Beer al Sabe, Israel – Dozens of Palestinian Bedouins have been wounded in a repression by Israeli forces in protest of the continued Israeli afforestation work on rural residents, saying they own privately near the southern city of Beer al-Sabe (Beer Sheva).
About 500 protesters took part in Thursday’s demonstration, which began at 15.00 (13:00 GMT). They were met with hundreds of Israeli forces, who fired rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and skunk water.
At least 15 protesters were arrested, according to local media. The demonstration took place at the entrance to the Palestinian Bedouin village of Sa’wa at a highway junction on Route 31, east of Beer al-Sabe.
Huda Abu Obeid, a local activist, said 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-state agency, arrived with heavy police protection at the nearby village of al-Atrash and razed the Bedouin farmland to plant trees. Israeli officials said the land being planted is state-owned.
Bedouin Palestinians protested the move, and confrontations have continued for days. Videos and Pictures shared on social media showed Israeli forces violently arresting and beating residents who arrived to defend the lands they use to grow 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 tore down two sit-in tents in the villages of al-Atrash and al-Sa’wa, fired stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets and arrested about 20 people. Villages were also closed off where residents were prevented from getting in and out.
At least 80 Palestinians have been detained since the protests began, including minors, lawyers told Al Jazeera. The vast majority remain imprisoned.
Marwan Abu Freih, a lawyer representing some of the families and a field coordinator in the Adalah Human Rights Group, said: “There is a clear escalation.”
“It’s unprecedented that JNF bulldozers are arriving with this amount of protection – hundreds of police, special forces and prepared police – it has never happened here before,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said police “blocked villages, placed checkpoints and stopped traffic – preventing people from going home and school buses from getting in and out”.
‘Creates facts on the spot’
The JNF has a mandate to develop and lease land only to Jews and owns 13 percent of Israeli “state land.” State land accounts for 93 percent of all land in Israel.
Abu Freih said the JNF’s current afforestation work will affect thousands of dunams of privately owned Bedouin land in the Naqe al-Sabe area, home to 28,000 residents living in six villages that have never been recognized by the Israeli state.
He said along with residents that while many of the families had lived in these lands before 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, the Israeli authorities allowed residents to apply for registration, which they did, but more than 40 years later, their land ownership cases remain open in Beer al-Sabe District Court, with little progress.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases have not been settled yet,” Abu Freih told Al Jazeera, adding that the JNF was “trying to create facts on the spot.”
Abu Obeid said the demands of the residents are clear.
“Recognize all the villages that are not recognized – the first on this list are those in the Naqe al-Sabe area,” she said.
“Second, recognize the Bedouin’s ownership of their lands, which they owned and lived on since before Israel and before 1948,” she told Al Jazeera.
About 300,000 Palestinian Bedouin, who have 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-considered “unrecognized” villages under threat of demolition, with the state considering them “invaders.”
In 2019, the Israeli authorities announced a plan to forcibly transfer 36,000 residents of unrecognized villages to other townships.
The authorities have refused to connect the majority of unknown villages to the national electricity or water networks and do not provide them with basic services, such as paved roads and sewer systems.
Between 2013 and 2019, Israeli forces destroyed more than 10,000 Bedouin homes in the Naqab.
‘Judaization’ of the Naqab
This week’s development comes as part of decades-long Israeli government policies to “Judaize” the Naqab region through multi-million dollar development projects aimed at enticing more Jews to live in these areas, documented in Israeli official declarations and plans and human rights reports.
The Israel Land Authority (ISA), which administers the JNF, plans to plant about 45,000 dunams in the Naqab with trees “to preserve open areas and nature from illegal control,” according to official Israeli statements.
The JNF makes up almost half of the board of ISA, which controls the vast majority of the land in Israel.
“The Israel Land Authority wants to keep land, which is their job. Bedouins are squatters, and one way to get them to stop is by planting trees. They subcontract the JNF and then do the work,” Alon Tal said. an Israeli MP who worked at the JNF for more than a decade overseeing forestry, to Israeli media.
Most of the land that JNF acquired from the state took place between 1949 and 1953, and is classified as “absent property” – belonging to Palestinian refugees displaced by Zionist militias during the 1948 war to create the state of Israel.
Abu Freih said that while the areas designated for afforestation can be used to develop the unrecognized villages, the authorities want to prevent this.
“They want to concentrate the largest number of Bedouins on the smallest mass of land,” and to “prevent families from owning and cultivating their lands.”
Meiqel al-Hawashli, field coordinator for the regional council for unrecognized Bedouin villages, agreed.
“The Naqab is 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 it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“All their projects in Naqab have to pass through unrecognized villages – the state does not want to recognize them or people’s ownership of these lands,” Hawashli added.
As raging and afforestation continue in these areas, residents have vowed to continue protesting and confronting the heavily armed Israeli forces arriving each morning.
The Higher Follow-up Committee for Arabs in the Naqab, a local umbrella body, announced a general strike that began on Monday.
“We took the decision to take proactive measures, starting with the adoption of a cumulative resistance program over a period of six months, which will lead to a regional general strike and a massive demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s office, and the internationalization of the issue to expose racist practices [of Israeli authorities] vis-à-vis international institutions, ”the committee said in a statement.
Mobilization is also taking place at the national level with protests organized on Thursday and Friday in the city 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 these countries belong to people,” Abu Obaid told Al Jazeera.
“They treat it as if no one lives here – as if this land is not cultivated every year.”
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