Desert tree planting sows discord within Israel's coalition


SAWE AL-ATRASH, Israel, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Government-sponsored tree planting in an Israeli desert has set off violent protests by Bedouin Arabs who see the forestation as discriminatory encroachment by the state, sowing discord within Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's ethnically mixed coalition.

Coming days before the Jewish arbor festival of Tu Bishvat, the drive to turn the sandy expanses of the southern Negev green hails back to Israel's founding pioneer narratives.

But the nomadic Bedouin claim private ownership over nationalised land being zoned and accuse Israeli courts of enabling expropriations as part of a campaign of disenfranchisment that has kept many of their community in off-the-grid breeze-block encampments.

The diggers rolled this year despite an appeal by Mansour Abbas, a Bennett coalition partner from Israel's Arab minority, for a deferral "while we work on a decent plan that would grant Bedouin citizens honourable lives and livelihoods".

"A tree is not more important than a person," he tweeted.

Authorities have said the flattening of the dunes and planting of trees is necessary for conservation and modernisation.

At the Negev village of Sawe al-Atrash, Bedouin scuffled with riot police on Wednesday after a night in which authorities said protesters blocked roads, stoned motorists and forced a train to halt by piling rocks on its tracks.

Mansour's United Arab List (UAL) party was boycotting parliamentary votes, a coalition spokesman said. If sustained, that could deny Bennett his razor-thin majority and bolster the Jewish-nationalist opposition.

Asked how far UAL was willing to go, party lawmaker Iman Khatib Yassin said: "All the way."

"We came into this partnership hoping to find partners who understand that Arab citizens of the country have a basic right and deserve basic rights on their lands," she told Kan radio, while stopping short of any threat to quit the coalition.

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

The religious-rightist Bennett did not comment. His ideologically kindred housing minister, Zev Elkin, saw no need to heed such calls. "These are state lands," Elkin told 103 FM radio.

Writing by Dan Williams Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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