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Using Afforestation to Oust the Rightful Owners

Finding New Ways of Resisting Policies of Displacement and Israelization

By Marwan Abu Freih
Translated by Hind Husseini

A continuation of the military control strategy that has been in place since the 1950s finds expression in the settler-colonialist crackdown on Arabs living in Bir al-Sabe’. While the makeup of Israel’s political coalitions has shifted several times in recent years, the attitude of Israeli institutions has remained consistent in maintaining this policy. This tactic is modeled after “Old Man” David Ben-Gurion. His objective was to settle the Naqab by sieging and squeezing as many Bir al-Sabe’ Arabs as possible into the smallest possible tract of land. The ultimate aim is the Judaization of the Naqab.

In the course of history, not only have tools and methods changed but also their names and organizational structures, with some governments using power and others repression. However, the deep attachment that Arabs have for their land in the Bir al-Sabe’/Naqab districts has ensured that all these attempts to grab Palestinian property and wipe away the Bedouin-Palestinian Arab legacy of the Naqab have failed.

New tools and strategies have been devised by the Israeli government in its aggressive campaign against the Arabs of Bir al-Sabe’. It portrays the Arab population in the Naqab as a violent culture that does not respect the law and that constitutes a threat to the state. The most notable example of this strategy is calling the struggle of these Arab communities as they defend their land and houses a security issue. These misrepresentations aim to facilitate and legitimize tools of oppression and uprooting and justify the use of excessive violence and colonial methods to plunder lands. They are part of an ongoing campaign of provocation against Naqab inhabitants, carried out under the pretense of strengthening law abidance while aiming to control the Naqab’s Arab citizens.

In line with such strategies and acts of provocation, the Israeli government depicts them as invaders on property that belongs to the state and has adopted an afforestation policy in order “to safeguard state land.” Currently, this afforestation has evolved from the mere planting of trees and cultivation of forests into a military war waged against the land’s rightful owners in various locations in the Naqab. It has become a covert weapon of the Israeli armed forces and its security and intelligence organizations.

Photo by Mohammad Badarnah.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) owns around 2.6 million dunams of land, and Israel controls 93 percent of all public lands, which adds up to nearly 22 million dunams. However, a significant portion of these lands belong to Palestinians, including villages that were uprooted or destroyed and territories seized from Arabs under numerous confiscation laws.

Recent developments in the Naqab shed light on the attempts undertaken by the Israeli government to settle land disputes, confiscate land, and impose control over the largest possible number of acres owned by Arabs. These measures have been implemented as part of a military strategy that is part of a series of more comprehensive measures that aim to seize the lands of the Naqab: The JNF in cooperation with the Israel Land Administration (ILA) afforest lands in the Naqab. They do this even though the question of the ownership of these lands – which are referred to as “settlement lands” – is still unresolved, and these lands are currently subject to property registration procedures. This indicates that the process of afforesting Naqab lands is an imposition of facts on the ground that aim to deny the people their right to own property. It seizes lands from their rightful owners and transfers them to the JNF. As a result, both the Land Settlement Act and the Forestry Act are violated. This is done with the collaboration of Israeli security forces and under the protection of the Yoav Police Unit and members of ILA.

A map illustrating part of the Naqab lands proposed for afforestation under the pretext of “protecting state
lands” by the “Scoop Committee.” Source: Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), 2020.

Large troops of police and special forces impose a siege on the area to be afforested, put up police checkpoints, and repress all types of protests. For example, they utilize undercover units to carry out arrests, which is a discriminatory practice that comes under the category of ethnic classification. In addition, they use shock grenades, rubber bullets, and internationally prohibited tear gas, which they administer via drones. This accounts for only a minor portion of the overall violent police repression carried out against Arabs by armed Israeli police forces. They do this under the guise of permitting the JNF to afforest the Naqab, proceeding in a manner that resembles military campaigns and exemplifies the colonial practices employed by the Israeli government.

The policy of afforesting lands under the pretext of “protecting state lands” is not new, nor is it the product of recent governments. The most recent implementation was developed in response to a petition from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, submitted in 2015 (15/8391), upon which the Israeli government established the Scoop Committee. This committee was tasked with defending Israel’s territory against invaders in specific emergency situations when there is an imminent threat to state territory. However, these so-called invaders are the rightful owners of the lands yet invisible citizens in the eyes of the military ruler.

In fact, the Scoop Committee is a dictatorial committee chaired by a representative of the ILA. It includes representatives from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Planning Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, two observers from the JNF, and the government’s legal adviser. The committee meets in full secrecy and then provides to the Israeli authorities, including the ILA, its proposals and plans for afforestation of lands in the Naqab and historical Palestine. This is done without the District Planning and Building Committee’s authorization to avoid giving “invaders” an opportunity to “seize” state lands. Accordingly, by proposing to plant trees and uproot people, this committee illegally abuses its authority and steals lands under the guise of preventing “invaders,” implying that the Bedouins are invaders. Through all this, it attempts to convince landowners to use the courts to settle ownership disputes by enforcing a unilateral solution.

“This is racism, they don’t want you here,” a 70-year-old man told me a few days ago, as the ILA prepared to confiscate 1,200 dunams of land that he had inherited from his father and grandfather to be afforested by the JNF. We are the rightful owners of this land, and they are the invaders. We are here to plant wheat and hope.

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