Violent clashes in Naqab took place last week when Israeli army and police seized land owned by locals to plant trees to the benefit of a Jewish settler association. The native Palestinian residents viewed this as a de facto seizure of their land and transferral of its ownership to the Israeli association. Naqab is inhabited by Palestinians of the occupied interior, who hold Israeli nationality, and most of them are Bedouins.
The move by Israel is an implementation of an agreement signed years ago between the Israel Land Administration and the Jewish National Fund as part of a deal that exchanges land in the centre of Israel with larger swaths in Naqab in southern Israel. The ownership of most of the land in the swap belongs to Arabs living in Arab villages not officially recognised by Israel.
Occupied Naqab is home to some 40 Bedouin villages not officially recognised by Israel, where 80,000 Palestinians live. They complain of persistent marginalisation by the Israeli authorities who block any infrastructure and development projects there, to put pressure on residents to leave.
Demonstrations against Israeli land grabs were spearheaded by the Higher Steering Committee of Arabs of the Naqab and included villagers there, protesting Israeli moves under the pretence of tree planting. Dozens were injured by bullets and tear gas used by Israeli forces, and more than 200 Arabs were arrested.
The most violent confrontations took place in Sawaween village and land belonging to Al-Atrash family near Saawa in Naqab on 12 January. Protesters set fire to tyres and burned Israeli cars during clashes in several villages, and the Israeli army and police called for backup in an attempt to control the situation – especially in the areas of Rahat, Tal Al-Sabe and Shaqib Al-Salam.
Hundreds of Palestinians took part in protests in the occupied interior at the behest of Arab forces inside Israel, most notably in Umm Al-Fahm. There were also protests in the West Bank organised by Palestinian factions, and hundreds from Al-Tarabeen tribe in the Gaza Strip also demonstrated since they are related to tribes in Naqab and object to Israel’s policies and seizure of Bedouin land.
These events had serious political implications, especially for the Israeli government. The United Arab List (UAL) Party headed by Mansour Abbas and a partner in the incumbent coalition government led by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, declared it will boycott Knesset sessions, which would prevent the government from passing any resolutions.
The cabinet is supported by only 61 Knesset members, which is the minimum number needed for the government to adopt any decisions in parliament. The UAL was the kingmaker in the formation of the incumbent government led alternately by Bennett and Yair Lapid, with its four Knesset members voting in support of the new cabinet. If UAL withdraws from the government coalition, the cabinet will collapse.
The Naqab clashes have triggered many disputes in Israeli political circles. Foreign Minister Lapid demanded a temporary halt on bulldozing land in Naqab, to be resumed later. The leader of the opposition and head of the right-wing Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu said, “no one will stop planting trees in Israeli soil. I give my full support to the security forces.”
Mustafa Qabha, professor of political science at Haifa University, said the situation in Naqab represents the struggle over land which continues everywhere.
“Israel wants to control Arab land based on Israel’s greater scheme to control the most territory with the least number of Arabs,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The escalation will lead to serious tensions between the UAL and the Israeli government,” Qabha added, “and these events galvanised the position of Abbas’ party. If the situation continues like this, it will not pass without incident.”
According to political analyst Amtanes Shehada, there are endless attempts to take control of Arab land and curb Arab presence in Naqab by Israeli authorities. “It is a political issue primarily related to Jewish nationalism,” Shehada asserted.
He told the Weekly that the key issue is “to usurp Arab land that historically belongs to Naqab natives”. Israel wants to reduce the size of areas where Arabs are present by establishing non-vital projects to prevent Arabs from owning the land, he argued.
“I believe this goes beyond Arab towns in Israel and is more than confiscating Arab land. It is primarily a political plot, and could evolve into something more than ongoing confrontations if a compromise is not reached. They are looking for a compromise right now to prevent the collapse of the Israeli coalition government,” Shehada said.
Israeli parties that are members of the fragile cabinet coalition fear that pressure from the Arab street in Israel will lead the UAL to decide to withdraw its support of the coalition government, which would cause the cabinet to collapse. Shehada does not believe the government will be dissolved due to current events especially under the current circumstances. “But if clashes evolve, then the UAL could withdraw from the government and force the Israeli cabinet to contain the crisis and reach a compromise.”
He believes the best solution is official recognition of Arab towns that are currently not recognised by Israel, granting them full rights, and for Israel to stop dealing with Arabs in the Naqab as the enemy. “I believe the solution to this issue is primarily political. Actions to seize land and control Arab Bedouin communities in Naqab must stop.”
Israel is concerned the situation will escalate, as it did in towns and cities inside the occupied interior during the Israeli war on Gaza in May 2021. This sounded alarms in Israel about predictions of Arab citizens in Israel, and how to keep them neutral in confrontations between Israel and Palestinians. Israeli political circles are concerned about changing demographics due to growing numbers of Palestinians and Arab citizens compared to Israeli citizens.
According to Israeli numbers, there will be at least ten million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and 2.3 million in the occupied interior by 2050, compared to 6.1 million Jews in Israel. This disparity in numbers means that one binational state will be a more likely solution, instead of the two-state solution currently on offer, which right-wing parties in Israel oppose but the left-wing supports as an acceptable alternative for reaching a settlement with Palestinians.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.