John Howard was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for his "friendship and commitment" to Israel at a gala dinner at Melbourne's Crown Casino on May 20. The award, by the Zionist Federation of Australia, the State Zionist Council of Victoria and the World Zionist Organisation, includes the "John Howard Negev Forest", which will be planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) over an ethnically-cleansed Bedouin village.
The JNF, established in 1901 to buy land for Jewish settlers, is the biggest land holder in Israel, raising millions of dollars in donations each year from individuals, companies and governments. The JNF's by-laws prevent land under its control from being sold or leased to non-Jews, making it the main tool for restricting non-Jewish land ownership in Israel.
The more than 2500 square kilometers of land it controls was mostly illegally confiscated from the 372 Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed by the Zionists during the 1948 war. About 100 parks or forests have been planted in Israel by the JNF. While it describes itself as an "environmental organisation" and these parks as "greening the desert", many were planted to hide the remains of around 70 villages that were destroyed during 1948.
Howard's forest is part of the JNF's "Negev Now" plan, which involves bringing around 250,000 Jewish settlers into the Negev region of Southern Israel in the next five years. These settlers will replace the indigenous Bedouin who, despite being Israeli citizens, live mostly in 46 villages "unrecognised" by the Israeli government. This means they have no infrastructure or access to education or health services, and permanent structures are demolished.
While the Bedouin mostly settled into the villages during the 1800s, Israel continues to describe them as nomads, with the Israel Lands Authority describing the house demolitions as "evacuations" of "invaders". The 70,000 Bedouin living in the Negev have the worst education and health levels of all Israeli citizens: they suffer badly from the polluting industrial estates on their land.
There are Bedouin living where the John Howard Negev Forest is to be planted. SBS Dateline reporter Sophie McNeill was told by Akeel Al Talaka from the Bedouin Council that they would like Howard to visit the Negev and get to know the Bedouins and the Arabs. They would even donate him land for a forest and would be prepared to maintain it. "He can visit us every year and sleep in our tents and we will take his photo and go horse riding together and we will teach him the life of the Bedouins and the Arabs", Akeel Al Talaka said.
During his acceptance speech Howard blamed the late Yasser Arafat for the Palestinians not having a homeland. He also defended the war on Iraq, stressing that "the war on terror will indeed be a long war".
Outside, some 150 people held a peaceful picket organised by the Melbourne Palestine Solidarity Network (MPSN), holding up signs including "Negev is Bedouin land, Australia is Aboriginal land", "Zionism is Racism" and "Israel apartheid state" in English and Hebrew. Jewish and Palestinian community activists joined representatives of MPSN, Women in Black, Resistance and Socialist Alternative in speaking out.
When two women started distributing a three-page anti-Muslim diatribe, the protesters began chanting "Zionism is racism" in Hebrew. As MPSN member Azlan McLennan pointed out to Green Left Weekly, had any group distributed something similar about Jewish people it would probably have been charged under racial vilification laws.
The Jewish National Fund has also come under fire from the Muslim and Arab communities for hosting Lebanese-born American anti-Muslim/anti-Arab commentator Brigitte Gabriel.