The Role of the Jewish National Fund in Impeding Land Rights for the Indigenous Bedouin Population in the Naqab

The Role of the Jewish National Fund in Impeding Land Rights for the Indigenous Bedouin Population in the Naqab

I grew up Jewish in the Naqab (Hebraized as Negev). As a child I enjoyed picnics in the Yattir forest, located in the northern Naqab. I asked how it could be that the man-made forest of Yattir is thriving, yet there were no natural forests in the surrounding area. I was told that it was because of the black goats of the Bedouin. They ate all the vegetation, making the land a desert. 

I was told that the government of Israel was extremely smart, and a way of preventing the Bedouin from destroying the land is by requesting that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant forests. The rest would be simple: the Green Patrol surveys the forests and makes sure there are no Bedouin and no black goats in the forests.

It was thus that I was introduced to the connection between the Naqab, forests, Jewish-Israelis, the JNF, Bedouin and black goats early on in my life: the Jewish-Israelis are the good-guys, and are lucky to have the JNF to plant forests and stop the bad-guy Bedouin from allowing their black goats turn the land into desert. The Green Patrol was there to make sure that the good-guys win.

This is a short essay describing in broad terms the relationships between the JNF and the Palestinian Bedouin of the Naqab. As the JNF’s “Blueprint Negev” project develops, there will be an increasing need to for further investigation based on documentary research on the intricate relationships between the Government of Israel and the JNF regarding land in the Naqab.

 The Bedouin of the Naqab

Numbering over 90,000 in 1947, the Palestinians of the Naqab owned and controlled 99% of the Naqab lands and constituted 99% of the population. Much of the land that had belonged to the tribe in the far past had been divided up among the extended families for agriculture: fields and orchards (in the dry river beds), and for family compounds. Further, the land was inherited by the sons, as it is to this day. The Ottoman, and after them the British Mandate, authorities requested that the land owners register their land holdings. The Bedouin of the Naqab had no reason to comply: it could be used against them as a mechanism for levying tax. Further, they had their own legal system that regulated land ownership, and had no need for the interference of a colonial power. Also, as opposed to other people under colonial rule, they had the ability to evade land registry and taxation due to their ability to leave the compound or move camp. The land that remained under tribal ownership was shared by all for pasture.

By 1951, after the waves of mass forced displacement (the Nakba), only 11,000 of the Palestinians of the Naqab remained within the borders of the new state of Israel. The others fled or were driven away. The remaining community was concentrated into a reservation-style area named the “Mantiqat al-Siyag” (the fence area), in the north-east of the Naqab, an area that accounts for just over 10% of the former land used by the Bedouin. The best lands in the western Naqab were immediately settled by Jews. With the help of water pumped in from elsewhere, this area has become the major source of grain in Israel. The process of concentration of the Bedouin community and land confiscation continues today, and is intensified by the ease with which the government of Israel refused to recognize customary and communal ownership of land most common in the Naqab, and using this in order to forcefully transfer all the Naqab lands to state ownership, for eventual use by Jews.

It is important to note that the confiscation of land, coupled with a complete disregard to creating other forms of income, has brought the Palestinian Bedouin community to dire poverty. Today, at least fifty percent of Bedouin families live below the poverty line.

 The JNF and Land

The Jewish National Fund was created in the early years of the Zionist movement, more than a century ago, as a mechanism to collect money and use it in the acquisition of land on which to build the Jewish state. The JNF’s constitution stipulates that once the land was acquired, it may not be sold to any person or body that is not Jewish. The lands purchased by the JNF before 1948, on the path to the creation of a Jewish state, were not transferred to this state once it was created. Further, the state of Israel from the start had allowed the JNF a major role in the management and ownership of all lands of the state, and this is the case until today.

