A wildfire ravaged the hills west of Jerusalem in August, forcing over 2,000 settlers to evacuate their homes. Described as one of the worst wildfires in the history of the Zionist State, it devastated 2,000 hectares of forest and took three days to contain.

While the Israeli media unanimously lamented this apparent ecological disaster, the wildfires revealed an unexpected treasure: ancient Palestinian agricultural terraces, dating back to the 13th century, which had been utilized until the Zionists’ arrival. The planting of the forest had served to conceal the ruins of Palestinian villages and crops, feeding the myth of a land without people. A myth that the purifying fire completely debunked.

“Green Zionism” Serves Israeli Colonization

For years, Israel has strived to brand itself as a “green democracy,” concerned with biodiversity and the protection of natural spaces. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), founded in 1908, boasts of having planted more than 240 million trees since its creation. The Avalon-Canada Park – both a nature reserve and a museum of Zionism – is meant to showcase the State’s interest in conserving nature.

This environmental policy serves the unfounded narrative of a neglected, uninhabited, and devastated land.

This environmental policy serves the unfounded narrative of a neglected, uninhabited, and devastated land, far removed from the earthly paradise described in the Old Testament. “Green Zionism,” the ideology promoted by Jewish philosopher Aaron David Gordon, perpetuates the idea that the Jewish people have a duty to restore the Holy Land.

The tree-planting project was part of a national propaganda campaign launched by David Ben Gurion in the Knesset in 1951, during a speech in which he uttered the famous slogan: “Make the desert bloom.”  According to the Zionist leader, the new State needed to “repair the degradation caused to the territory” by “covering with wood all the mountains of the country and their slopes, all the hills and rocky lands, the dunes of the coast, the arid lands of the Negev.”

The aim was threefold: to create a link between the settlers and their new land, to shape a new “Jewish” landscape, and to provide work for the labor force packed in the Kibbutzim.

Israel forests Palestinians

The Yatir Forest in the Negev desert. (Photo: ALAMY)

The afforestation policy thus played an essential role in the creation of a national identity and in rooting Jews in Palestine by establishing a continuous presence along the coast and inland. Indeed, Article 78 of the Ottoman land code, still in force, allows anyone who cultivates or plants trees on a land to claim its ownership. It also provides that uncultivated territory becomes State land, which allowed Israel to seize tens of hectares of land after the forced evacuation of 400 Palestinian villages during the Nakba of 1948.

Afforestation Campaigns Deny the Right of Return

In this regard, Abeer Butmeh, an environmental activist at the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, believes that “the Jewish National Fund plants trees in Palestinian villages that have been forcibly emptied, to deny them the right to return.” In an interview with Inside Arabia, she added that the true function of such campaigns was to “cover up the reality of these villages and erase the Palestinian heritage.”

“The Jewish National Fund plants trees in Palestinian villages that have been forcibly emptied, to deny them the right to return.”

Indeed, according to a study by the Israeli non-profit Zochrot, about 200 depopulated Palestinian villages are concealed within Israeli forests and nature reserves. Among the 68 forests and parks owned by the JNF, 46 conceal 89 Palestinian villages.

Thus, Israel’s afforestation policy does not serve an environmental objective, but a political one: to deny the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and to erase all material traces of their history and presence.

It also serves a security purpose, as indicated in the official booklet of the Jewish National Fund in 1955. The manual states the forests are designed to protect the State from external intrusions by reducing the chances of air or ground strikes, and by hiding fortified positions. Even nowadays, forests are planted around the Gaza Strip as a last line of defense for Israeli cities. As for the trees in Canada Park, they are part of the group of forests that reinforce the Green Line.

“Most of the environmental offenses that we are dealing with regard tree planting by settlers,” Butmeh shared, adding that such actions are a weapon for the colonization of Palestinian land. “It is useless to lodge a complaint, as the court systematically issues a verdict in favor of the settlers. We had a case against the Jewish National Fund; we lost it, and it became the legal owner of the land one week after the verdict,” she said. Butmeh further highlighted that Israel controls more than 65 percent of the land in the West Bank.

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Environmental Colonialism’s Disastrous Consequences

In 2016, Israel’s Likud party accused the Palestinians of being behind the wildfires in the Haifa area, calling it an “Intifada of flames.” The same accusations were reiterated regarding the recent Jerusalem forest fires.

Such allegations reveal how trees constitute a strong national referent, as well as a form of territorial imprint. “Israeli settlers usually uproot the original, local trees to plant foreign species originated from Europe,” Butmeh explained, and it has been estimated that indigenous species only makes up 11 percent of Israeli forests. “Olive trees are the symbol of Palestine, whereas pines are seen as Israeli trees.” One in three trees in Israel is a pine, she said.

As an inexpensive and fast-growing species, the Aleppo pine is massively planted in the occupied territories. It is interesting to note that the settlers, mainly from Eastern Europe, have imposed a personal vision of their landscape, as Israeli forests are now reminiscent of northern European forests. By this act, the settlers have appropriated a territory conquered by force, imposing their own notion of nature. The native olive, carob, and pistachio trees are therefore uprooted in favor of European conifers and eucalyptus.

The native olive, carob, and pistachio trees are uprooted in favor of European conifers and eucalyptus.

This choice is far from trivial and has disastrous environmental consequences according to Abir Butmeh. “These trees are not adapted to the Palestinian [climate]; they are unable to absorb the sunlight and actually contribute to global warming,” she said.

Exogenous species often fail to acclimate to the local soil and demand frequent replanting. Moreover, they are very water-intensive in a water-stressed region and are unable to resist local diseases. Finally, they are the main cause of forest fires in the region, as they are not able to resist high temperatures.

Israeli Occupation Worsens the Environmental Crisis 

Ultimately, Israel’s occupation plays a major role in exacerbating environmental problems in Palestine, even though on the surface initiatives like the JNF’s forestation program would suggest otherwise.

“The Jewish National Fund is a colonial organization using greenwashing to legitimize its actions,” Abir Butmeh declared. She pointed out that the organization directly owns 13 percent of Israeli land and controls another 80 percent. “Actually, Palestinians are the victims of environmental abuses from the Israeli State, not the contrary,” she further asserted, since the Israeli authorities seem to uproot trees more than they plant new ones.

For instance, in January 2021, the Israeli army uprooted more than 10,000 trees – including 300 olive trees – in a natural reserve situated in the north of the West Bank. The reserve had been reforested eight years ago, as part of the “Greening Palestine” project. The occupier justified this act by classifying the area as a “military zone.” In response, Palestinians quickly mobilized to replant trees in the aftermath of the operation. As of today, 95 percent of Gaza’s forests have disappeared due to Israeli bombing.

As of today, 95 percent of Gaza’s forests have disappeared due to Israeli bombing.

Israel’s “green democracy,” which prides itself on having restored the prosperous biblical landscapes, is at the same time conducting a campaign of devastation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many activists have pointed out the over-pumping of ground water aquifers, along with the dumping of toxic waste and industrial pollutants into Palestinian villages. Israeli authorities are deliberately poisoning Palestinian land and fields.

While the JNF claims to be combating “desertification” by planting trees and other means, this sly form of colonization is actually encouraging desertification. The foreign trees planted by the Israelis only serve to bury the atrocities that allowed the existence of the Zionist state. Atrocities that have now been brought to light.