Since the idea of Zionism (a Jewish state in historic Palestine) first gripped the minds of a few intellectuals, the state of Israel has represented its colonisation of the land of Palestine, and its uprooting of the Palestinian people, as a rejuvenation of the earth.
Determined to “make the desert bloom”, an international organisation called the Jewish National Fund planted forests, recreational parks and nature reserves to cover over the ruins of Palestinian villages. Palestinian refugees, former inhabitants of these villages, were driven from the land on which they and their ancestors had lived and worked.
Today, Israel portrays itself as a “green democracy” — an eco-friendly pioneer in agricultural techniques such as drip irrigation, dairy farming, desert ecology, water management and solar energy.
However, Israeli factories drain toxic waste and industrial pollutants down occupied West Bank hilltops into Palestinian villages. Israeli overpumping of groundwater aquifers denies Palestinians access to vital water sources in a context of increasing water scarcity and pollution.
By “greenwashing” the occupation, Israel hides its apartheid policies behind an green mirage. It distracts public attention from its brutal oppression of the Palestinian people, as well as its large-scale degradation of the earth upon which these tragedies unfold.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF), perhaps the first transnational environmental NGO, was established in 1901 as the first wave of Jewish immigrants were settling in Palestine under the banner of Zionism.
Throughout the 20th century, as the indigenous Arab population of Palestine found itself either expelled from its homeland or oppressed under the hand of a foreign invader, the JNF succeeded in raising enormous amounts of money to acquire and develop land Palestinian land.
Distinct from other transnational Zionist fundraising and advocacy organisations, such as the Jewish Agency, the JNF portrayed itself, from the beginning, as an environmental organization.
Its website claims it serves to “protect the land, green the landscape and preserve vital ecosystems” by “planting seedlings, maintaining forest health, combating desertification, protecting watersheds and managing water flow …[and] balancing the phenomenal growth and development Israel has experienced in the last decade with the maintenance of an ecologically sound environment”.
It expresses pride that “Israel is the only country in the world that will enter the 21st century with a net gain in numbers of trees”. The JNF credits itself with planting 250 million trees, building over 210 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 1,000 parks, and providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities throughout Israel.
Suiting a state constructed for a single cultural-religious group, the JNF promotes an exclusionary, discriminatory brand of environmentalism. Directly owning 13% of Israel’s land and effectively controling another 80%, the JNF’s constitution explicitly states that its land cannot be rented, leased, sold to, or worked by non-Jews.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the JNF helped to exile hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families, bulldoze their homes, and clear the land to make way for Jewish settlement.
It bought large tracts of land from absentee landowners, evicted local Arab tenant farmers, uprooted natural vegetation of olive, carob and pistachio trees, and planted vast swaths of European pinera (conifers) and eucalyptus trees.
Forests, parks and recreational facilities were strategically placed atop the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages. The fast-growing pines helped erase the history of Palestinian existence and prevent refugees from ever returning to their homes.
Pine forests were planted to guard and expand settlements built atop stolen land, and, after 1967, to seize and divide Palestinian territory within East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
The pines helped evoke images of a European wilderness, creating a familiar environment for the mostly European Jewish settlers. So much so that settlers affectionately nicknamed Carmel National Park, planted partially over the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Tira, “little Switzerland” for its resemblance to the Swiss Alps.
A foreign species, these pine forests, often fail to adapt to the local soil, and require frequent re-planting. As they age, they demand more water and become more prone to problems like pests and disease. It can also help lead to disasters, such as the 2010 Carmel wildfire, deemed the worst in Israel’s history.
As their fast-growing acidic pine needles fall to the ground, they destroy all other surrounding small plants, thus ruining the livelihood of Palestinian shepherds, whose animals depend on grazing land.
JNF’s time-tested method of ethnically cleansing, and then “greening”, the desert continues to this day.
An ongoing US$600 million, 10-year JNF program called “Blueprint Negev” seeks to develop reservoirs, pine forest afforestation and water conservation programs in the Negev desert. This is at the expense of more than 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin, whose “unrecognised” villages, as a direct result of Israeli policies, already lack electricity, running water and sewage disposal.
Since 2010, the JNF has attempted to “green” the Negev by planting the 1 million-pine “GOD TV Forest” over the Palestinian village of Al-Araqib, which, as it steadfastly resists extinction, has been demolished eight times.
“GOD TV Forest” is named after its proud sponsor, a far-right, pro-settler Evangelical Christian organisation whose stated purpose is “to plant a million trees to prepare the land for the return of [God's] son”.
As “GOD TV Forest” and “Blueprint Negev” seek to flood the semi-arid Negev with the invasive European pine, Israel seeks to tear the historically semi-nomadic Bedouin from their ancestral grazing lands, and to herd them into unnatural, sedentary lifestyles in impoverished and isolated townships.
Social strife and decay of traditional values inevitably accompany such a forced process.
After a century of expulsion, settlement, development and rapid industrialisation, indigenous arboreta make up only 11% of Israeli forests, and pre-1948 growth accounts for only 10% of Israel’s greenery.
JNF pine forests, parks and recreation areas blanket the hills of Israel. Tour guides, in the midst of a hike, dread the inevitable moment when someone asks “what is that old abandoned mosque doing in the middle of this forest?”
The parallels with European colonisation of the American continent are obvious. In a cruel historical irony, the building in the 1980s by JNF Canada of Israel’s Canada National Park, covering a destroyed Palestinian village, was begun as a twinning project with Toronto’s Downsview Park — which sits atop unacknowledged First Nations territory.
The actions of the JNF fulfill the Zionist desire to transform and control the land of Palestine, to shape its hills in the Zionist image.
When the pioneer Zionist movement arrived from Europe in the late 1800s, they found themselves dissatisfied with the rocky, semi-arid eastern shore of the Mediterranean. They sought to “make the desert bloom” as proof that the Jewish people, and not the indigenous Arabs, were the destined cultivators of what they described as “a land without people for a people without land”.
Bringing little agricultural experience from their mostly lower-middle class urban backgrounds, these pioneers first adopted local Arab small-scale dry land subsistence farming methods, producing mainly non-irrigated wheat, barley, potatoes, grapes, olives and figs for domestic consumption.
Soon, however, they dismissed centuries-old sustainable Palestinian agricultural practices as “undeveloped”, and, funded by French banker-philanthropist Baron de Rothschild, used sophisticated European steam engines, mechanised plows, reapers, and threshers to develop capital-intensive vineyards and cash crop plantations for commercial marketing.
Today, Israel markets itself abroad as a model for 21st-century green capitalism, while perpetuating widespread ecological devastation and blatant environmental racism on the ground.
As the dependence of the imperial West on Gulf oil increases, Israel’s occupation of Palestine becomes a crucial focal point. In Israel’s occupation of Palestine, we see how environmental devastation coincides with ethnic cleansing, and how each deepens the other.
The quest for justice in Palestine lies at the heart of anti-imperialist struggle worldwide — a struggle in defense of the Earth, and the dispossessed that wander upon it.
In the words of Coya White Hat-Artichoker, member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and founding member of the LGBTQ Two Spirit First Nations Collective: “I see what is happening in Palestine as an indigenous struggle for sovereignty, at times, even the right to exist.
“It is also one of genocide ... I see Israel’s systemic and intentional destruction and removal of Palestinian lives, homes, and communities as very similar to the destruction of communities, lives, and removal of Native people from their traditional lands.
“I no longer see terrorists there any more; I see people resisting and fighting extinction … I believe that as people in the US who make these connections, it’s important to be thoughtful about what is happening, in our names and with the US government’s money.”
[A longer version of this article can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]