Planting trees in the Negev is not ‘reforestation’, it’s about ethnic cleansing – Middle East Monitor

After massive protests from Arab residents and threats from Arab parliamentarians, the Israeli occupation government decided on Wednesday to suspend the major Jewish National Fund (JNF) tree planting project in the Negev. The JNF is a quasi-governmental body that oversees thirteen percent of the land in Israel for the exclusive use of Jews. She started her planting project on Sunday; Worth 150 million NIS ($ 48 million), it is intended to reforest large tracts of land in the Negev under the supervision of the Israel Land Authority.

The Israeli government claims that this is state-owned land even though it includes many Arab villages, which the government has never recognized and therefore remain disconnected from public services such as water and sewer networks, the electricity network and access to telecommunications. However, left-wing Israelis claim this is land at the heart of a dispute between the government and local Arab residents. Local Palestinians know that this is their land on which they have lived for centuries.

Planting trees and turning the desert into green space and farmland is something good that everyone should be happy about. So why are the local Palestinian Arabs against it?

From the 1940s, the Zionists occupied Palestine and expelled the local population in large numbers, replacing them with Jewish immigrants who assumed “ownership” of Palestinian land and homes. Some Palestinians resisted violent ethnic cleansing; some have moved to neighboring areas; some fled to areas that had not been occupied in 1948; and some have fled the country altogether.

READ: Palestine accuses Israel of committing crimes in the Negev

Since then, the occupying state has treated Jewish immigrants as true citizens, while the original inhabitants who have managed to stay in their homes on the lands occupied since 1948 are “unrecognized” residents or, at the same time, better, second-class citizens. They are called Arab Israelis.

At that time, the JNF was carrying out reforestation projects over large areas of the occupied territory, including the ruins of abandoned Palestinian villages, in order to change the facts on the ground and turn Palestine into Israel. My neighbor Mustafa Abul Qumsan, 86, was expelled from his village in 1948 when he was 12 years old. “Years after the occupation,” he told me, “I went to visit my village. I did not find our houses. I found a forest.

Palestinian Arab residents of Israel know from experience that reforestation projects are used to cover up evidence of ethnic cleansing of local Palestinians. Regardless of the economic or environmental reasons for reforestation in the Negev, the main objective is therefore to strengthen Israel’s grip on the occupied land before the potential expansion of the local Palestinian Arab population in the region.

Israel has tried since 1948 to expel the local population from areas of occupied Palestine, especially the Negev. In some areas, they are forcibly abducting them or demolishing their homes. The “unrecognized” village of Al Araqib, for example, has been demolished by the Israelis more than 150 times since 2011, and rebuilt each time by its residents.

To persuade Arabs to leave their villages – and to give a shiny veneer to ethnic cleansing – Israel has repeatedly proposed that they move to urbanized areas with high-rise buildings where they can take advantage of public services. All these proposals were rejected, because the local people know that it is a ruse to uproot them from their own land. This is disputed by Israeli officials, of course.

Israeli mounted police stand guard as excavators work at a Bedouin protest in the southern Israeli village of Sawe al-Atrash in the Negev desert against a reforestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the January 12, 2022. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]

“There is no deportation,” Alon Tal MK told the Israel Times. “These are national lands; we have the right to protect them for all citizens, and one way to do that is to plant trees.” He oversaw reforestation at the JNF for over a decade. “The Israel Land Authority wants to own land, which is their job. Bedouin [Palestinians in the Negev] are squatters, and one way to stop them from doing so is to plant trees.

Palestinians in the Negev lived peacefully on their land for centuries before the Israeli occupation. Their presence alone signified property; they didn’t need or (in most cases) any documentation to prove it. The occupation state, however, demands to see such proof of ownership. He has imposed many oppressive laws designed to deprive Palestinians of their property rights, and knows full well that most in the Negev do not have title deeds or similar documents.

Since the 1970s, dozens of Palestinian Arabs have taken legal action to try to prove that they owned their land. Either they lost their case or the courts delayed the process. Meanwhile, the occupation authorities have accelerated the theft of land by destroying unrecognized villages, worsening living conditions, blocking the construction of new homes and carrying out reforestation and urbanization projects.

READ: Israel arrests 16 Palestinians as it razes Bedouin village

“Today there are around 125,000 acres of disputed land,” said Hanna Noach, who co-leads the left-wing Negev Coexistence Forum. “Bedouins are summoned to court and asked to prove their ownership, but apart from oral tradition, they often have nothing to show.

The ideological aspect of this old-fashioned land grab is obvious. Far-right extremist Itamar Ben Gvir is a parliamentarian and leader of the openly anti-Arab Otzma Yehudit party. Reforestation is a tool for Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, not an end in itself.

“Today the order of the hour is to reach the Negev and participate in the important mitzvah [commandment] to fight for the Land of Israel, “he told the Jerusalem Post. He added that he had spoken with a Zionist religious authority, Rabbi Dov Lior, the former chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, “Who ruled that it was allowed to plant trees for the struggle. for the Land of Israel, and called on all members of the Knesset to come to the Negev to make the desert blossom. “

According to Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, writing on Facebook: “There are many areas in the country where, when you don’t cultivate the land, you lose it… On the eve of Tu Bishvat [a Jewish holiday celebrated as an ecological awareness day], agriculture must be recognized and planting is the solution everywhere, and so it will be this year as well. “

Israel’s intentions are very clear. He wants as much Palestinian land as possible, with the fewest Palestinians living there. This is what reforestation is for. Ecology and the environment have nothing to do with it. The Palestinians understand this; we all see it; but no one does anything to stop it, leaving local residents to confront the Israeli occupation authorities on their own while the complicit international community sits and watches.

The opinions expressed in this article are the property of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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