Last week, while US President Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority quietly opened an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York that asserts the occupied Golan Heights and West Bank as Israel’s own territory.
The exhibition, title The Natural Side of Israel, features some 30 photographs that purport to display the “rare and inspiring variety of natural landscapes and unspoiled scenery” in Israel, but in fact include geographic sites that lie on land Israel has occupied for decades.
The first photo in a catalog of the exhibition shows a wolf stopped on a snow-covered opening in a forest in the Golan Heights – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967. But the catalogue identifies the location of the photograph as the “Odem Forest in the northern part of Israel.”
“The wolves living in this part of the country are bigger and darker than the wolves who live in other parts of Israel,” the catalogue states. “Some consider them a subspecies of the grey wolf and call them the Golan wolf.”
When Israel occupied Syria’s Golan Heights five decades ago, it expelled and displaced 130,000 Syrians – most of the population of the territory at the time – and destroyed more than 200 villages, according to a 2010 investigation by the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.
In 1981, Israel formally annexed the territory. The UN Security Council, of which the United States is a permanent member, considers that annexation null and void.
Netanyahu expressed his desire for the US to acknowledge Israel’s claims to the Syrian territory when he met with Trump last week.
Al-Marsad, the Arab Human Rights Center in the Golan Heights, released a statement urging the international community to reject these efforts to legitimize Israel’s annexation of the territory.
Al-Marsad notes that while 23,000 Israeli settlers currently control 95 percent of the land, 25,000 Syrians are confined to five severely overcrowded villages.
Al-Marsad alleges that these residents endure routine violations of their human rights, many of the same measures used against Palestinians – including family separation, home demolitions and threats from military bases.
“Israel is cynically taking advantage of the ongoing conflict in Syria and a distracted international community, to create ‘new facts on the ground’ in the Golan by rapidly increasing the settler population and the extraction of natural resources,” Al-Marsad states, noting that in 2015 Israel announced plans to increase the number of Israeli settlers in the territory by 100,000 over the next five years.
Exploited natural resources, destroyed villages
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority exhibition at the UN also shows gazelles near the Israeli settlement Moshav Naama in the Jordan Valley of the occupied West Bank, though the occupation is not mentioned in the exhibition.
Moshav Naama is a farm settlement which has unrestricted access to water that is denied to its Palestinian neighbors.
Other sites displayed in the exhibition are in Israel, but on the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages.
The parks authority boasts of the reserves it has created on the Mediterranean seashore, including the Achziv national park near Israel’s border with Lebanon.
The park is built where the Palestinian village Zib once stood.
According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Zib was one of several Palestinian villages destroyed in May 1948 in explicit retaliation for an attack on a Zionist convoy.
In an operation dubbed “Ben Ami,” Jewish troops “were specifically told that the villages had to be eliminated in revenge for the loss of the convoy,” Pappe writes in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The villages were Sumiriyya, Zib, Bassa, Kabri, Umm al-Faraj and Nahr, all located in the northwest corner of present-day Israel.
Pappe says these villages suffered a “crueler version” of the general “destroy-and-expel” directive given to Zionist forces.
As a result, the operation resulted in one of the quickest depopulation operations during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, emptying a densely populated areas in just over 24 hours.
The entire 2,000-person population of Zib was driven out, along with thousands of others, leading David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist militia leader who would become Israel’s first prime minister, to announce that the area had been “liberated.”
Today, according to Pappe, Zib’s mosque is left standing in a resort area that is managed by the Israeli parks authority.
The land’s “guardian”
In a written introduction to the exhibition, parks authority director Shaul Goldstein emphasizes his agency’s role as the “guardian” of the land, his staff as “protectors” of the habitats and ecosystems, and claims to “treat nature with reverence.”
In reality, his agency has been a key instrument in confiscating land from Palestinians and entrenching Israel’s occupation.
In occupied East Jerusalem, the government body zones Palestinian residential areas as national parks as a means to limit Palestinian presence there and expand Jewish settlements.
The authority has outsourced the running of one such national park in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, to Elad, a powerful settler group that actively helps displace Palestinian families to settle Jews in their homes.
Repeated throughout the text that accompanies the photographs are biblical references, emphasizing that Israel’s claims to the land are inherited from ancient religious texts. The parks authority proudly explains how it reintroduced species to Israel through a program in the 1960s called “Returning the Animals of the Bible to the Land of the Bible.”
The parks authority also staved off development in the Elah Valley, to the south of Jerusalem, which it claims was the scene of the “famed battle between David and Goliath.”
Such propaganda is nothing new for Israel. But should the United Nations be giving Israeli colonialist mythology which erases the indigenous population a platform in New York?