Palestinian Bedouins remain resilient after week of Israeli crackdowns in Negev
Within minutes of crowds arriving at a demonstration in the Negev desert on Thursday, a volley of tear gas canisters, sound grenades and skunk water fired by Israeli police began raining down on Palestinian protesters.
What was meant to be a large rally against Israel's latest "land grab" in the Negev quickly descended into mayhem, protesters told Middle East Eye.
"They want to deter us from protesting again," Rafat Abu Aish, a Palestinian activist from the Lakiya town in the Negev, told MEE.
"They want to displace us from our villages to planned housing projects elsewhere," Abu Aish added. "We want full recognition of [our villages]. We want recognition of our ownership before any other services."
The protest was organised by the local council of Palestinians living in the Negev in response to Israeli bulldozers storming the villages of al-Atrash-Sawa earlier in the week.
Palestinians from the Negev and the rest of the 48 Palestinian community - those who live within the borders of Israel founded in 1948 - amassed near the al-Atrash-Sawa intersection on Route 31 to denounce the resumption of tree-planting work by the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
Earlier this week, police-guarded JNF tractors stormed the village of al-Atrash-Sawa for a third consecutive day to plant trees as part of a controversial forestation scheme.
Negev residents say the programme, which is carried out on land Palestinian Bedouins live on and use for cultivation, is the latest attempt of a decades-long government policy aimed at displacing them.
"They want to impose a new reality on the ground," Abu Aish told MEE.
"[But] people here don’t want anyone taking their ownership of this land from them."
Thursday's rally, which organisers say they had obtained permission from the police to organise, was violently dispersed by Israeli police before it could begin.
A large number of Israeli special forces, mounted police and a unit of elite undercover agents known as Mustarebeen were positioned around the protest as chanting crowds began to arrive at 15:00 local time.
Police had warned protesters via megaphone that they would disperse the protest within ten minutes. But demonstrators told MEE that before children and the elderly could leave, police started firing sound bombs, rubber bullets and tear gas.
"I was on the frontlines, it took only 20 seconds after the announcement for them to fire the first [sound bomb]," Abu Aish told MEE.
"It was a frantic attack on everyone present," he added.
In the chaos that ensued, a man next to Abu Aish was reportedly shot in the head with a rubber bullet. According to eyewitnesses, he was among dozens that were injured.
Another protester, identified as Taleb al-Sawayda, 39, was critically wounded and remains in intensive care at Soroka Medical Center in the city of Beer Sheva, known to Palestinians as Be'ar al-Sabe'a.
The Adalah Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights, a Haifa-based advocacy group focusing on the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, condemned the "illegal means used during the police repression", in a letter submitted to the attorney general and the inspector general of police.
"The law is clear: it is forbidden to use rubber bullets, rubber-coated steel bullets, grenades and tear gas against defenceless demonstrators, and it is forbidden to shoot them from close range and targeting the upper part of the body," the letter said.
After the initial crackdown, the demonstrators were reportedly forced to retreat, and a cat-and-mouse game began with the police that lasted for at least five hours.
Police also deployed skunk water and tear-gas drones, protest dispersal methods rarely seen in the Negev.
"Excessive violence was used posing a threat to the lives of demonstrators, which constitutes a serious violation to individual and collective rights," Adalah said in its letter.
'A glorious day'
Despite the crackdown, protesters said the feeling that prevailed at the end of the day was a sense of growing resilience, pride and hope that the plight of Palestinians in the Negev was getting some attention.
Hind Salman, a local activist from the Negev, told MEE that what she witnessed was a "glorious day".
The protests were led by young men and women, some as young as 16 years old.
"Our youth restored my faith," Salman said. "Their determination was unmatched."
A campaign to raise awareness about the plight of Bedouins in the Negev was trending on Palestinian social media under the hashtag #Save_Negev, as protesters faced off with the police.
"There's a young generation breaking into the scene," Salman said.
"They understand very well what they’re up against and they have no fear."
Arrest of minors
Some calm has been restored in al-Atrash-Sawa village after the JNF said on Wednesday that for now, its tractors had ended their work in the village.
But the troubles have now moved to the courts, as volunteer Palestinian lawyers scrambled to defend the detained protesters.
Since Monday, at least 130 Palestinians have been arrested, including several minors. The majority are still detained.
The high volume of arrests, which have continued into Friday, has overwhelmed the 10 Palestinian lawyers from the Negev, who volunteered to represent the protesters as an act of solidarity with the families.
Back-up help came from five Palestinian lawyers from northern areas of the country, which was appreciated by the Negev residents, according to Abu Aish, who was present in court.
In and out of the courtrooms, lawyers spent their full days attending to cases and arguing for clients from as early as 7 am and until as late as 1 am local time.
The toll of the arrests and the violence seen has been heavy, Abu Aish said, but it has not broken the spirit of the protesters.
"Families are understandably worried for their children," Abu Aish said. "They are in a war against land theft.
"But people remain steadfast."