The JNF has members on the board of directors of the Israeli Land Authority (ILA), the body governing state owned land. The problem is obvious: the JNF is a body that theoretically belongs to the Jewish people in their entirety, and most of the Jewish people are not citizens of Israel. Furthermore, the state of Israel has made the JNF one of the most powerful institutions in the regime over land within the state, but twenty percent of the state’s citizens, the Palestinians, are not Jewish. These Palestinians face a situation where the lands that belong to their country are governed in the name of a people, many of whom are not Israelis, whose purported interests are in taking away the ability of the Palestinian minority to keep control of their land. This is in addition to the fact that most of the land controlled by the JNF and the state of Israel was unjustly taken away from the majority of Palestinians to begin with, those who were expelled in the 1948 Nakba.

The JNF has maintained a positive reputation within the Jewish community, both in Israel and abroad. With this reputation, and armed with charitable status that provides tax deductions to its patrons, the JNF continues to collect donations from the wealthy Jewish community in the U.S. and elsewhere. This, coupled with its privileged status within Israel’s regime over land, has made the JNF one of the most powerful arms of the Zionist movement in legally hindering the Palestinians’ access to rights associated with use and ownership of land.

 The Ongoing Struggle over Land: the Bedouin, the State of Israel and the JNF

The government of Israel is utilizing the JNF to inhibit use of the Naqab lands by the Bedouin in two major ways: first by transferring land to the ownership of the JNF, thus limiting the ability of the Palestinians in the Naqab from ever having access to this land, and second by planting JNF forests on Palestinian land in the Naqab.

In July 2009, the State of Israel signed a “Land Swap Agreement” which transfers 50-60,000 dunams of what it calls “available and unplanned” land in the Naqab and in the Galilee to the JNF in exchange for JNF-owned land, mainly in the cities.1 Despite civil society requests to receive information regarding the location of the land that the JNF will receive in this deal, the JNF has not disclosed this information. In effect, the vast tracts of land that it will take control of will be transformed into lands that are inaccessible to the indigenous people of the area. Furthermore, while this process violates all sorts of human rights, it has been covered in a cloak of legality through legislation passed by the Knesset.

The government of Israel views much of the Palestinian Bedouin lands as its own. If any of these lands are transferred to the JNF, this would be one further step separating the rightful owners from their land. Further, there are several Palestinian villages on lands that may have been transferred to the JNF as part of the land swap. If the lands transferred to the JNF indeed do include such villages, then the JNF is obligated by its own laws to displace these villagers. In all cases, this amounts to an abominable use of power by the government of Israel to deny the rights of the indigenous people of the Naqab. Even assuming the lands being transferred to the JNF are not included in either of these categories, then the JNF will “develop” the land, establishing new exclusively Jewish settlements, and in effect denying any Palestinians the ability to purchase homes or lands within these new settlements, as it has done time and again in other parts of the country.Nuri el-Uqbi , by acacia tree planted bu the JNF on his ancestral land in the villige of El-Araqib

 Forestation by the JNF

After the establishment of the state, the main function of the JNF as the procurer of lands had largely been fulfilled. The JNF repackaged the way it represented its function as that of an environmental organization collecting money for the planting of trees and other “green” services. The JNF became associated with forestation. Jewish community organizations displayed their “blue box,” into which children and other community members would put coins to plant forests in Israel. This became one of the basic acts of education to mobilize support for Zionism and the love for Israel.

The aforementioned Yattir forest is the largest forest planted by the JNF. One of the interests in planting it has been to create a mechanism through which Palestinians are prohibited from use of their lands. Therefore, while forestation can be seen as a positive act, the cynical use of forestation to eradicate any possibility of returning the land to its original Palestinian owners is an act of political violence, using brute force to squelch the Palestinians’ rights. Over the past few years the practice of planting forests in the Naqab in order to create a fait accompli regarding land ownership claims has intensified. The three (unrecognized) Palestinian-Bedouin villages most affected by this are Twail Abu Jarwal, Al-Araqib, and Karkur.

These three villages are just outside the edge of the former Bedouin reservation, the Siyag, in the north eastern part of the Naqab. The residents of these villages were forcefully removed in the early 1950s to allow “army maneuvers” with the promise that they would be allowed to return six months later. They were not allowed to return, and the land has mostly remained vacant, with a continued small presence of the Bedouin families in their original villages.

The residents of the village of Twail Abu-Jarwal, the Talalqa tribe, were displaced from their land to one of the recognized Rikazim (concentration towns): Hura. They were re-located again in the 1970s to Laqia, another of the concentration towns. When Laqia, a governmentally planned town for the displaced Bedouin, was planned, people from the Talalqa tribe bought options for plots on which to build a house in the village. This was in the 1970s, and until today they are holding on to the deeds, but have not received any plots. Even the land they have lived on since the 1970s belongs2 to another Bedouin family. Therefore they have had to build more rooms on the same tiny plot, and with an average of nine children per family, this has created horrific living conditions. As this is an “unrecognized” neighborhood of Laqia, there is no sewer system, no trash removal, no roads, and the homes are all built of corrugated iron. Their original village of Twail Abu Jarwal is only three miles away.

Ten years ago scores of families decided to join the few families that had been residing on the land of the original village. The government of Israel responded mercilessly: the rebuilt village has been razed to the ground in its entirety more than thirty times in the past few years. To make the resurrection of the village more difficult, the JNF is planting a forest on the village lands. The people of Twail Abu-Jarwal received threats from the police in early March 2010 that more severe force will be used to evacuate them for once and for good. The government is offering no other option for the location of the Talalqa tribe, except the (also unrecognized, and therefore “illegal”) slum location on the outskirts of Laqia.

The residents of the villages of Al-Araqib and Karukur were displaced from their land and relocated, many to the largest of the concentration towns, Rahat. To date, these townships are the only “legal” place for Palestinian Bedouin to live. The state of Israel thereby ensures that the largest number of Palestinians live on the smallest pieces of land. The urbanization and concentration of Palestinian Bedouin has destroyed much of the social fabric and economy of the Bedouin community whose way of life was created in the vast spaces of the desert, traditional knowledge and resources cannot be utilized to make a living in the townships.

Thus the Bedouin concentration towns have become pockets of urban poverty – with all the associated social illnesses. Sheik Sayah’s land lies less than two miles from his home in Rahat. After a couple of decades in the miserable conditions of the township he returned to his land where he and his children could live together and work their lands. The government’s response has been harsh: his fields have been destroyed by the government time and again, at times through aerial spraying of the toxic chemical “roundup” (until this practice was eventually prohibited by the Supreme Court after a fierce legal battle waged by Adalah and other civil society organizations).

Most of the El-Ukbi tribe were forced off their traditional lands in Al-Araqib and on to other Bedouin lands within the Siyag. They live today in the unrecognized village of Al-Qrein. The entire village has received home demolition orders, despite the fact that Israeli authorities allowed this village to be set up in order to resettle the displaced Palestinians of al-Araqib. They may not return to their original lands of Al-Araqib, on which the JNF plans to plant a forest, nor can they remain in their current location, al-Qrein, because that area is also slated to become a JNF forest.

These are different stories, but in all three villages the government has requested that the JNF plant forests in order to make sure that the villages will never be resurrected, and that the Bedouin land owners will not be able to have state-recognition of their ownership restored in court or through the political system.

On 3 March 2010, Dov Hanin, a Member of the Knesset for the Hadash party, asked the Minister of Agriculture why the JNF is planting trees in the area of Al-Araqib when the land is not designated as forest land, but rather for agriculture. Minister Shalom Simhon’s answer was that for now, even though it is not legally designated as such, the authorities have decided to plant a forest because wherever a forest has been planted, the national lands are protected. The protection of national lands is a code phrase for keeping Palestinians off the land. This answer exposes the essence of tree planting in the Naqab: the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land. The JNF and the state of Israel work hand in glove to continue ensure that this process continues.

2. According to Bedouin law. Not acknowledged by Israeli law.