.”