Beer al Sabe, Israel – Dozens of Palestinian Bedouins have been wounded in a crackdown by Israeli forces on a protest against continuing Israeli forestation work on land residents say they privately own near the southern city of Beer al-Sabe (Beer Sheva).
Some 500 protesters took part in Thursday’s demonstration, which began at 3pm (13:00 GMT). They were met with hundreds of Israeli forces who fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, as well as skunk water.
At least 15 protesters were arrested, according to local media reports. The demonstration took place at the entrance to the Palestinian Bedouin village of Sa’wa at a main highway intersection on Route 31, east of Beer al-Sabe.
Huda Abu Obeid, a local activist, said the police attacked the protest shortly after it began.
“They used a lot of violence, beatings; there are people injured and others detained,” she told Al Jazeera.
The recent escalation began on Monday, when bulldozers from the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a quasi-governmental agency, arrived with heavy police protection in the nearby village of al-Atrash and razed Bedouin farming lands, in order to plant trees. Israeli officials said the land being planted is state-owned.
Bedouin Palestinians protested against the move and confrontations have continued for days. Videos and images shared on social media showed Israeli forces violently arresting and beating residents who arrived to defend the lands they use for farming wheat and barley.
At least seven people, including three children, were briefly detained on Monday and a local journalist was beaten. On Tuesday, Israeli forces demolished two sit-in tents in the villages of al-Atrash and al-Sa’wa, fired stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets, and arrested some 20 people. Villages were also shut off, with residents prevented from entering and exiting.
At least 80 Palestinians have been detained since the protests began, including minors, lawyers told Al Jazeera. The vast majority remain in detention.
Marwan Abu Freih, a lawyer representing some of the families and a field coordinator with the Adalah human rights group, said, “There is a clear escalation.”
“It is unprecedented that JNF bulldozers are arriving with this amount of protection – hundreds of police, special forces and mounted police – this has never happened here before,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said police “blockaded villages, placed checkpoints and stopped traffic – prevented people from going home and school buses to enter and exit”.
‘Creating facts on the ground’
The JNF is mandated with developing and leasing land for Jews only, and owns 13 percent of Israeli “state land”. State land makes up 93 percent of all land in Israel.
Abu Freih said that the current JNF forestation work is set to affect thousands of dunams of privately owned Bedouin land in the area of Naqe al-Sabe, which is home to 28,000 residents living in six villages that have never been recognised by the Israeli state.
He, along with residents, said that while many of the families had lived on these lands prior to the creation of Israel in 1948 and some arrived there in the decades that followed, the lands had historically not been registered with the state.
Between 1970 and 1979 Israeli authorities allowed residents to file for registration, which they did, but more than 40 years later, their land-ownership cases remain open in the Beer al-Sabe District Court, with little progress.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases have not been ruled on yet,” Abu Freih told Al Jazeera, adding that the JNF “is trying to create facts on the ground”.
Abu Obeid said that the residents’ demands are clear.
“Recognise all the villages that are unrecognised – the first on this list are the ones in the Naqe al-Sabe area,” she said.
“Secondly, recognise Bedouin ownership over their lands, which they have owned and lived on since before Israel and before 1948,” she told Al Jazeera.
Some 300,000 Palestinian Bedouins, who hold Israeli citizenship, live in the Naqab region, which makes up about half of the entire country’s landmass.
More than 90,000 of them live in at least 35 Israeli-deemed “unrecognised” villages under threat of demolition, with the state viewing them as “trespassers”.
In 2019, Israeli authorities announced a plan to forcibly transfer 36,000 residents in unrecognised villages to other townships.
Authorities have refused to connect the majority of unrecognised villages to the national electricity or water grids and do not provide them with basic services, such as paved roads and sewage systems.
Between 2013 and 2019, Israeli forces demolished more than 10,000 Bedouin homes in the Naqab.
‘Judaizing’ the Naqab
This week’s developments come as part of decades-long Israeli government policies to “Judaise” the Naqab region through million dollars worth of development projects aimed at enticing more Jews to live in these areas, documented in Israeli official statements and plans, and human rights reports.
The Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the JNF, plans to plant some 45,000 dunams in the Naqab with trees “to conserve open spaces and nature from illegal control,” according to official Israeli statements.
The JNF makes up almost half the governing board of the ILA, which controls the vast majority of land in Israel.
“The Israel Land Authority wants to hold land, which is their job. Bedouins are squatters, and one way to make them stop doing that is by planting trees. They subcontract the JNF to then carry out the work,” Alon Tal, an Israeli member of parliament who worked at the JNF for more than a decade overseeing forestry, told Israeli media.
The majority of the land that the JNF acquired from the state took place between 1949 and 1953, and is classified as “absentee property” – belonging to Palestinian refugees who were expelled by Zionist militias during the 1948 war to create the state of Israel.
Abu Freih said that while the lands zoned for forestation can be used to develop the unrecognised villages, authorities want to prevent this.
“They want to concentrate the largest number of Bedouins on the smallest mass of land,” and to “prevent the families from owning and farming their lands”.
Meiqel al-Hawashli, field coordinator for the regional council of unrecognised Bedouin villages, agreed.
“The Naqab makes up about 13 million dunams (1.3 million hectares) of land. There are 300,000 Bedouins living on only 400,000 dunams (40,000 hectares) of that,” he told Al Jazeera.
“All of their projects in the Naqab have to pass through unrecognised villages – the state does not want to recognise them, or people’s ownership over these lands,” added Hawashli.
As razing and forestation work on these lands continues, residents have pledged to continue protesting and confronting the heavily armed Israeli forces that arrive every morning.
The Higher Follow Up Committee of Arabs in the Naqab, a local umbrella body, announced a general strike that began on Monday.
“We took the decision to undertake proactive measures, beginning with adopting a cumulative resistance programme over a period of six months that will lead to a regional general strike and a massive demonstration outside the prime minister’s office, and the internationalisation of the issue to expose the racist practices [of Israeli authorities] before international institutions,” the committee said in a statement.
Mobilisation is also taking place on a national level, with protests organised on Thursday and Friday in the town of Umm al-Fahm in the north, Kufr Kanna, and by Palestinian students at Tel Aviv University.
“They bring all this police because they know that these lands belong to people,” Abu Obaid told Al Jazeera.
“They treat it as though no one lives here – as though this land isn’t being farmed every year.”