Making the desert bloom? How Israel is greenwashing its land theft in the Negev
This month, Bedouins in the Naqab (the Negev) faced off against Israeli-state-backed bulldozers aggressively attempting to seize their land. The official line of the Israeli state is that it is preparing the land for “afforestation” projects, but locals contend the government’s tree-planting initiative is merely a ploy to seize land from the indigenous population.
“We are not against planting trees, but not in this way,” Adv. Khalil Alamour, a Bedouin activist, said. “Because the forestation here is a tool to put new facts on the ground — not to help the people.”
Alamour described how the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Zionist organisation spearheading the forestation efforts, flattened the villagers’ seeded wheat and barley fields.
“It’s not to ‘make the desert bloom’ as they’ve always claimed. It is just to uproot our trees,” Alamour said, emphasising how the JNF razed olive and fig trees over the last weeks to make room for its pine seedlings.
"Bedouin activists and rights groups assert the token slogan of the Zionist movement —'making the desert bloom' — is false, and JNF's activities are actually doing the opposite"
Bedouin activists and rights groups assert the token slogan of the Zionist movement — “making the desert bloom” — is false, and JNF’s activities are actually doing the opposite.
Last year, Israeli environmental organisation, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, took the JNF to the state’s Supreme Court, alleging the tree-planting will harm the Naqab’s biodiversity. SPNI lost.
But JNF’s forests don’t just disrupt the ecosystem, they disturb the local economy as well.
“Historically the Naqab was blooming. Millions of dunams [more than 25,000 acres] were cultivated by the Bedouin community,” Amir Abu Koider, a Bedouin activist, told The New Arab.
“In a society which relies on agriculture, herding and grazing, you are actually stripping them of their main resource — land.”
JNF's history of 'greenwashing'
The JNF played a significant role in the Zionist colonization of Palestine. The organization was established during the 1901 Zionist Congress in Switzerland and tasked with buying land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. The purchasing process was typically done through absentee landlords.
By the 1920s, however, Palestinians were extremely cognizant of the JNF’s colonisation efforts and refused to sell their land to the organisation. This development led the JNF to turn to more insidious methods of acquiring land, such as recruiting Palestinians to buy plots for the fund.
To aid in these procedures, the JNF began keeping detailed files of Palestinian villages meant for future displacement. These village records were then used by Zionist militias when forcibly displacing Palestinians in mass from 1947 to1948 in what is known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic.
After the Nakba and when Israel was officially established as a state in May 1948, the JNF seized more than 70% of Palestinian land.
As Koider explained, the JNF then worked to disguise its land theft through environmental means.
“The JNF was involved in ethnic cleansing and obliterating the aftermath of the Nakba by planting their trees over the rubble of destroyed Arab villages,” Koider said.
More than two-thirds of JNF forests stand atop the ruins of Palestinian villages. Even Michal Kortoza, who was in charge of JNF’s signage, admitted “many of the JNF - KKL parks are located on land where Palestinian villages once stood; the forests are there to conceal this.”
Today, JNF’s greenery isn’t solely to conceal past catastrophes, but also to serve expansionist efforts in what activists consider a form of green colonialism.
"Today, JNF's greenery isn’t solely to conceal past catastrophes, but also to serve expansionist efforts in what activists consider a form of green colonialism"
“One mechanism is planting trees on grabbed lands in order to stop the expansion of the Bedouin community,” Koider said. “And the other mechanism is displacing Bedouin communities and removing them from their lands.” He explained how several Bedouin communities were expelled so JNF’s Ambassadors Forest could be planted in the villages’ place.
Elianne Kremer, international relations and research coordinator at the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, highlighted that what is happening in the Naqab now isn’t unusual. In fact, the JNF is regularly operating in the desert.
“They’re planting trees between Bedouin villages in the Naqab and so when they do these forestation plans, people then move. And it's a way to prevent them from going back to their original land,” Kremer said. “The clear objective here is displacement of the Bedouin Palestinians.”
JNF’s tactics of dispossession aren’t solely occurring in the Naqab, but across Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. Through its subsidiary, Himanuta, the JNF has purchased Palestinian-owned land for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem through secret deals.
Fighting for the right to be recognized
During the Nakba, around 90,000 Palestinian Bedouins were expelled from the Naqab and pushed to Gaza, the West Bank or outside Palestine. The remaining 10 percent of Bedouins were concentrated into a small area of land (8 per cent of the Naqab) called al-Siyaj.
Today, about 40 Bedouin villages in the Naqab are considered “unrecognised” by the state of Israel. This means that while Bedouins are Israeli citizens, they can’t receive basic services for their communities like water and electricity. Living in an unrecognised village also means they can’t obtain building permits, making their homes illegal.
“Eighty per cent of [Bedouins in the Naqab] live under the poverty line. So non-recognition by the state creates this situation of poverty,” Kremer said. “Until the state recognizes them, they will continue to live this way.”
"Today, about 40 Bedouin villages in the Naqab are considered 'unrecognised' by the state of Israel. This means that while Bedouins are Israeli citizens, they can't receive basic services for their communities like water and electricity"
Yet the ongoing displacement in the Naqab at the hands of the JNF is only pushing recognition of Bedouin ownership further away.
“The state is constantly encouraging and forcing them to move to recognized localities and abandon their historical land,” Kremer said.
“The Bedouins’ plight is to be recognized, but the state is preventing this from happening.”
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum