The Jewish National Fund’s “green” projects continue to act as the Israeli government’s long arm in the dispossession of the Palestinian people.
Israel’s expanding forestation plans in the southern semi-desert region of an-Naqab (the Negev) have re-focused attention on the state’s greenwashing campaign which some academics and activists refer to as “eco-colonialism”.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) brands itself as Israel’s ecological organisation, saying it has planted over 240 million trees in the country since its establishment.
However, the non-profit is widely criticised as being an instrument of greenwashing Israel’s expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians from their land.
Bulldozers from the JNF entered the village of al-Atrash in the area of Naqe al-Sabe in an-Naqab on January 10 and razed Palestinian farmland in preparation for tree plantation, sparking the latest round of protests in the area.
The Naqe al-Sabe area is home to around 28,000 Bedouin Palestinian farmers and residents living in six villages.
On this day 54 years ago, my family was ethnically cleansed from our village, Yalu. Israel violently erased us from our land, but never replaced us with settlers. It figures prominently in Israeli greenwashing campaigns. Our only crime was being in Israel's way. This is our story pic.twitter.com/1FoIFN5bxM— Hanna Alshaikh - هناء الشيخ (@yalawiya) June 8, 2021
Since entering al-Atrash, Israeli forces have raided several towns and villages in the area, violently beating and arresting dozens of Palestinian residents, including minors, for taking part in the protests.
Generations of Palestinians have lost their homes and livelihood to the “green” projects of the JNF.
In 2006, the JNF signed a 49-year lease agreement with the State of Israel which gives it control of over 30,000 hectares of land in an-Naqab for the development of forests.
The JNF also set a plan in 2020 to “develop” Israel’s northern and southern regions of the Galilee and an-Naqab into “high-tech ecosystems.” The ‘Israel 2040’ plan is set to relocate 1.5 million Jewish settlers to the north and south over a period of 20 years by taking over more land.
The forestation projects are taking place on cultivated private Palestinian land, but Israeli officials say the land is state-owned.
The state has never recognised the village and its residents, who are denied access to water, electricity, hospitals, schools and other basic necessities.
A tree-planting drive on Bedouin cropland in Negev nearly ripped apart Israel’s government. But are these actually “forestation” activities?— TRT World (@trtworld) January 17, 2022
Swipe to learn about the Jewish National Fund’s colonisation efforts
Dr Yaara Benger Alaluf, historian and community and education coordinator of the non-profit organisation Zochrot, says this issue cannot be understood outside of its historical and political context.
“The area of the Naqab desert was historically inhabited by Bedouin Palestinian tribes, with social, cultural and economic ties to the Palestinian urban society as well as to Bedouin communities in Sinai, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula,” Benger Alaluf told TRT World.
“Taxation documents prior to the establishment of the State of Israel prove that Bedouins legally owned lands and property,” she added.
However, after the establishment of Israel, the vast majority of land throughout 1948 Palestine was illegally transferred to state and JNF ownership under Israeli military orders.
Roots of the JNF
The Jewish National Fund was established in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland and, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, it “was the principle tool for the colonisation of Palestine.”
The organisation was founded with the purpose of acquiring land from the time of Ottoman Palestine for the establishment of Jewish-only colonies.
It was founded not too long after Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl established the Zionist Movement in 1897, which worked towards gaining support for a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land.
The JNF sought public recognition as a public body under international law and was first registered in England in 1907 and in the United States in 1926.
For many Jews outside of Palestine, donating to the JNF became an integral way to support the creation of a safe homeland during the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
“By falsely marketing itself as a benign tree-planting organisation and portraying Palestine as uninhabited, JNF was able to appeal to the Jewish Diaspora for donations to fund its colonial operations, and perhaps more significantly, rally support for Zionism,” Ghada Sasa, a PhD candidate in international Relations at McMaster University, told TRT World.
By 1948, nearly six percent of land within the British Mandate of Palestine was owned by the JNF and by the end of Israel’s Proclamation of Establishment, Israeli forces had come to control around 80 percent of the land.
The organisation was soon after repackaged to place focus on its “ecological developments” and “green” technology.
Making the desert “bloom”
Israel’s widely accepted narrative of having entered an underdeveloped land has always been grossly misleading according to academics and historians like Sasa.
The JNF for years has helped exile hundreds of Palestinian families, uprooted natural vegetation of olive, carob and pistachio trees and planted non-native pinera (conifers) and eucalyptus trees.
“While JNF boasts of having planted over 240 million trees, most are non-Native conifers, which are not suited to the Palestinian environment, regularly bursting into fires due to their high flammability, producing needles that acidify the forest floor and kill Indigenous species and reduce biodiversity.”
Common plants in Palestine maintain soil moisture and create a natural barrier to fire. Olive trees, in particular, help prevent soil erosion.
Despite the JNF’s human rights violations and environmental damage being well-documented, the organisation’s actions are largely ignored, as the majority of countries globally continue to see Israel as a vital political partner in the Middle East.
When it comes to the Palestinian cause Sasa says: “Western environmentalism splits human and environmental rights, readily sacrificing the former to seemingly protect the latter, when they are very much entangled.”
Back in an-Naqab, although Israel has temporarily suspended the afforestation project, Sasa said the town: “Like the rest of Palestine, continues to struggle against Israeli colonialism.”
She added: “I call upon environmentalists worldwide to recognise their complicity, condemn all human rights violations, and view human and environmental rights as interrelated.”