As recounted in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides, Theodore Herzl, father of modern Zionism, organized the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in August 1897. At Basle, his Zionist movement resolved to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The Congress also proposed setting up a financial institution to carry forward the Zionist idea. Thus the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was created with a mandate to acquire and develop the land in Palestine. The fund could lease the acquired lands to any Jew, body of Jews or to any company under Jewish control, but Arabs and non-Jews were prohibited from living on JNF land. Its mandate was to hold all such land in perpetuity on behalf of the Jewish People.

Little by little, the JNF began acquiring land as early as 1903 but it was during the British Mandate and its favorable policies toward the Jewish colonization of Palestine that the JNF, through trickery and manipulation, forced Palestinian farmers off their own land, thus acquiring ever larger parcels. In 1947-48, JNF President, Josef Weitz, hatched Plan Dalet, the campaign to ethnically cleanse some 500 Palestinian villages and expel their residents. Once the residents fled their villages the Jewish National Fund moved in and “acquired” for the State of Israel all “abandoned” land under the newly written Absentee Property Law.  This law was one of Israel’s major legal instruments for seizing Palestinian property left behind by the Palestinians who were forcibly displaced. The law is still in effect and is used to confiscate Palestinian property more than six decades later. Today 93% of all land is in the hands of the State of Israel.

After expelling the residents and destroying their villages, Weitz and his Jewish National Fund orchestrated the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees to cover up the scores of villages that had been ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias.

As early as 1910, the Jewish National Fund began planting trees in the Negev with the intent of not only making the desert bloom but eventually populating it with Jewish settlements. The problem was the presence of 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins.

In 1947 the Bedouins still owned and used 99% of the Negev lands. Today the Bedouins have trouble proving that ownership, which existed from the time of the Ottoman Empire, because during the war of ’48, Israeli authorities stole all Bedouin ownership papers and transferred them to the State Archive. The State of Israel is now expelling Bedouins from their own land, claiming that they have no official documents to prove their ownership.

Currently, Bedouin land-use for agriculture and grazing has been reduced to just 3%.  Most of their homes, made of corrugated iron, now sit on what Israel calls “unrecognized villages,” which means they do not officially exist and so have no water pipes, no electricity, no phone lines, no trash removal, sewer systems, schools or medical clinics and no way to acquire a building permit because their homes are illegal under Israeli law and therefore under threat of demolition.

These untenable conditions were purposely put in place by the Israeli government to force the Negev’s Bedouin community to finally accept “life in the Negev” on Israel’s terms which means “coerced urbanization,” the goal of which is to turn the Bedouin community into an “urban proletariat.”

On a recent visit to the Negev with Interfaith Peace Builders, Khalil, our Bedouin guide, showed us the “city” of Hura, one of the “established townships.” It consists of rows and rows of non-descript industrial looking two story cement block buildings, housing some 10,000 people, on treeless lots with no room inside the city for livestock, an essential element to Bedouin livelihood and identity. These townships, presented as a carrot-and-stick arrangement, offer cheap land for housing and services such as electricity, water and roads versus remaining in unrecognized villages with no services and threat of demolition of property and livestock. Of the remaining 180,000 Bedouin living in the Negev, about half now live in concentrated towns.

The Jewish National Fund continues to play an integral role in the displacement of the Negev Bedouin tribes. They have spent the last 106 years planting trees across the Negev for future Jewish settlements. Major forests, some with as many as 28 million trees, were starkly evident as we traversed the vast desert landscape.  In 2015, they announced plans to build five new Jewish settlements in the Negev, some on land still occupied by Bedouin.

According to Khalil, the Bedouin communities of Um Elheran and Attir are due to be uprooted and forcibly transferred to the “city” of Hura because JNF is building an Orthodox Jewish settlement and Yashiva school on their property.

Khalil grew up in the village of Al Sira which, until recently, also faced demolition orders. However, unlike the other two villages, after eight years in court, Al Sira finally won its legal appeal and was granted permission to stay-at least for now. Perhaps their “win” is because Al Sira sits right next to an “under the radar” American military base and the noise of incoming and outgoing planes would be disruptive to any Jewish settler hoping for a quiet desert life.

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