'Come to the wilderness': Zochrot campaign highlights JNF's role in 'ongoing Nakba'

A banner by NGO Zochrot, reading: "You can't see the Nakba for the trees."
7 min read
13 October, 2021

With the Jewish National Fund (JNF) turning 120 this year, an NGO working in Israeli society launched an awareness campaign on 20 September to bring attention to the land development group's role in Israel's dispossession of Palestinians.

Tel Aviv-based Zochrot's educational effort recently ended, having run for three weeks in total and having sought to enlighten principally Israeli but also international audiences about the JNF's alleged historic and continued role in the organised dispossession of Palestinians.

The campaign largely operated on social media, where Zochrot shared posts, graphics, and videos about the Israeli organisation – often called KKL-JNF – as well as other similar but separate international groups, like JNF UK, under the #ExposeJNF hashtag.

"For [us], it's very important to highlight the ongoing Nakba and ongoing displacement of Palestinians… and the JNF has been taking a leading role in that," Zochrot advocacy and media coordinator Najwan Berekdar, 39, told The New Arab.

The Nakba, or "catastrophe", refers to the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced or fled their homes. 

While the term "Nakba" itself references this period specifically, some activists and scholars argue it or actions leading up to it commenced decades earlier and are still occurring in 2021. Education about the Nakba is Zochrot's mission, and the first week of its campaign focused on its history.

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Berekdar, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, claimed the JNF's establishment as the Nakba's beginning. In the early 20th century, the fund started acquiring land for Jewish settlement, often causing serious damage to the Palestinians living there, based on a 1930 UK enquiry.

Despite it not being the beginning, 1948 was a significant escalation in this activity, with much of the land currently in the JNF's possession having been seized during the conflict that broke out between nascent Israel and several Arab states, ex-Palestine-Israel Journal co-managing editor Dan Leon said in 2005.

Of what Israel considers "public domain" land, 13 percent was held by the Israeli JNF in 2003, the government's Israel Land Administration, not to be confused with its Israel Land Authority (ILA), said. According to the fund's website, it "owns over 10% of Israel's land", however, no date was given for this figure.

Though there is a legal distinction between the JNF and the Israeli state, Berekdar sees them as being effectively the same.

"I don’t think I myself differentiate between JNF and the state, because they're doing the same job together, and they're doing it in coordination," she alleged.

"For [us], it's very important to highlight the ongoing Nakba and ongoing displacement of Palestinians… and the JNF has been taking a leading role in that"

The ILA is tasked with administering the JNF's lands, for example, while 10 of the 22 seats on the leadership body of the ILA, which also oversees all other public domain land, fall to the fund.

What's more, while Israel's government is deeply involved in illegal West Bank settlement efforts, in early September, the fund gave the go-ahead to an effort to formally assert ownership of lands in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, Haaretz reported.

This may lead to Palestinians being forced out, according to the Israeli outlet, and comes as the group has become "more out in the open", Berekdar asserted.

However, the JNF's status as a private group is key for Berekdar, since she considers this allows it to get away with far more than the state itself could.

"They can do a lot… under the cover of being private," she said.

In most parts of the world, bodies so profoundly entangled in "public domain" land do not claim their holdings to belong to just one ethnic group.

Nevertheless, the Israeli JNF's website says its "land… is the property of the Jewish people" and it has previously submitted a legal document explaining its "loyalty is reserved for the Jewish people alone", according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and four other groups.

Zochrot's tour of the ruined Palestinian village of Dayr Aban
Zochrot led a tour of the depopulated Palestinian village of Dayr Aban. [Zochrot]

On 2 October, Zochrot hosted a tour of Dayr Aban as part of the second week of its campaign, which sought to make "the invisible visible", Berekdar said.

Dayr Aban is a depopulated Palestinian village not far from Jerusalem which was taken over by Israel in 1948. Now part of the Jewish state, it is located in the American Independence Park, which the Israeli JNF first started constructing in 1976. The historical residents of this and other Palestinian areas now subsumed by the park were made refugees, "the remains of [their] villages" being "cover[ed] up" by it, Zochrot said.

