JERUSALEM (VINnews) — Tree plantings by the JNF in the south of Israel threatened the government’s shaky coalition, after the leader of the Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, threatened to stop voting with the government in protest of the forestation work. The planting program, which was halted in 2020 after protests against the Netanyahu government, has sparked violent protests by Bedouin who claim ownership of the land. The Bedouin see the plantings as a means of expelling those who live on the land.
In comments made to Channel 12 news, Abbas said, “We will not vote with the coalition until the plantings in the south are stopped.”
“I can’t continue to live with this,” Abbas said. “I can’t continue like this. I have absorbed more difficult things in the past, but when they shoot straight in my chest I can’t stand it anymore. The Negev is Ra’am.”
Ra’am member Mazen Ghanaim went further, stating that he would fight the government from this point.
“I, Mazen Ghanaim, a resident of Sakhnin and the Arab Middle East, declare on my official webpage and on every platform that from today, I oppose this government.” The 61-member coalition relies on Ra’am’s votes and could be in peril if Ghanaim continues his opposition policies.
Despite this, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of Gidon Sa’ar’s New Hope party refused to postpone the plantings. Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (Blue And White) also sharply criticized the Bedouin protests and vowed to “exert our sovereignty in the Negev.”
The government has also faced criticism from Chareidi elements as well for performing the forestation work during the Shmita (sabbatical) year.
Following the threat by Abbas, Hebrew media reported that the coalition instructed all its members to be at the Knesset on Wednesday to take part in plenum votes, except for those infected with COVID-19.
In recent weeks, the JNF has began forestation in a region illegally settled by Bedouin from the Al-Atrash tribe. The tribe claim rights to the land being forested, although the goverment determined that it was state land.
“As part of this work, they have destroyed tin homes of those living in the area and planted the land with trees — all so as to take over the land,” said Yaqoub Dreijat, a political adviser in the Al-Kasom regional council.
Meanwhile, police reported several acts of violence suspected of being linked to the protests against the tree planting.
In one incident, a passenger train was forced to brake after the conductor noticed stones were placed on the tracks, according to police.The stones were removed and an investigation was opened. Rocks were also thrown at a bus and car on Route 25 which traverses a predominantly Bedouin region. Part of the road was closed to traffic as tires and garbage bins were set on fire. A car belonging to a reporter from Haaretz was set on fire at the entrance to Segev Shalom.
Police later said officers had “gained control over the incident” at the Segev Shalom Junction, where two cops were lightly injured by a rock and firecracker.
“The police operations at the scene are continuing, while showing zero tolerance toward rioters,” the statement said.
“Officers will allow freedom of protest so long as it is within the confines of the law and with no tolerance for those who break it,” a separate statement said.
Other confrontations between Bedouin and police continued at the JNF planting site. 18 protesters were arrested.
Earlier, a delegation of Knesset members from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party took part in a tree-planting ceremony in the JNF’s Yatir Forest, located on the 1967 border.
“No one will stop the planting of trees in the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday evening. “I give full backing to the security forces and demand Bennett immediately condemn the incitement by Ra’am.”
Abbas said in response that Netanyahu himself had agreed to halt the forestation programs during coalition negotiations with Ra’am last year, along with other concessions to Negev communities.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Bennett’s chief political partner, hit back at Netanyahu, slamming “12 years of abandoning the Negev and neglecting the Bedouin problem” during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Lapid, who is in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus, also called for a halt to the forestation and condemned the rioting, voicing support for police.
“Just as the Netanyahu government stopped the plantings in 2020, it’s possible to stop now to reorganize,” he said in a statement. “Politicians on both sides need to calm the streets instead of fanning the flames.”