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Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against land grab in Negev desert

Plans to replace five unrecognised Bedouin villages with trees have been denounced as an attempt to forcibly displace thousands
Palestinian citizens of Israel protest in the city of Beersheba on 22 June 2020 (Supplied/Yousef Jabareen)

Hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested on Monday in the Negev region to denounce the Israeli government policy of house demolitions and evacuation orders in the village of Khirbet al-Watan.

Marwan Abu Frieh, a coordinator and field researcher for the Adalah human rights centre in Israel, told Middle East Eye that Israel’s Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israel Land Authority (ILA) were planning to plant hundreds of trees on lands from five Bedouin villages, including Khirbet al-Watan, which had all received demolition orders and faced the displacement of thousands of residents "in the name of developing the area".

Demonstrators started marching from Khirbet al-Watan and ended in front of the courthouse in Beersheba, carrying banners accusing the JNF and ILA of forcible land grabs, displacement of Palestinians and discriminatory practices.

Some banners read “Our legitimate demands: recognition and ownership”; “No deportation, no displacement, we will not deviate from our lands”; and “We won’t bow down, our land is a legitimate right”.

Some members of the Joint List, the political coalition of parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel in the country's parliament, the Knesset, were in attendance.

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Yousef Jabareen, an MP and leader of the Joint List, denounced in a statement shared with MEE the "ongoing expulsion, expropriation, destruction and demolition of unrecognised Bedouin villages in the Negev".

"Enough with the language of force; these villages are legitimate and must be provided with legal recognition and protection,” Jabareen added. “Arab Bedouin residents of the Negev deserve to live in dignity and equality.

“We are united in this just fight against dispossession and for recognition," he concluded.

Unrecognised villages

Israeli bulldozers have reportedly already razed down at least 50 dunams (12.3 acres) of Khirbet al-Watan lands since May - but the forestation plan is set to cover some 2,000 dunams (494 acres) of land.

Other villages threatened by the plan are al-Buqaya, al-Bat al-Gharbi, Oum Badoun and Ras al-Jarba, all of which are among the more than 45 Bedouin villages in the Negev unrecognised by the state of Israel.

'Arab Bedouin residents of the Negev deserve to live in dignity and equality'

- Yousef Jabareen, Knesset member

Around 240,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in Negev villages and towns. Some 76,000 of them - Palestinian Bedouins - live in unrecognised villages. Israel has repeatedly attempted to move Bedouins into “recognised” communities, repeatedly arguing that those in unrecognised areas have no claim to the land.

Unrecognised villages are denied any infrastructure or support from the government. There are no means of transportation, no roads, no schools, and Israeli authorities don’t collaborate with their local leadership. Residents say such policies are an attempt to pressure them into being internally displaced despite Bedouins having lived on or near these lands prior to the country’s establishment in 1948.

Abu Frieh said the JNF and LIA are using a legal term known as "preventing invaders" to seize lands in the Negev.

"They have started the process of forestation of the lands in order to take them over and impose a new reality on the ground without permission,” Abu Frieh said. “They use the excuse of 'preventing invaders' to say that these lands are under a threat, even though they are private property."

Almost 4,000 Bedouins live in Khirbet al-Watan, where demonstrators have set up a protest tent.

Khirbet al-Watan residents have no municipal services of electricity or water and they have repeatedly seen their homes and infrastructure demolished and lands confiscated. 

The Palestinian High Committee for the Negev said in a statement that these protests represent "a national and moral duty, support and promotion of the steadfastness of our people".

The JNF has long been accused of using reforestation projects to prevent Palestinians from returning to lands from which they have been displaced.

Palestinian citizens of Israel - who represent 20 percent of the country’s population - have long denounced ostensibly social initiatives by Israeli authorities that in fact, they argue, seek to dispossess Palestinians or erase Palestinian heritage.

Palestinian residents of the coastal town of Jaffa protested earlier this month as part of a campaign against Israeli plans to raze a nearly 200-year-old Muslim cemetery in order to build a homeless shelter in its place.

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