On 19 June in New York City, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), in collaboration with the UN’s Department of Public Information and NGO Relations, will convene a panel of “experts” to discuss water management and sustainability in “arid countries.”
The presentation is just the latest example of how the JNF, founded at the turn of the century in order to colonize the land of Palestine with the Jewish people of the world, is attempting to alter its settler-colonial image by establishing itself as a leader and champion of environmental and water conservation causes. The organization is presenting at the UN as an approved member of its nongovernmental organization network.
But far from a operating as a nongovernmental organization, the JNF actually works in close tandem with the State of Israel to promote its agenda of maintaining a Jewish settler-colonist state.
For example, the JNF holds a privileged status in Israel. It holds 50 percent of the seats on the Israel Land Administration (ILA) Council, the public authority that controls 93 percent of state lands. The JNF’s bylaws prohibit the organizations from leasing land to “non-Jews.” In fact, in August 2004, the ILA admitted that the JNF tenders land only to Jews. Thus, Israel hands off the dirty business of explicitly discriminatory land policies to the JNF, neatly avoiding direct violation of many of the human rights treaties the state has signed.
But despite this function within Israel, in the last decade the JNF has presented itself to the United Nations as a nongovernmental, non-political organization. In July 2004 it was approved as an nongovernmental organization by the UN Department of Public Information. Thrilled with the credibility the status bestowed, Yehiel Leket, World Chairman of the JNF, said, “Our acceptance by other countries into the United Nations legitimizes our award-winning efforts in water, environment and sustainable development.”
Of note, however, in 2006, the JNF’s application for consultative status was rejected by the UN on the basis that the organization was “too political,” and had been involved in projects in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Israel denied the political nature of the JNF, stating it works on “sustainable development and environmental conservation issues.” At the vote, Israel pointed out that the organization had withdrawn from its participation in a project in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
But even if the JNF is not operating directly in the Palestinian territories outside the green line (Israel’s internationally-recognized armistice line with the occupied West Bank), it has played a critical role in the aggressive displacement of Bedouin communities in the Naqab (Negev) — in particular, in Al-Araqib. Furthermore, despite Israel’s concerted efforts to depoliticize the issue of water, it is inherently a political one — as is JNF’s involvement in it.
The JNF began to alter its agenda from being an organization exclusively dedicated to settling Jews in Palestine and covering over Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionist militias to a seemingly less controversial agenda in 2002: “Beginning in 2002, Jewish National Fund made its debut on the international front as an environmental organization,” the organization states on its website.
JNF’s profile on the website of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs lists climate change, forests, freshwater and human settlements as among its fields of expertise.
JNF’s membership with the UN’s Department of Public Information allows it sponsor or facilitate panels and workshops at UN conferences around the world, affording it the chance to conduct bluewashing events like the one taking place tomorrow.
This “bluewashing” agenda seeks to extract the issues of water in Palestine from the broader political circumstances, focusing on technical solutions to water scarcity and emphasizing Israel’s conservational approaches to wastewater and agricultural practices. The salient facts are ignored — Israel exercises total control over all the natural water sources in the region, deliberately gives Palestinians insufficient water and even denies their ability to collect it, and thus maintains a system of water apartheid.
For Palestinians, the water crisis is constant: as many as 200,000 Palestinians are not connected to running water, and the average Palestinian consumes just 70 liters a day while the World Health Organization recommends at least 100 liters per day. Gaza’s sole aquifer is over-extracted, making 90 to 95 percent of the water unfit for drinking. Bluewashing is a flagrant attempt to paper over these facts and create new ones.
All of this brings us to tomorrow’s panel, which will be moderated by the JNF’s Vice President of Government Relations, Joseph Hess, and includes Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Seth Siegel, an AIPAC member and commenter on water issues in the region, and Sharon Megdal, a professor at the University of Arizona.
Clive Lipchin is the Director for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The Arava Institute was founded in 1996, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, and as such promulgates a mission that values cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli groups in “environmental studies” outside of any political context.
While its mission may appear anodyne, Arava has been a partner with the JNF since 2002. In 2010, New York City-based Palestine activism group Adalah-NY called for a boycott of a virtual event planned by the Arava Institute, writing: “The JNF and Arava are clearly close partners, using one another to bolster their images and funding.”
According to the JNF’s 2011 990 form, it gave $523,825 to the Arava Institute in 2011 alone, making it JNF’s largest single recipient of cash aid.
In February, he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he excoriated Palestinians’ mismanaging of water and blamed Hamas for Gaza’s scarcity of potable water, writing, “Given their proximity to Israel, the Palestinians are likely to be among the few Arab winners in the water race … But as water problems grow, one hopes that ideology will give way to pragmatism and may open a door to an Arab and Islamic outreach to Israel.”
Siegel’s noxious mendacity makes his role as hasbarist easy to recognize. However, other water experts fall in line with him, ably assisting in bluewashing efforts that emphasize solutions like desalination rather than confronting Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinians’ water rights.
Sharon Megdal is a professor at University of Arizona has been traveling to Israel to study the water situation in earnest since 2009. She is the co-author of a 2012 publication, Shared Borders, Shared Waters: Israeli-Palestinian and Colorado River Basin Water Challenges, which advocates for a kind of “science diplomacy” to resolve difficult transboundary water conflicts, such as in Palestine.
In December 2004, the JNF wrote the following to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Rights in Israel:
The JNF is not the trustee of the general public in Israel. Its loyalty is given to the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel … The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.
While this admission was in reference to the region’s land, is there any reason to think that this organization would handle the region’s water resources with equity for all the people living there? By hosting this event tomorrow, the UN becomes complicit in the JNF’s bluewashing project.
Andrew Kadi contributed to this report.