There is something worrying about a prime minister of a liberal, democratic country who imposes values on his country’s citizens and those who wish to become citizens, yet does not adhere to those values when he regards it politically expedient to ignore them. This is precisely what Prime Minister John Howard has done in accepting the “honour” of having a forest named after him in Israel’s Negev Desert and also the Jerusalem Prize for his support of Israel and its “values”. And John Howard is in good company: Sir Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke — both former Australian prime ministers — also have forests in Israel named after them, as well as a former governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen.
The naming of the John Howard forest was arranged by a quasi-private land agency, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which deliberately discriminates against non-Jews in its allocation of long-lease agreements. This arrangement services Israel’s apartheid policies aimed at bringing about the Judaisation of all of the land originally known as historic Palestine. The Israeli government relies on the JNF and international Zionist organizations to bring in Jews from abroad to settle on land forcibly taken from the non-Jewish inhabitants — a practice which is discriminatory and illegal. Already the JNF holds 13 per cent of the land and now is currently advertising its “Blueprint Negev” as “A Miracle in the Desert”. Only Jews will have access to the new development in keeping with the JNF’s charter, which is focused on looking after Jews globally.
The Negev Desert was and is the home of the indigenous Bedouin Arabs who are now citizens of present-day Israel. Some 80,000 have been living in 45 unrecognised villages in the southern Negev Desert and although they have a right to vote in Israel’s national elections and have a duty to pay taxes if they work, they have been calculatingly ignored when the Israeli government approves of planning projects for new Jewish communities. Their lands have been systematically confiscated and thousands of them have been forced to live in poor and densely populated shanty towns that is anathema to their traditional life on the land. These shanty towns are totally neglected by the Israeli government and the Bedouins have no access to even basic infrastructure like water, electricity and sewage. There are no roads or medical and welfare services and no municipal authority to administer services. The Bedouins, therefore, have no access to any authority that might issue permits for building and when out of necessity they do build, they live in constant fear of having their homes destroyed.
The similarity of conditions between the Bedouin Arabs and black South Africans during the Apartheid era is obvious. Like the white South Africans, Jewish Israelis seek to preserve their privileged position in Israel at all costs, tragically to the detriment of the non-Jewish citizens. All Israel’s policies, therefore, are geared to ensure the exclusivity and security of the Jewish state. Thus, mass expulsions followed by home demolitions and razing of villages is a familiar story in Israel just as forced removal was the modus operandi in South Africa. Under Israel’s former Prime Minister Sharon, a five-year plan was approved by the Israeli cabinet, to force the Bedouins living in the unrecognised villages to leave. There was no consultation, just a gradual increase in house demolitions, the spraying of herbicide on crops to stop land cultivation and the filing of eviction suits. Places were renamed and Jewish towns, villages and cooperatives were built in place of the Bedouin villages. The Bedouins, who once owned 94 per cent of the total land, have had their land declared state property. They now own less than three per cent, and those who refuse to leave their unrecognised villages, are called “squatters”.
The JNF — which has marketed itself in the last decade as a premier Zionist environmental organization — plans to settle half a million Israelis in the Negev in 25 low density housing communities over ten years. But, what the JNF calls the last great natural reserve of Israel, has been the subject of legal proceedings by Bedouin Arabs wanting to reclaim their land, and John Howard’s forest sits right in the middle of this disputed land. It would have been far more prudent for our prime minister to decline these honours than associate himself with a state that practices racial discrimination and human rights abuses against its own non-Jewish citizens. After all, Howard was at great pains to stop the Australian cricket team from playing in Zimbabwe as a protest against Robert Mugabe’s “grubby” regime. Equally and clearly, the JNF’s acts on behalf of Israel, do not measure up to our Australian values of a fair go, tolerance and inclusion. The prime minister ought to bring his values into line with the rest of Australia, instead of associating himself so unreservedly with Israel.
Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.