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Attack on JNF’s theft of names and land

The article about South African ambassador Ismail Coovadia is followed by one about the JNF’s repeated efforts to build a forest over Al Arakib. Notes and links at end.


British Park, Israel, funded by British supporters of JNF. It is built over the ruins of two forcibly depopulated Palestinian villages, Ajjur and Zakariyya.

Not in my name, rages SA diplomat

By Fatima Asmal, Mail and Guardian
June 14, 2013

A furious Ismail Coovadia has repudiated a bid to ‘honour’ him with trees planted on contested land.

The former South African ambassador to Israel says he’ll be returning a certificate informing him that 18 trees had been planted in his honour in an Israeli forest by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.

Ismail Coovadia, whose term came to an end in December last year, told the Mail & Guardian that when he returned to South Africa he opened the certificate, expecting it to acknowledge his period of ambassadorial service but was disturbed to learn that the trees had been planted in his name and without his permission in a forest planted by the JNF.

According to an article published by Human Rights Watch, “Erasing Links to the Land in the Negev”, the “Ambassadors Forest” was inaugurated in December 2005 and lies on the demolished Bedouin village of al-Araqib. It is one of several forests planted by the JNF in Israel.

Others include Switzerland Forest, Canada Park, British Park, Norwegian Kings Forest and South Africa Forest.

In a letter sent to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of South Africa, Coovadia stated that the certificate was “nothing less than an offence to his dignity and integrity”.

“Regrettably, my permission was not sought to plant a tree in my or the name of a South African ambassador on usurped land, the rightful land of the Palestinians and Bedouins. … I was not a party to, and never will be, to the planting of ’18 trees’, in my ‘honour’ on expropriated and stolen land.

“In view of this inhuman act against ordinary people, I shall be returning the ‘certificate’ to the director general of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs with a humble request to remove the “18 trees … planted … in my ‘honour’.”

Political point-scoring
Meanwhile, two members of Stop the JNF – a worldwide group which campaigns against the fund – Alan Horwitz and Shereen Usdin, said they had also received letters from the South African chapter of the organisation informing them that trees had been planted in their names. Horwitz said he believed this constituted a case of political point-scoring on the part of the JNF.

“They want to show us they can co-opt us in, whether we like it or not,” he said.

Hulda Forest, commemorating Theodor Herzl

Asked whether it was ethical to plant trees in the name of individuals without first acquiring their permission to do so, Amber Cummins the deputy director of JNF South Africa, said: “We are just the organisation that received the donation and were just carrying out the donor’s wishes.

“This was an unusual case. Usually it’s for their own family members that people make donations, for example people donate money to put up plaques in the name of their deceased parents. But in this case, we received an anonymous donation and were told to put up a plaque in their names [Horwitz and Usdin] and that’s what we did,” she said.

Cummins said the fund was responsible for forestry throughout Israel. It had “originated in 1901 as the financial arm of the Zionist movement and had distributed charity boxes to Jewish families all over the world into which people would put coins. The purpose was to purchase land wherever available in Palestine at full prices, from whomever was willing to sell it in the hope that this area would eventually become Israel,” she explained.

Mount Gilboa overlooks the famously fertile and cultivated Jezreel valley -invisible to  Zionist eyes . Laurence Oliphant described it in 1887 as “a huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned mounds rising from it like islands; and it presents one of the most striking pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to conceive.”

“In terms of Ottoman Law, if one purchased land and one wasn’t a resident on that land, one way of securing the land was to plant trees on it. So this became a major focus of the JNF. At that time the land was as barren as is possible – the greening of the land was very important to the pioneers as well as in terms of settling the land, and it was also beneficial to the entire Middle East in terms of the benefits of afforestation.”

Forcibly depopulated
Cummins said that there are now about 260-million trees in Israel.

JNF South Africa is largely responsible for South Africa Forest, which is featured in a documentary, The Village under the Forest, that recently premiered at the Encounters Film Festival.

In her production notes, filmmaker Heidi Grunebaum writes that the forest was planted on a destroyed Palestinian village “Lubya was forcibly depopulated in mid-July 1948 by Israeli military units, during what is called The War of Independence in Israeli nationalist histories and what Palestinians call the Nakba [Catastrophe],” she wrote.

However, Cummins questioned whether Lubya* existed in 1948.

“The information I’m getting from Israel – which is not confirmed –indicates that it didn’t even exist at the time of 1948. It had, in fact, been destroyed many years before that and nobody had even lived there; it was just rubble with a few structures and olive trees and they are trying to investigate that now.”

