When, earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron announced he was stepping down as patron of an environmental and humanitarian charity few people in Britian took notice. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) UK, an organisation that prides itself on making the desert bloom in Israel, does not have the coverage of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth.
Yet for some it was highly significant: activists from the Stop the JNF campaign declared it a small victory in their bid to have the outfit's charity status revoked in the UK. It is the first time JNF UK has not had a British Prime Minister as patron since its inception more than one hundred years ago. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, however, are still listed as honorary patrons.
Stop the JNF had written an open letter to the Prime Minister in May asking him to reconsider his position as patron. They accused the charity, along with its Israeli counterpart KKL-JNF [Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – KKL – in Hebrew], of being historically complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians, particularly through the afforestation of land they allege was stolen from Arab villages during Israel's creation in 1948. However, the accusations contained in Stop the JNF's letter were not reportedly amongst Cameron's reasons for leaving.
'The charitable status of the JNF UK should be nullified as the first step towards nullification of its tax exemption and towards declaring the JNF an illegal organisation in the UK,' says Dr. Uri Davis, a professor of Israel studies at the Palestinian Al-Quds University. 'Because the JNF is complicit in crimes against humanity by developing the British Park over ruins of two ethnically cleansed Arab villages inside the Green Line, inside what is conventionally regarded as Israel proper.'
During the 1950's, JNF UK used money from its donors to establish the British Park, which activists claim is planted over the ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages, Ajjur and Zakariyya, emptied by Israeli soldiers less than ten years earlier. Many residents fled to areas of the West Bank and across the border into Jordan, eventually ending up in UN refugee camps – where their families still live today.
JNF UK strongly denies any wrongdoing however: 'JNF does not plant trees on top of razed Arab villages,' chairman Samuel Hayek says. 'JNF is not a political organisation and does not get involved in Israel's political agenda. Money raised by JNF UK does not go towards any projects in the West Bank or Gaza.'
The JNF was set up in 1901 at the fifth Zionist Congress to obtain land in Palestine for the settlement of Jews, in preparation for what would eventually become the future state of Israel. It made its first purchase two years later and, according to the World Zionist Congress, 80 per cent of the Israeli population now live on land acquired by the JNF.
Today it is a global organisation with affiliate charities across the world, from Canada to Italy. After achieving NGO status in 2004, the KKL-JNF was invited to the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen and Cancun – holding seminars on the fringes in Mexico on the role of arid land forestry. The opening lecture was given by Itzik Moshe, the deputy director of KKL-JNF's southern region – an area dominated by the Negev desert, where afforestation and development projects are being pursued in earnest.
A promotional video on the JNF UK website states that 'developing the Negev is the primary mission of JNF UK', including schools and reservoirs to help 'modern pioneers' the Israeli government wants to settle in the desert. This includes the community of Haluzit, who lived in the illegal settlement Gush Katif on the Gaza Strip prior to Israel's withdrawal in 2005. The pictures of happy Jewish families belies the fact that the Negev is also the epicentre of the latest controversy involving the KKL-JNF.
A struggle for land
In the 1950s the Israeli government forced Bedouin people living in the Negev into a North Eastern corner of the desert called the Siyag ['closure'], turning the rest of the area into a closed military zone and citing 'temporary security concerns'. Instead of allowing the Bedouin to return to their villages the Israeli government began building planned townships at the start of the 1970s, where around half of the Negev Bedouin now live. They began encouraging limited Jewish settlement on the now vacated land.
A number of Bedouin have since returned and re-established villages, which the Israeli government refuse to recognise. Homes now face a constant threat of demolition; the village of al-Araqib has been destroyed more than twenty times since July 2010. Each time its 250 residents rebuild temporary tents in a simple act of defiance, only to watch them demolished again.
'Immediately after the establishment of the [Israeli] State, the Bedouins were forced to move to the Siyag, a triangle between Beersheba, Demona and Arad,' says Faisal Sawalha, from the Regional Council for the Arab Unrecognised Villages in the Negev. 'People who were living outside the Siyag had to leave their land. They are entitled to demand it when negotiating a solution with the government.'
The problem, argues the Israeli government, is that the Bedouin want the whole Negev – a claim Sawalha denies. 'This is not true. The Bedouin now claim the ownership of about five per cent only of the whole Negev. They are approximately twenty seven per cent of the population [of the Negev] and they are the indigenous population of this region,' he says.
One way to keep the Bedouin off the land is to plant trees, and Israel's government have signed agreements with the JNF giving them more access to the Negev. Now forests are springing up with the help of international donors, including Christian satellite channel GOD TV. A recent Amnesty International mission to the Negev reportedly witnessed KKL-JNF vehicles preparing land for afforestation on the outskirts of al-Araqib.
'Once the forest is there it means “you can graze on my land only with permission',”' says Prof. Avi Perevolotsky, who heads the Department of Agronomy and Natural Resources at Israel's Volcani Center, although he urges caution as to the culprits.
'I would not put the burden on the JNF here, it is a conflict between the state and the Bedouin; and the state is not that willing to resolve it because it is difficult to resolve. So they have ignored it over the years. But they encourage nature reserves and afforestation as a means to declare ownership.'
Yet the lines become blurred because of close links between the JNF and the Israeli Land Administration [ILA]. The administration is headed by a council comprising of 12 governmental representatives and ten from the KLL-JNF. In contrast to its afforestation programs, the ILA has been accused of uprooting Bedouin olive trees in the Negev. They are also the government agency responsible for managing state land and a driving force behind the demolition of Bedouin villages, critics say.
'I don't think the colonisation of the Negev could happen without the JNF, but it is complex because of the number of agencies and overlap,' says Jesse Benjamin, associate professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University, and a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. 'You have the JNF, the ILA, then you have municipal regional planning agencies. And they all collaborate to create what they call master plans for the development of the Negev.'
Managing the forests
Tied up within this political aspect is an ecological one. The KKL-JNF have planted over 240 million trees and since the late 1980s has repositioned itself as an environmental organisation. Whilst specialising in afforestation throughout its entire existence, it is argued by some that forestry management is not something KKL-JNF do particularly well. The majority of forests have been planted and maintained following a commercial model, lacking diversity and alien to local ecology.
'It is definitely a case of glass half full, half empty,' says Prof. Perevolotsky. 'On one hand they have this tremendous achievement of establishing, more or less, viable sustainable forests on a large area of Israel from nothing over the last one hundred years. On the other, they have not yet found the correct way to manage it that completely fits to the environment here.'
The KKL-JNF have been criticised for planting Aleppo pine forests, which are not native to all areas of Israel, as well as invasive species such as prosopis. Many of these forests are monocultures, making them susceptible to disease and adverse weather.
'If there is a problem like the drought we have been experiencing in recent years you may lose large areas of forest because it is even-aged monoculture,' says Prof. Perevolotsky. 'Fifteen to twenty years ago we had a problem with pathogens, so again we lost many trees and complete stands.' However he acknowledges the British Park is one of the better managed JNF forests.
Despite the criticism Samuel Hayek remains defiant. 'JNF UK is proud to be associated with the many important and vital accomplishments of KKL-JNF,' he says. 'JNF UK is independently operated but remains a close partner of KKL-JNF in many aspects of its work. JNF UK undertakes projects both in conjunction with and independent from the KKL-JNF.'
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