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Controversial tree planting bid nearly topples Israeli government

Bedouin protesters clash with Israeli forces over an afforestation project by the Jewish National Fund in the southern Israeli village of Sa'we al-Atrash in the Negev Desert on Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Bedouin protesters clash with Israeli forces over an afforestation project by the Jewish National Fund in the southern Israeli village of Sa’we al-Atrash in the Negev Desert on Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

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AMMAN: A controversial tree-planting effort on lands owned by Palestinians in the Negev area of Israel by the Jewish National Fund has threatened to blow up the razor-thin ruling coalition in Israel.

Jafar Farah, head of the Mossawa (Equality) NGO, told Arab News that the controversy had been brewing for weeks.

Farah said: “Last week, security-protected JNF employees dug up the area of Sawa in the Negev.

“Knesset Member Mansour Abbas, whose list received 40 percent of its vote from Palestinians in the Negev, came to the area and promised the tree planting would stop.

“It didn’t, as the JNF came against this Monday. Abbas responded by threatening not to vote in favor of any government laws in protest.”

The Israeli coalition needs Abbas’s four votes to retain their one-member majority of 61 out of 120 Knesset members.

Farah told Arab News that his organization has three demands.

“We call on the government to recognize the rights of the Palestinian landowners, issue building permits to 36 unrecognized villages where 100,000 Palestinian Citizens of Israel live, and thirdly the JNF should be dissolved.”

Botrus Mansour, a Nazareth-based lawyer and political analyst, told Arab News that Abbas needs to show his constituentcy that he can defend them and their rights.

“The government already approved providing electricity to homes built without a license in Israel. Even though the implementer is right-wing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, but the coalition needs to understand the needs of one of its partners. Now he needs to use his power to end the JNF’s controversial involvement.”

Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the International Center for Consultations, told Arab News that he is not sure of the outcome of the situation in the Negev. Israel’s strategy for confiscating land through tree planting has seen the state take control of more than 90 percent of the land. Nassar warned that Israel is seeking more gains.

“MK Mansour appears to have averted temporarily the crisis but it will be interesting to see what happened to the 30 detainees who are in jail now,” said Nassar.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel tweeted that “the intent of JNF’s ‘foresting’ is clear: To seize as much land as possible and prevent Bedouin communities from accessing their lands.”

Jessica Montell, executive director of the Jerusalem-based Human Rights Organization, Hamoked, tweeted: “Don’t be fooled by any green-washing. JNF’s mission is to dispossess Arabs/Palestinians.”

Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, told Arab News that the disagreement in the Negev is particularly challenging because the issue relates to land ownership and use, therefore evoking national and religious sentiments on both sides.

Moreover, the coalition faces pressures from both ends simultaneously: Right-leaning parties in government are criticized by Likud for betraying settlement ideals; and Raam, — Abbas’s Islamic party — whose electoral base draws heavily on Negev Bedouins, is criticized by the Joint List and the Islamic movement’s Northern Branch for being complicit in Israeli land grabs.

“The coalition seems likely to overcome this and in so doing signal that it can address even differences regarding highly symbolic matters.”

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