Israel’s government risks being pulled apart by a bitter row over tree-planting in disputed land in the Negev region, which led to rioting on Tuesday night as Bedouin communities clashed with police and burned cars.
On Wednesday, 11 people were arrested as dozens clashed with police during a second day of protests against the scheme, which is run by the Jewish National Fund.
At least 18 people had been arrested the previous day, when some protesters blocked a railway line and hurled stones at passing vehicles.
The tree planting scheme is backed by Israeli nationalists and the right-wing factions of prime minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, but opposed by Bedouins who say it encroaches on their land and harms their way of life.
Bedouin communities in the southern Negev region live in villages which are not recognised by Israel, and the issue has divided Israel’s fragile cross-party government.
Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Ra’am party propping up Mr Bennett’s fragile majority, has threatened to stop voting with the government unless the tree-planting stops, which risks collapsing the coalition.
“I can’t continue to live with this,” Mr Abbas told Israeli broadcaster Channel 12. “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.”
In June, Ra’am made history as it became the first Arab political party to enter an Israeli coalition government, but the party is increasingly at odds with Mr Bennett’s right-wing Yamina movement.
The stand-off could potentially embolden Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, which reportedly sent a delegation to take part in the tree-planting scheme on Tuesday.
Bibi’s bid for power
Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, is said to be eager to collapse the coalition and return to power as soon as possible.
Yair Lapid, the government’s centrist foreign minister, appeared to back Ra’am in the dispute as he called for the tree planting scheme to be suspended.
“The State of Israel needs to plan trees on state land, but we don’t have to damage the livelihoods of the residents of the area,” he said.
He also pointed out that Mr Netanyahu himself had agreed to postpone tree-planting in 2020, despite his party now using the row as a means of attacking the government.
Ancient grazing lands
Bedouin community leaders this week called for the trees to be planted elsewhere as they encroach on farmers wishing to graze their herds.
“People here derive their livelihoods from this plot, a plot that belongs to people. People use this plot to graze their herds,” Atiya al-Assam, the chairman of the Council for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, told Israeli broadcaster Kan.
“That is what allows the village here to develop. So the JNF has come along and is preventing that development of the community and is denying future legalisation of these communities.”
However, supporters of the tree-planting scheme say it is an important step towards improving Israel’s environmental record, especially on climate change. This is because the trees replenish the soil and remove carbon dioxide from the air, they say