Israel's Forest of Yatir to expand over Bedouin village

The JNF-sponsored Yatir Forest advances over a hill towards the Bedouin village of Atir. Photo: Amjad Iraqi / 972 Mag.
The JNF-sponsored Yatir Forest advances over a hill towards the Bedouin village of Atir. Photo: Amjad Iraqi / 972 Mag.
It should be good news, but it's not. Israel's largest man-made forest is set for enlargement, but at the expense of a village where a Bedouin community has lived since they were resettled there in 1956. Its sister village is to be demolished so a new Jewish town can be built on its ruins.
It is legally and morally absurd to remove hundreds of men, women and children from their homes just to replace them with a forest and Jewish town. It is racist and discriminatory at its core.

The forest of Yatir in Israel is a magnificent achievement. A mixed forest that has been progressively planted since 1966, it now covers 30 square kilometres of the northern Negev.

And as it has expanded, the forest has rolled back the desert on the arid heights north-east of Beersheba, replacing barren bones of rock and sand with 4 million mainly native trees: Jerusalem pine and cypress, Atlantic terebinth, tamarisk, Christ's-thorn jujube, carob, pistachio, olive, fig and acacia.

And now it is set for a significant expansion over the Bedouin village of Atir. There's just one problem: the Bedouin are still there. There are there legally. And they have no desire to leave.

Moreover the Bedouin were settled there by Irael itself, in 1956, when the military government moved the Bedouin Abu Al-Qi'an tribe to Atir, which is registered by Israel as state land, after their forced displacement from their original homes of Khirbet Zubaleh in 1948.

Trees before people. And one People, before another

"Apparently in Israeli democracy, the state is permitted to uproot Arabs from their homes and plant trees in their place", comments Ali Abu Al-Qi'an, a resident of Atir.

At first glance his comment would appear to be a joke or an exaggerated statement - but it is neither. In one sentence, Ali, an Arab Bedouin citizen of Israel, summarized the grim fate of his village of Atir, located in the Naqab (Negev).

The case of Atir is intricately tied with that of its neighboring twin village, Umm al-Hiran, where native Bedouin were also resettled in 1956. Decades later, in 2002, the state announced plans to retake the lands and buildings of Umm al-Hiran, and evict the residents again. The village will be demolished to build a Jewish town over its ruins.

And Atir is to be destroyed in order to expand the man-made forest of 'Yatir', which is sponsored by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Atir's 500 residents, like Umm al-Hiran's residents, will be relocated to the government-planned township of Hura.

A registed UK charity with distinguished patrons

The JNF, which counts Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Professor David Bellamy among its Patrons (and David Cameron too, until he was forced to resign in 2011) is a UK registered charity.

It is legally and morally absurd to remove hundreds of men, women and children from their homes just to replace them with a forest and Jewish town. It is racist and discriminatory at its core.

And it is curently raising funds to plant trees in Israel as "a meaningful way to commemorate special events such as births, anniversaries, weddings, bar / bat mitzvahs, birthdays, memorials and other occasions."

The pitch continues: "JNF UK will help you put down roots in Israel and commemorate a life, achievement or milestone of a loved one in a way that will provide long-term benefits to the people and land of Israel." But not, it would seem, for its non-Jewish Bedouin residents.

Atir is hardly the first case in which forestation has been used by Israel and the JNF as a method of displacement and land grabbing against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Another is the village of al-Arakib, which had to be demolished 18 times before its people were finally forced out in 2011.

In addition to designating areas as 'state lands' like in the Naqab and the occupied Jordan Valley, the policy is also facilitated by the Land Ordinance of 1943, a law dating to the British colonial mandate, which allows the state to confiscate and use lands for "public purposes."

The results of this policy have included the establishment of 'Ambassadors Forest' and 'God-TV Forest' over the lands of Al-Araqib in the Naqab; 'Ramot Menashe Park' over Lajoun in the Triangle; 'South Africa Forest' over Lubya in the Galilee; and 'Canada Park' over Imwas, Yalo and Beit Nouba outside Jerusalem, among many others.

As historian Ilan Pappe described, "wherever almond and fig trees, olive groves or clusters of cactus are found, there once stood a Palestinian village: still blossoming afresh each year, these trees are all that remain."

A legally sanctioned land grab

In a 2-1 ruling last month, the Israeli High Court acknowledged that the Bedouin residents were not on the lands illegally, as the state had claimed. However, the Court nevertheless approved the state's 'right' to carry out its agenda.

Justices Rubinstein and Hendel argued that the plan for the land was "sufficiently important to justify the alleged harms involved in its achievement." In other words, they had no objections to violating the Bedouins' rights in order for Jewish citizens and the Jewish National Fund to benefit in their stead.

"We went to the courts seeking justice, but the judges only gave a rubber stamp to the state's plans", said Ali. "They admitted that we were allowed on this land, and yet they still saw us as zo'ran('troublemakers')." With a chuckle, he added, "I suppose that somehow makes us 'licensed troublemakers'."

Justice Rubinstein added in the ruling that the state's offer to move the Bedouin villagers to Hura served as ample compensation for the residents to leave their villages. But this has been strongly refuted by the villagers, their attorneys, and the Hura Municipality.

"We have an expert opinion showing that not only are the Hura neighborhoods unready to absorb the villagers, but the municipality is dealing with a housing crisis and other social problems among the residents already living there", said Adalah Attorney Myssana Morany, one of the lawyers representing the village.

"Even so, regardless of any offers the state makes, it is still legally and morally absurd to remove hundreds of men, women and children from their homes just to replace them with a forest and Jewish town. It is racist and discriminatory at its core."

'This is our so-called democracy'

In an ironical twist, research carried out at Yatir Forest is pioneering methods that would allow the Bedouin to continue to graze their animals on forest land, without detriment. A study within Yatir Forest, reports the JNF, is investigating

"annual and multi-annual growth, where controlled grazing by flocks from local Bedouin villages is permitted within the forest; an arrangement has been in existence in the last few years to the mutual satisfaction of both KKL-JNF foresters and Bedouin owners of flocks."

With the imminent destruction of their villages, any "mutual satisfaction" is surely wearing thin among the Bedouin. But Ali retains hope that Atir's eviction can be forestalled, believing that public action and attention can help pressure the government and courts to reconsider their decision.

But he recognizes that the problem is much deeper than his own village's struggle, emphasizing that the state continues to view the native Arabs as people that did not belong to the land, regardless of their citizenship.

"We have Israeli IDs, we work, we respect the law, but this means little to the state. Instead they tell us that a plant brought over from Europe has more rights than a non-Jew who was born and raised here."

Scanning over the village, he shakes his head and says: "This is our so-called 'democracy'."



Amjad Iraqi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Tira who has lived between Israel/Palestine, Kenya and Canada. He works as projects & international advocacy coordinator at Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, based in Haifa.

This article is based on one originally published on 972 Mag with additional reporting by The Ecologist.

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