JNF plants trees to uproot Bedouin

Bedouin near al-Araqib village protest land confiscation by the State of Israel and the Jewish National Fund, April 2009. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

Israel has exploited the country’s natural environment for its own political ends for decades. Since 1948 olive trees have been uprooted, quarries mined, the most fertile lands taken for settlements and water illegally extracted. However, in the Naqab (Hebraized as Negev) desert and the Galilee this ecological occupation takes on a very different form. Instead of uprooting trees, they are planted in huge numbers by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a Zionist organization setup in 1901 and which displaced Palestinians during the 1948 dispossession or Nakba, and has since planted more than 24 million trees covering more than 250,000 acres of land in the country.

Although the JNF states that it is working to improve the environment by making the regions “green and prosperous,” a recent incident in the Naqab desert where the local Bedouin population was accused of damaging 1,600 JNF trees tells a different story. The Israeli mayor Pini Badash of Omer, a small town bordering Beersheba where the alleged attacks took place this September, told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he believed that more than 10,000 trees had been uprooted by the Bedouin in the last year alone. If the allegations are true, they suggest that the local Arab Bedouin object to the JNF’s afforestation projects and also see them as symbols of occupation that need to be resisted.

Since 1948 the JNF has played a key role in the colonization of Palestine, working with the State of Israel to disposes Palestinian Arabs and create Jewish-only communities. Following the destruction of 500 Palestinian villages during the Nakba, the JNF purchased more than a million dunams of land (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) for the exclusive use of the Jewish state which it later shared with the Israel Land Authority. The dispossession continued into the 1960s in the Galilee region where destroyed villages were planted over by the JNF with pine trees. The West Bank was also targeted through a subsidiary group called the Hemnuta, which illegally acquired lands and houses, focusing on occupied East Jerusalem.

In the Naqab, JNF trees are planted row after row, cutting off Bedouin communities from their land, constricting their nomadic movements and pushing them into the poor urban townships. Entire Bedouin villages such as that of al-Araqib, Karkur and Twail Abu Jarwal have been destroyed and their populations made homeless simply to make way for JNF forests. The largest JNF forest is the Yatir forest located in the northern Naqab which covers 30,000 dunams and is in fact Israel’s largest planted forest. Inspired by Zionist mythology to make the desert bloom, the JNF’s forestation schemes now includes the “Blueprint Negev” project — a ten year and $600 million initiative which includes program for water conservation and further afforestation in the Naqab. None of these facilities, of course, will be for the benefit of the Bedouins living in “unrecognized” villages which Israel states are illegal although the Bedouin have lived there for generations.

By 2003 the JNF had acquired more than 2 million dunams of Palestinian land, although trees were planted and around 100 parks were built to obscure the sites of the Palestinian villages.

Consequently, it is not difficult to understand why trees planted by the JNF are seen as part and parcel of the Israeli occupation and therefore as legitimate targets of resistance and protest. As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe states in a report on the JNF released by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign in 2010, “The ‘green lungs’ of Israel have been created as part of the colonization of the country and the dispossession of the Palestinian people — and not out of care for ecology and nature.”

Although the JNF continues its work as an environmental charity, its efforts to green the Naqab have come under scrutiny by environmental experts who state that the afforestation in the Naqab is actually causing “serious and irreparable damage to nature and the environment.” Other critics such as Alice Gray, an environmental expert living in the West Bank, believe that the JNF uses afforestation as a means to control Bedouin land. “Trees are used by the JNF to actualize their control over tracts of land and prevent the Bedouin from using it. Are the Bedouin allowed to plant trees? No,” she says.

“The state has repeatedly destroyed Bedouin crops of all sorts — they used to spray them with Round-Up [a broad-spectrum herbicide] out of helicopters until too many were hospitalized with chemical poisoning and the [high court] forbade it … Between that practice and frequent house demolitions, the Bedouin of the unrecognized villages are subjected to continuous harassment and abuse by the Israeli state. Their entire way of life is delegitimized while at the same time the JNF is able to move with impunity,” Gray says.

Bedouin leaders have also refuted the tree-cutting allegations made by mayor Badash as completely unfounded, adding that damaging trees goes against the Bedouin culture of caring for the environment. Ra’ed al-Mickawi, a Bedouin from the Naqab who works with Bustan, a nongovernmental organization promoting environmental justice in the region, added, “Bedouins practice sustainability as a default — we are self-sufficient and consume very little, both in the past and now. We lead very humble lives and live on the things that we produce and I think that is a major factor in shaping the way that my community sees nature … In fact, many Bedouin practices are aimed at supporting and protecting nature.”

While the accusations against the Bedouin remain unconfirmed allegations, the trees the JNF plants are not symbols of a mutually-shared environment. They represent a form of Israeli oppression that has taken root in Palestinian land and which is constantly damaging the Bedouin way of life. As Gray remarks, “if the Bedouin did cut the trees — unproven but not entirely unlikely — they did so in resistance to an ongoing campaign of delegitimization and exclusion that is being waged against them by the State of Israel in collusion with the JNF.”

In early May 2010, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to hold Israel accountable launched a campaign highlighting the JNF’s greenwashing which activists say obscures its colonizing and apartheid activities. The Stop the JNF campaign is also working to challenge the organization’s charitable status in more than fifty countries and to document the JNF’s ongoing role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. An open letter signed by 26 organizations was issued ahead of the JNF’s annual meeting in October, urging it to stop forestation activities in areas of existing Bedouin villages and to end their complicity in the dispossession of Israel’s Bedouin community.

Arwa Aburawa (http://arwafreelance.wordpress.com/) is a freelance journalist based in the UK who writes on the Middle East, the environment and various social issues.