Grunebaum said that Palestinian oral historian Dr Mahmoud Issa wrote a book about Lubya, in which his parents had lived.

“His book is based on years of archival research and on oral recordings from 700 interviews with Lubyans inside Israel, in the Palestinian diaspora in Arab countries and in European countries.”

Self-exile claim ‘is a fabrication’

Every year on May 15 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba (Catastrophe) in remembrance of the displacement that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.

According to the Jewish National Fund’s Amber Cummins, 711000 Arabs left their homes voluntarily “in the face of the war of aggression against Israel”.

“We know that at the time that Israeli independence was declared, the surrounding Arab countries called on Arabs who lived in Israel to move out, to flee, promising them a swift victory over Israel and that they would wipe Israel off the face of the map whereupon they would be able to return to their homes with more land than they had before.

“With that … Arabs left voluntarily. There was no expulsion/nakba, it was an evacuation, a voluntary evacuation, they fled. Everybody was leaving, so in all probability, the people who didn’t want to leave also left when they saw those people leaving,” she said. “Israel didn’t have the military force available to expel these people. Most of them were Holocaust survivors being pushed from pillar to post around Europe. The whole country had three or five tanks. It is made out that this vicious Israeli army carried out this expulsion. How could they have?”

But Ran Greenstein, a professor of sociology at Wits University who specialises in the study of Israeli/Palestinian and South African history and politics said that the facts of the war were well documented by Israeli historians, Palestinians scholars, as well as the verbal accounts of survivors on both sides. “The Institute of Palestine Studies has created a site that includes dozens of memoirs, analyses and records about the Nakba,” he pointed out.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who directs the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said: “It’s a fabrication that there was a call from the Arabs to leave. The professional Israeli historiography found out that there was no such call. Recently, in Haaretz, it was revealed how this lie was marketed after the war as part of a propaganda effort to cover the ethnic cleansing.

“Arab armies entered Palestine on May 15 1948, when 300 000 Palestinians had already become refugees. By that time, the whole Palestinian population of Haifa and Jaffa, nearly 110000 people altogether, had been expelled. The Arab governments did not want to send in their armies, but after the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9 1948, there was public pressure to stop the ethnic cleansing and hence, the entrance of the armies to Palestine.”


Sheikh Sayakh standing on a concrete slab, all that remains of one of the houses in Al-Arakib.

The Negev: A Bedouin Village versus a JNF Forest

By Allen Katzoff, Times of Israel
March 15, 2012

 There was a clear blue sky after many days of rain when we drove to Al-Arakib near Be’er Sheva down in the Negev. The air was cool but the sun was strong. All around us the desert was in bloom as we turned onto the dirt road, passed a small cemetery on the left and pulled up before a large three-sided Bedouin tent. In the distance I could see groves of trees on higher ground. But the surroundings around the tent were barren, just sandy ground and rocks. I was soon to find out why.

I was visiting Al-Arakib with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Director of Special Projects at Rabbis for Human Rights, on one of his regular visits to the area. The Bedouin in the Negev have become a particular concern for Arik. His organization’s focus is based on the biblical precept that all people are created in the image of God (B’tzelem Elokim) and that Jews have a moral obligation to fight injustice wherever it occurs.

Soon after we were seated on carpets in the tent, Sheikh Sayakh, an older distinguished-looking man wearing a keffiyeh, entered and grasped Arik’s hand between his, smiling broadly and greeting him warmly like a dear friend. While traditional Bedouin coffee was served, I heard the village’s story.

A row of saplings recently planted by the JNF close to Al-Arakib. These plantings are rapidly encroaching on what used to be the center of the village.

For generations, the people of Al-Arakib lived on their land, farming and herding sheep and goats. Olive orchards surrounded the village. In 1951, the villagers complied with a government request to leave their land for six months to make room for army exercises. Subsequently they were not allowed to return. Israel then expropriated the land without compensation claiming it was not legally owned. The village residents did not learn of the seizure until twelve years ago when they returned to live on their ancestral lands upon hearing that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was to blanket their village and fields with a forest.

Today the issue is in court proceedings. Villagers still have receipts of land taxes they paid during the Ottoman and British Mandate periods as well as their traditional land purchase contracts that were recognized as valid by those governments. However, because actual land registration under the Ottomans and British was fragmentary, the residents of Al-Arakib, like most other Bedouin in the Negev, have no registry deeds.