The tour was held both in-person and streamed to Facebook.

"This is about the right to see… we want to see what's between the forests, what's between these parks that, you know, they're trying to hide," Berekdar said.

This goal is what prompted Zochrot to commence its campaign on 20 September, the first day of Judaism's Sukkot festival, since many Israelis head to JNF parks on this day.

Palestine Land Society (PLS) research group founder and president Dr Salman Abu Sitta, 84, addressed the history of several JNF parks – not just the one which has subsumed Dayr Aban – claiming the JNF was at the core of severe abuses.

"This is about the right to see… we want to see what's between the forests, what's between these parks that, you know, they're trying to hide"

A Palestinian refugee living in Kuwait, he asserted to The New Arab: "JNF is an instrument of ethnic cleansing… this is not a slogan. In 1948 and before, they directed the Haganah [Zionist militia group's] operations… to destroy these villages and to take their land...

"They destroyed the homes of the people, their machines destroyed [them], and then, to hide the debris of the houses, they planted trees on them."

He noted foreign, European trees not well suited to the local climate were used, highlighting the August blazes that swept through forest areas near Jerusalem.

These exposed once-hidden proof that, for hundreds of years, Palestinians had lived on and made agricultural use of these lands.

Keen also to look at more contemporary crises, the third week of Zochrot's campaign focused on the here and now. This centres particularly on the battles being fought in the Naqab (Negev) and Jerusalem.

In recent years, then-Israeli JNF World Chairman Daniel Atar explained that the fund aims to "help the state of Israel move a million new residents to the Negev". While he did not explicitly say these will be Israeli Jews, and though there's now a new JNF chief, the organisation has said its "main objective… is Jewish settlement – on [fund] land".

Regardless, this one million figure is around four times the 250,000 or so Palestinian Bedouins living in the region, who routinely face demolition orders and dispossession.

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One village there, called Al-Araqib, has been destroyed on over 190 occasions. The Israeli JNF is seeking to grow a forest there and, in at least the vast majority of cases, the village's destruction was to allow the forest to go ahead, according to +972 Magazine.

Zochrot's work against the JNF won't stop now these three weeks are up, however, with Berekdar revealing her organisation will seek to hold at minimum one action each month opposing it going forward.

Regarding its recent "120 years of dispossession and displacement" campaign, however, despite many positive responses, some Israelis did lash out.

Nevertheless, PLS' Abu Sitta praised the non-profit for the work it does. "Zochrot is a wonderful organisation with whom I have cooperated since its inception," he told The New Arab.

He said it is vital the message it stands for comes from an Israeli group.

"They destroyed the homes of the people, their machines destroyed [them], and then, to hide the debris of the houses, they planted trees on them"

"It shows that some people refuse to be blinded by the hasbara, or the propaganda – they want to know the truth.

"This call for… knowledge – not for justice – just [a] call for knowledge, is important in a society which claims to be very well advanced."

However, those Israelis who engage with Zochrot are few in number, he said. "So their work is… a cry in the wilderness. We need to have people… come to the wilderness to listen."

The New Arab has requested comment from JNF UK, and Israel's Negev and Galilee development, and housing and construction ministries, but received no reply at the point of publication. It was not possible to reach the ILA.

KKL-JNF commented in response: "Allowing for hateful rhetoric such as 'ethnic-cleansing' in journalism is in direct opposition to objective reporting standards. We reject such phrases and consider them to be incitement and anti-Semitism, with zero basis in fact or substantiated evidence. KKL-JNF actively works to promote collaboration and various other initiatives with the goal of supporting the diverse population of Israel. This article clearly lacks any understanding of KKL-JNF's values as an organization and instead uses politically charged statements that do not serve the common good, disregard historical Jewish trauma, and demonizes Israel and Zionism".