What’s happening in the Naqab? Israel uproots Palestinians to plant trees

The conflict in southern Israel, a region that includes Bedouin villages unrecognised by the state, has divided the Israeli government (AFP)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  January 14, 2022

Over the past week dozens of Palestinians in the Naqab (Negev Desert) in southern Israel have been injured and arrested, as Israeli police cracked down on protests against a forestation campaign by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) that is threatening the livelihood of Bedouin communities in the area.  

Videos and photos of Israeli police violently suppressing Palestinian Bedouins in the Naqab have been flooding social media, as the campaign to #savethenaqab gained momentum amidst growing Israeli efforts to forcibly expel Palestinians from their lands. 

Over the past week dozens of Palestinians in the Naqab (Negev Desert) in southern Israel have been injured and arrested, as Israeli police cracked down on protests against a forestation campaign by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) that is threatening the livelihood of Bedouin communities in the area.  

The protests are focused in the Al-Naqe area of the Naqab, a fertile area of land in the desert, which is home to around 30,000 Palestinians living in a cluster of several Bedouin villages. 

Since December the JNF, a quasi-governmental agency that works to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine, has been razing Palestinian lands and uprooting trees belonging to Bedouin communities in the Al-Naqe area, in order to prepare the area for forestation. 

The JNF’s campaign in the Naqab, which is taking place under the full supervision and assistance of the Israeli police, has sparked widespread protests by the Palestinian Bedouin communities in the area, who say the forestation campaign is just another effort by the state to dispossess them from their land. 

The protests have been met with violent suppression by Israeli forces. Videos and photos on social media have shown Israeli forces teargassing and violently detaining protesters, as well as demolishing tents in the area. 

Middle East Eye reported that over the past few days, Isralei police have arrested at least 35 Palestinians from the Sa’awa and Al-Atrash villages in the Al-Naqe area. Al-Jazeera reported that more than 80 Palestinians, including minors, have been detained since the protests began, with the “vast majority” still in detention. 

Local media also reported Israeli police setting up checkpoints and blocking the entrances and exits to villages in the area in order to prevent people from attending the protests, which have swelled in recent days, and which have sparked solidarity protests in other Palestinian cities in Israel. 

A history of violence & displacement

The Naqab makes up around half of Israel’s entire land mass, and is home to an estimated 300,000 Palestinian Bedouins who hold Israeli citizenship. 

The Bedouins living in the Naqab today are the descendants of those who remained after an estimated 80,000-90,000 Bedouins were forced to flee the area during the Nakba in 1948. 

Around half of the Bedouins living in the Naqab today reside in 40 “unrecognized” villages, which Israel refers to as “illegal clusters.” Despite the fact that many of the Bedouins are living on the ancestral homelands, while others were internally displaced after 1940, Israel views them as “trespassers” on their land and does not recognize their ownership over the land. 

Due to their “unrecognized” status, Israel does not offer the Bedouins living in these communities any services and they are excluded from state planning. That means they have no local councils, are offered little-to-no government services in terms of education and sanitation, and are not connected to the electric grids or water networks. 

As their communities and homes are considered “illegal”, these communities are also under constant threat of demolition, with Israel having destroyed some villages close to 200 times

For decades the state has aimed to remove these communities from their homes and put them in planned residential areas, which rights groups say amounts to forcible transfer, a war crime under international law. All the while, Israel has invested billions of shekels to develop and promote Jewish settlement in the area.

The JNF: Colonialism disguised as environmentalism 

Founded in 1901 as a non-governmental organization, the JNF was established to purchase land for European Jews to settle in Palestine, and eventually create and maintain a Jewish-majority state. 

Historically, the early founders of the JNF advocated for the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians from their land in order to create a Jewish state, and the destruction of Palestinian villages during the Nakba. 

While the JNF touts itself as an environmental organization, most famous for its tree-planting initiatives in Israel, such initiatives are designed to cover up the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that took place in the year leading up to and after 1948, or in the case of the Naqab today, to actively dispossess Palestinian communities. 

The areas where the JNF plants its forests — which are donated in large part by Jewish communities in the US and other countries —  are often the sites of destroyed Palestinian villages, which organizations like the JNF aim to erase any existence of. 

Today, the JNF owns an estimated 15% of all the land in Israel, and continues to promote racist, anti-Palestinian policies that result in the continued dispossession of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. 

In occupied East Jerusalem, the JNF has been tied to shadowy purchases of Palestinian homes which the organization then turns over to Israeli settler groups. In the West Bank purchases privately owned Palestinian land in Area C — where Palestinians are not allowed to build — for settlement expansion and construction.

Inside Israel itself, the group has worked with the Israeli government to make it nearly impossible for the country’s Palestinian citizens to gain access to state lands for residential, commercial and agricultural use. In the Negev desert, the group has advocated for the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin villages in order to plant trees as part of its “Ambassadors Forest” initiative. 

All of the JNF’s activities in Israel and Palestine are subsidized by American taxpayers, as the organization is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and takes in millions of dollars a year in tax-deductible contributions and grants in the US. 

 Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss