The tension in the Negev:
A multidimensional crisis that could evolve into a broad Jewish-Arab confrontation and project onto the state of affairs in the Palestinian system
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | January, 2022
|Photo: Richard Hopkins | CC BY 2.0|
The violent clashes earlier amonth ago in the Negev (Southern area of Israel) between local Bedouin civilians and Israeli security forces, which were accompanied by road blocking, vandalism and damage to vehicles, are the severest display of friction involving the Arab public since the events of May 2021 that broke out against the backdrop of Operation "Guardian of the Walls".
The trigger for the current breakout was the objection among members of the al-Atrash tribe living near Arad, in southern Israel, to the tree-planting project initiated by KKL-JNF on lands the Bedouins claim belong to them. However, in practice, the events drew from several points of crisis that converged at a single point in time to form an explosion, namely:
- The tension between the Bedouin public and Israeli state institutions is founded on years-long claims of discrimination against and deprivation of Bedouins with regard to the provision of civilian services and economic development; a lack of response to disputes over construction regularization and the use of agricultural land, particularly in unrecognized communities; and the increasingly weakening state governability in the Negev, prominently manifest in crime gangs comprised of Bedouin citizens that engage in stealing weapons, drug- and arms-dealing, and collection of protection money, while causing detrimental harm to Jewish as well as Arab residents' fabric of life.
- Internal tension among Arab leadership in Israel: The Bedouin community in southern Israel is one of the United Arab List's (Ra'am) key strongholds (some 40% of the votes it received came from this region), and is perceived as the arena in which the Arab party must boast significant achievements. Mansour Abbas' (the head of RA`AmM) rivals in the Arab public, particularly the heads of the Joint List and Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, realize it's Ra'am's Achilles' Heel and have been attempting to feed the fire among the Bedouin public for weeks, inter alia to prove that Abbas is incapable of meeting their needs. Most prominent in this context were Sheikh Ra`ed Salah, head of the Northern Branch, and his deputy, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, who have been focusing on the southern region for a long time, trying to encourage conflict between local Arab residents and the State of Israel. Most members of Ra'am, by contrast, led by Abbas, after having shown their support for the Bedouin public when this crisis first began, are now actively pursuing a calmer atmosphere in the south.
- Crises within Bedouin society: Much like the May events, the recent clashes also reflect crises in Arab society in general, and the Bedouin sector in particular. Once again, in this context, we see the fundamental issues of the young, detached and idle generation (that spearheaded the violent clashes in May as well as in January) emerging, particularly with regard to authority enforcement; and the power of organized crime, for some gangs are reportedly involved in inciting the Arab public, perhaps in order to alleviate the growing pressure the Israel Police has recently been exerting on them.
- Hamas' incitement efforts: Ever since the events in southern Israel broke out, Hamas has been trying to feed the fire by presenting them as part of the broader Palestinian national struggle against Israel that is taking place simultaneously in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Jerusalem. Hamas' efforts of encouragement do not impact the Bedouin community in practice; however, they reflect the organization's strategic logic at this time, at the center of which is the attempt to maintain and sophisticate the instrument developed during Operation Guardian of the Walls – inciting the Israeli Arab public. Hamas has yearned for the West Bank to evolve into a conflict arena, but was disappointed; however, it was pleasantly surprised when it discovered its ability to incite the internal Israeli arena. It also continues its attempt to establish a new equation, whereby it is able to promote or encourage acts of violence against Israel in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Arab society while leaving the Gaza Strip outside the circle of violence, and reiterating that, should "red lines" be crossed (such as developments on Temple Mount or in the context of the Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israel, known as security prisoners), it is reserving the right to breach the emerging arrangement in the Gaza Strip and engage in a violent response from that area.
The Negev crisis is not over, and the clashes that took place a month ago could recur in the near future, perhaps with even greater intensity. Such dynamics could project onto other key hubs in Arab society, particularly the mixed cities where tension continues to simmer following the May events.
The current state of affairs could lead to repeated friction between the local residents and police, or even to large-scale rioting and violent clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens. Such a scenario could also project onto the reality in the Palestinian system, and especially push the power factors in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas, to respond with violence to the goings-on in Israel, while presenting developments as a "red line" on account of which the arrangement in the region may be breached.
Since this is a multidimensional crisis, the State of Israel should address it on several simultaneous levels:
Focusing efforts on enforcing governability and putting an end to anarchy by continuously combatting organized crime (incriminating and arresting gang members), enforcing the law in Bedouin communities, and ending protection money collection and illegal arms dealing, alongside concentrating an effort against anyone involved in the recent riots, and imposing enforcement measures that will deter others from taking part in such acts.
Accelerating civilian-economic aid campaigns, particularly those aimed at the younger generation, including the advancement of programs raised by Bedouin society itself (such as AJEEC) for a period of service for young adults during which they would provide a community service, and be active in institutionalized frameworks under state auspices.
Curbing the influence of extremists in Bedouin society, primarily the Northern Branch of the Islamist Movement that marked the Negev as a key location in which to entrench itself while exploiting the sensitivity there and attempting to utilize it to taunt the Israeli establishment and RA`AM.
Expediting the arrangement of land and unrecognized communities based on legislation, organizations and steps that have already been established, approved, and budgeted.
Drawing a "red line" for Hamas with regard to feeding the fire in Arab society while conveying a message whereby actions in this vein would limit the unprecedented civilian gestures Israel has been promoting vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip in recent months (without Hamas having to pay any significant price thus far), and even lead Israel to consider a military response (inter alia in view of Hamas' ongoing effort to direct terror attacks in the West Bank from the Gaza Strip).
The tension in the Negev is strongly tied to the May events, and to soaring violence and crime in Arab society at large. These should all highlight to the Israeli government and public that the events taking place in Arab society today have strategic implications for Israel that are no less severe than those of external challenges, requiring vigilance and, first and foremost, a response that would combine an enforcement effort with civilian activity.
The events in the Negev are being carried out at a time when the relations between Arab society, the State of Israel and Jewish public are being fatefully tested, and their course of evolvement will determine whether the parties will successfully establish a coexistence more stable than ever before or be channeled to unprecedented friction between them.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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