Al-Arakib is one of 35 Bedouin settlements in the Negev, all in the same predicament. Most of these villages, which account for 5% of the Negev, predate the establishment of the state but the government claims the Bedouin are illegal squatters. Almost all houses have demolition orders against them because building permits are unobtainable. The Bedouin pay taxes, their children serve in the Israeli army, and many commute to jobs outside the villages. But they are not provided with electric or water hookups, sewers or trash collection. Yet they still choose their traditional lifestyle on their ancestral land in the desert.

The Israeli government perceives a demographic problem in the Negev: there are too many Bedouin and too few Jews. Last year the government approved the Prawer Plan that calls for the forced relocation of over 30,000 Bedouin from these villages into urban Bedouin towns. The towns are the poorest in Israel: crime-ridden, with severe housing shortages and sky-high unemployment. Once the villagers are removed, the JNF will plant forests and the state will build new towns to attract Jewish residents. Bedouin will not be welcome.

Which bring us back to Al-Arakib. On July 26, 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a warning that “a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.” The next day, over one thousand soldiers backed by helicopters and bulldozers arrived at the village without warning. In three hours they demolished the homes of three hundred people. No one was allowed to remove their belongings before the demolitions. Large items such as cars and generators were seized. One thousand olive trees were destroyed. (Click here to view a video of that day). [English subtitles]

The residents of Al-Arakib decided not to leave since leaving would have surrendered their land forever. They immediately scavenged through the wreckage for materials to build temporary shelters. The army returned eight days later to demolish those. And the process then repeated itself. The latest demolition was number 33. The remaining villagers now have their makeshift shelters and some prefab buildings in the old village cemetery. That affords them some protection because the government so far dares not intrude on sacred Muslim ground.

Sheik Sayakh walked with us through the remaining land of the village. Here and there were some concrete slabs, remnants of the old houses. But miraculously, small olive saplings were sprouting from the stumps of the old trees. Apparently olive trees are hard to kill unless you dig out the entire root system. A few hundred meters away, the JNF had just planted rows of samplings, bringing the forest much closer to the village. Soon eucalyptus trees will be planted all through that area, but scattered among them as they grow will be hundreds of olive trees, a living memorial to what once was.

Al-Arakib is emblematic of what will happen when the Prawer Plan is implemented. Thousands of Bedouin view the village as a trial run for what will befall them. A friend of mine, who has spent decades working in Bedouin towns, says the young, who in the past might have served in the army and gone to college, are becoming alienated and radicalized. In a recent press report it was recounted how a young Bedouin, who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.

 Notes and Links

* Documentary uncovers Lubya, The Village Under The Forest“The hidden remains of the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya, which lie beneath the purposefully cultivated South Africa Forest, are the subject matter of a new documentary called The Village Under The Forest, which will premier in Africa at the Encounters Documentary Festival in June 2013.

Directed by Emmy-winner Mark J Kaplan and written and narrated by scholar and author Heidi Grunebaum, The Village Under The Forest unfolds as a personal meditation from the Jewish diaspora.

Israeli policies of dispossession reminiscent of South African apartheid, Al Jazeera, October 2012, critique of JNF from South African anti-apartheid perspective.

Trees in, Palestinians out, Robert Cohen, January 2013.

The Jewish National Fund was set up in 1901 to buy land for Jewish settlement in Palestine. It became, with its collection boxes, the single most important financial and sentimental tie between pre-Israel Jews and land in Palestine. It is now effectively an agency of the Israeli government, owning over 13% of all the land and presenting itself as primarily an environmental agency. Central to this claim is its Blueprint Negev.

The JNF collection box, distributed from 1904 to about 1 million Jewish homes to ‘redeem’ the land from Ottoman, then British, control.

Stop the JNF campaign

About: What is the campaign to stop the JNF?

Stop the JNF is an international campaign aimed at ending the role of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeIsrael) (JNF-KKL) in:

the on-going displacement of indigenous Palestinians from their land
the theft of their property
the funding of historic and present day colonies, and
the destruction of the natural environment.

The JNF continues to serve as a global fundraiser for Israeli ethnic cleansing, occupation and apartheid. Despite its role in a State institution of Israel (the Israel Land Authority) and in institutionalized racism and apartheid, the JNF and its affiliate organizations enjoy charitable status in over 50 countries and many also enjoy consultative status with the United Nations.

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