The Bedouins’ stumbling block is a tree-planting project in one of their villages near the town of Beersheba. A Jewish state organization began preparations for afforestation this week. The Jewish parties see agriculture as a way to develop the area, but the Bedouins fear another attempt to seize their land.
“Look, the forests around us have already been planted, on land that already belongs to us,” says Aziz El-Toury. He has been fighting a battle on the ground with the Israeli authorities for years. The place where he lives is not registered as his property, so the simple houses his family built there are always demolished. “The state does not recognize that this land belongs to us, but we refuse to concede,” Altouri said.
It depicts the ongoing conflict. Bedouins like Turi claim property rights in the Negev desert, where they lived as semi-nomadic tribes before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. But according to the government, the vast majority of the area is state-owned.
Make the desert bloom
And Israel has plans for this area. “Make the desert bloom” was indeed the dream of the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. So it fits with the tradition that the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the organization behind the afforestation plans, also wants to plant this part of the Negev.
“We plant trees to improve the environment and the climate on behalf of the Israeli government,” said a spokesman for the Jewish National Fund, which manages swathes of land in Israel. This land belongs to the state, so let it be clear.”
It’s a problem many Bedouins face: the land they live in, according to Israel, is not theirs. A large proportion of the Negev’s 200,000 Arab residents live in villages that are not officially recognized. They usually do not have any connection to electricity, running water, or other utilities. Unemployment and poverty are much higher in the region than in other parts of Israel.
“People are more important than trees”
There is only one party in the nascent Israeli government that stands with the residents of the area. It is the United Arab List, which has many supporters among the Bedouins in the Negev desert and promises to improve their living conditions. Since the summer, the conservative Islamic party has been part of an Israeli government coalition for the first time in history.
The party took action this week. Party leader Mansour Abbas said: “The trees are not more important than the people, and he threatened a ministerial crisis if the cultivation was not stopped. To support his words, the United Arab List in Parliament no longer agrees with proposals from the UAE government.
This had an effect, and eventually the ruling parties reached a compromise to postpone the work. It offers the parties a chance to get back to business as usual without losing much face, and that means the diverse eight-party coalition is still in the saddle position. At least until the next crisis manifests itself.