Jerusalem24 – This report is the first of a special series in which we explore the topic of greenwashing, a practice environmentalists and Palestinian rights activists have accused Israel of engaging in. Israel internationally projects an image of a leading force in innovation in environmental protection, while simultaneously enacting policies of environmental destruction and depletion of resources in occupied Palestine. Such tactics to deflect attention from wrongdoing are known as “washing.”
Current climate change trends, the effects of which are already felt in rural Palestine, make it particularly urgent to raise such a topic. The following report examines Israeli practices of deforestation and afforestation, and how both are used to the detriment of the indigenous Palestinian population.
“Making the desert bloom”
The creation of Israel in 1948 required an enormous input of funding. One of the early slogans adopted in rallying international solidarity and interest, still in use today, is that of “making the desert bloom.” However, ancient agricultural terraces, groves of centuries-old olive trees, as well as local agricultural practices handed down generation after generation belie this trope.
Nevertheless, one organization in particular has been capitalizing on international interest in environmental causes to pursue its policy of settlement in all of Historic Palestine.
Israel’s Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a fund that works to promote Israel internationally as a green-friendly and powerful ally of nature. The fund collects donations from all over the world by offering to plant trees in someone’s name for a fee of between $18 and $5,000.
According to the JNF website, they have planted over 250 million trees since 1901. “JNF strives to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is “greening” the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks across Israel, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid agriculture techniques and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.”
But while JNF afforestation policies are used to keep Bedouins from returning to live on their lands after the frequent displacements they face at the hands of Israeli forces, most notably in the Negev, deforestation practices in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are used to force Palestinians to abandon their agricultural lands, in addition to causing widespread damage to existing established ecosystems.
Olives: A cultural and traditional agricultural heritage
The lands of Palestine are particularly fertile, and by the 1930s, despite the industrial revolution, over 50% of the population was still primarily agrarian. Olives and olive oil remain one of the principal agricultural outputs in Palestine to this day, with most families growing at least a certain number of them on privately-owned lands. Olive trees comprise well over half of the total number of trees in Palestine.
However, over the last 30 years, Israeli forces and settlers have uprooted around 2.5 million trees in the occupied West Bank, according to Executive Director of the Palestinian Farmers’ Union Abbas Melhem.
“The policy of uprooting and destroying trees, especially olive trees, is a policy used by the Israeli occupation since 1967,” Melhem tells Jerusalem24. “In the last three decades around 2.5 million trees were uprooted using different arguments and excuses. Most of those trees are olive trees.”
A strategic plan to take over
Melhem says tree uprooting is used as a tool by Israeli forces and settlers for land takeover in Area C – especially, he says, since the end of the last decade, as these takeovers were used in conjunction with “annexation policies implemented by the Israeli government in 2020 that aims for full control over area C classified land which amounts to 60% of the West Bank.”
“Area C is filled with natural resources that are crucial for agricultural activities, in other words, those areas are fertile and full of needed water resources,” Melhem explains. “This is what makes the lands in Area C a target for the Israeli army as well as settlers who attack those lands and the Palestinians living there.”
“This is a strategic plan by the Israeli occupation and it has been implementing this for decades.”
Melhem says all of the incidents of violence and takeovers that have taken place since 2020 are “all related”: “If you review the numbers and figures of settler violence and attacks in 2021, it was the highest since 1967.”
Palestinians challenge occupation by cultivating their land
According to a report by Land Research Center (LRC) the number of trees attacked in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for the year 2021 – including uprooting, cutting, burning, poisoning, and drowning in wastewater – totaled 17,755. More than half (9,965) were olive trees. The number of trees that were completely destroyed as a result of the attacks numbered 13,845. Of the 255 attacks recorded, 58 were carried out by Israeli forces and 167 by Israeli settlers.
The report shows a total of 345,936 trees attacked between 2008 and 2021.
Melhem explains that in order for the Israeli authorities to take over lands cultivated by Palestinian farmers, “destroying and removing what exists on them [lands] is a must – and the first thing they do, if that land has trees, they uproot those trees, as well as destroy any agricultural infrastructure that exists in those lands.”
This practice of destruction, he explains, makes the lands left behind “an easy hunt for confiscation and annexation.”
“I’m calling for immediate intervention from the government to provide a package of incentives for farmers living in Area C in order to support their resilience to stay on their farms.”
“There are different levels of harassment, violations and attacks that the Israeli occupation and settlers do against Palestinian farmers,” Melhem continues to explain, “in order to make it so it’s impossible for farmers in Area C to continue as farmers.”
“Those policies and actions cause huge financial losses and damage to the Palestinian farmers, and they cannot face alone those targeted attacks on them by the settlers and Israeli occupation forces.”
Melhem draws attention to a long-standing Palestinian tradition of “resistance through existence”: “Israeli plans to take control of those areas will always be challenged by Palestinians living and cultivating it, as long as those lands are cultivated.”
A call to support the resilience of farmers
Melhem concludes the interview with a call to “support the resilience of the farmers on their land, and provide them with the minimum requirements to stay and continue as farmers.”
He also calls on the Palestinian Authority to designate an “emergency fund owned by the government, and that would encourage any agricultural investment in Area C lands.”
“I’m calling for immediate intervention from the government to provide a package of incentives for farmers living in Area C in order to support their resilience to stay on their farms and to be able to counter the daily harassments and attacks against them by settlers and Israeli occupation forces.”
The Palestinian Farmers’ Union held a conference in October 2021 titled “Encouraging Agricultural Investment in Area C” that was attended by the prime minister, minister of labor, minister of agriculture, and a representative of the minister of economy.
The Union produced a policy document suggesting measures to support the resilience of Area C farmers, including tax exemptions, tax refunds, subventions for fodder for livestock, revising the tariff on water in Area C, and implementing measures of support to pump water and irrigate farms in Area C.
During the conference, the prime minister officially adopted all recommendations in the policy document. Melhem tells Jerusalem24 that the Union will soon be conducting an assessment of the government’s implementation of the recommendations as well as preliminary impacts on farmers.
Melhem believes that the need for action is not just a local issue. “There should be immediate action taken by the government, donors’ agencies, the international community, NGOs… Otherwise, in years to come, we will really lose that area, and it will be completely annexed and taken over by the Israeli occupation forces for the benefit of the settlers’ use.”