ISRAEL (AFP) – Israel’s government on Wednesday sought to ease tensions with Bedouin over a tree-planting project in the Negev desert, where unrest has continued for days in the latest test for a fragile coalition.
About 200 Bedouin protesters in southern Israel’s arid Negev desert on Wednesday clashed with security officers, who tried to disperse them with stun grenades, an AFP journalist said.
“Sixteen suspects who threw stones at the police have been arrested and are being questioned,” police said in a statement, adding that five officers were slightly injured.
Bedouin, who are part of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority, have long opposed tree-planting initiatives in the Negev, blasting them as a de facto government land grab in areas they call home.
The latest unrest in the decades-long dispute has attracted fresh attention given the make-up of Israel’s coalition government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett’s government counts on backing from the leader of the Islamist Raam party, Mansour Abbas, whose core political support comes from Bedouin in the Negev.
Abbas told Israel’s Channel 12 news on Tuesday that his party will not vote with the coalition unless the tree planting is halted and formal negotiations with Bedouin leaders are launched to seek a compromise.
“Trees are not more important than human beings,” Abbas tweeted.
A statement from Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen said “a compromise has been reached according to which the planting work will be completed today (Wednesday) as planned and starting tomorrow, accelerated negotiations will take place.”
The right-wing Regavim environmental civil society group called on Bennett’s government “to take a firm position against the Raam Party’s threats, to ensure that tree planting projects… are carried out as planned.”
But clashes resumed in the evening in several locations in the Negev, with more arrests made, police said.
Nearly half of Israel’s 300,000 Bedouin live in unrecognised villages in the Negev.
They face regular home demolitions and lack of access to basic services — including electricity, water and sanitation — challenges Abbas insisted be addressed in exchange for backing Bennett’s government.
© Agence France-Presse