Negev: Israel says will negotiate with Palestinian Bedouins

Negev: Israel government says will negotiate with Palestinian Bedouins amid land seizure threat
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Protesters were confronted by Israeli forces on Tuesday evening and Wednesday, as they attempted to defend villages against encroachment and aggression. At least 18 people were arrested.
Protesters in the Negev have opposed the threat to Palestinian Bedouin land [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty]

Israel's government on Wednesday said it will negotiate with Palestinian Bedouins over a controversial right-wing tree-planting project in the Negev (Naqab) desert that threatens Palestinians' land and has sowed discord within the country's fragile coalition.

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."

Protesters were confronted by Israeli forces on Tuesday evening and Wednesday as they attempted to defend villages against encroachment and aggression. At least 18 arrests were made.

The majority of the detainees in the Negev were minors, and Israeli forces physically assaulted them before arresting them, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Despite Cohen's statement, Israeli police said more arrests were made on Wednesday evening as protests seemingly continued.

Israeli security used stun grenades in an attempt to disperse around 200 Bedouin demonstrators during a Wednesday confrontation, according to an AFP journalist.

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On Monday, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a widely-criticised land organisation, sent diggers and bulldozers accompanied by Israeli police into the villages of Naqa Ber Al-Saba and Al-Atrash. The JNF seeks to plant a forest on Palestinian land in the Negev.

The conflict over planting trees in southern Israel's arid Negev - home to Bedouin villages unrecognised by the state - has divided Israel's coalition government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Bennett's government counts on backing from Mansour Abbas, leader of the Palestinian-Islamist Raam or United Arab List party. The United Arab List's core political support comes from Bedouin citizens of Israel 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.

The far-right, settler-aligned Regavim 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."

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist, urged a halt to the tree planting. Despite successive governments' pledges of equitable Negev investment, "the Bedouin problem has been forsaken", he said in a statement.

Nearly half of Israel's 300,000 Palestinian Bedouins, who are part of Israel's 20 percent Palestinian minority, live 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.

(AFP, AP, ReutersThe New Arab)