The Carmel Wildfire is Burning all Illusions in Israel
    • OREN ZIV/ACTIVE STILLS

      The forests burning in northern Israel were planted over destroyed Palestinian villages.

So I did. After following a winding dirt road around a hillside for several kilometers, I was inside Ayn Hawd, the Palestinian village. There was no installation art here, just ramshackle houses, dirt roads, a mosque with a tall minaret and lots of kids playing in the streets. Almost immediately some of the town's residents appeared from their homes to greet me. Abu al-Hisa Moein, a village council member and schoolteacher, invited me to spend the rest of the afternoon with his family on a patio beside his home, which appeared newer and more stately than those of his neighbors. He told me his ancestors arrived in the village more than 700 years ago from what is now Iraq. His relatives who were expelled to Jenin in 1948 told him they would be too angry to even lay eyes their former homes with the new occupants inside. When I mentioned the bar built into the old mosque, Moein shook his head in disgust. "It's very bad. It's an insult," he said.

Moein took me inside his home for a tour, showing me the spacious, immaculately clean parlor and the picture window with a sweeping view of the valley below. He had built the whole place, he said with pride. Down a hall, his 13-year-old daughter, Ansam, was reclining on the floor of her room reading John Knowles' classic bildungsroman, A Separate Peace. She leapt to attention when I entered and spent the next ten minutes showing me her library of literature. With night setting in, Moein and his family took me back on the patio. There, he unfurled a map of Mandate-era Palestine and ran his fingers over the names of scores of villages destroyed on the coast between Jaffa and Haifa by Zionist forces in 1948. He pointed to towns like Kafr Saba, Qaqun, al-Tira and Tantura, the site of a horrific massacre of unarmed Palestinian prisoners on the beach just one month after the Deir Yassin massacre. Moein was a history teacher, but Israel had forbidden him from discussing these events in his classroom, and is in the process of criminalizing any public observance of them.

As darkness blanketed the hills, I realized that I had lost track of time. I told Moein that I needed to get back to Tel Aviv. With that, his wife rushed into the house and gathered a bundle of grapes she had picked from a tree in the family's yard, packing it for me in some tupperware from their kitchen. Then Moein walked me to my car and hugged me goodbye.

By now, both Ein Hod and Ayd Hawd are nearly empty. Most of their residents have fled for safer ground while the thousands of pine trees planted to provide Ein Hod's artists with a sense of solitude are reduced to ash. As the trees burn, the fire exposes another dimension of Israel's foundation that it has attempted to bury.

The pine trees themselves were instruments of concealment, strategically planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on the sites of the hundreds of Palestinian villages the Zionist militias evacuated and destroyed in 1948. With forests sprouting up where towns once stood, those who had been expelled would have nothing to come back to. Meanwhile, to outsiders beholding the strangely Alpine landscape of northern Israel for the first time, it seemed as though the Palestinians had never existed. And that was exactly the impression the JNF intended to create. The practice that David Ben Gurion and other prominent Zionists referred to as "redeeming the land" was in fact the ultimate form of greenwashing.

Described by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe as "the quintessential Zionist colonialist," the first director of the JNF, Yossef Weitz, was a ruthless ideologue who helped orchestrate the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Weitz notoriously declared "It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples ... If the Arabs leave it, the country will become wide and spacious for us ... The only solution is a Land of Israel ... without Arabs ... There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Palestinian Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth and the old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe." 

After Weitz's wishes were fulfilled, the JNF planted hundreds of thousands of trees over freshly destroyed Palestinian villages like al-Tira, helping to establish the Carmel National Park. An area on the south slope of Mount Carmel so closely resembled the landscape of the Swiss Alps that it was nicknamed "Little Switzerland." Of course, the nonindigenous trees of the JNF were poorly suited to the environment in Palestine. Most of the saplings the JNF plants at a site near Jerusalem simply do not survive, and require frequent replanting. Elsewhere, needles from the pine trees have killed native plant species and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. And as we have seen with the Carmel wildfire, the JNF's trees go up like tinder in the dry heat. 

But it seems that nothing can stop the JNF's drive to "green" the land. Even in the parched Negev desert, the JNF is advancing plans to plant one million trees in a plot called "GOD TV Forest." To accomplish the highly unusual feat of foresting a desert, the Israel Land Administration has ordered the expulsion of the Bedouin unrecognized village of al-Araqib, home to hundreds of Israeli citizens who have lived in the area for more than 100 years and who have served in the army's frontline tracker units.

The Israeli government has tried time and again to force the people of al-Araqib into an American Indian reservation-style "development town," but they have refused. The village has been razed to the ground by bulldozers on eight occasions, but each time the residents have rebuilt their homes, hoping to outlast a ruthless campaign to destroy their way of life.

What about the strange name for the proposed forest? It is a reference to GOD TV, a radical right-wing evangelical Christian broadcasting network that hosts faith-based fraudsters like Creflo Dollar and rapture-ready fanatics like Rory and Wendy Alec.

And why is GOD TV bankrolling the JNF's ethnic cleansing campaign in the Negev desert? According to its website, "GOD TV is planting over ONE MILLION TREES across the Holy Land as a miraculous sign to Israel and to the world that Jesus is coming soon."

In his 1970 short fiction story "Facing the Forest," the famed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua portrayed a mute Palestinian forest watchman who burns down a JNF forest to reveal the hidden ruins of his former village. Forty years later, as the JNF forests around Mount Carmel burn, right-wing Israeli lawmakers have demanded a search for the Arab who must have sparked the blaze, even though there is no firm evidence about the cause of the fire. Michael Ben Ari, a extremist Member of Knesset from the National Union Party, called for "the whole Shin Bet" — Israel's domestic intelligence agency — to be mobilized to investigate what the right-wing media outlet Arutz Sheva said "may turn out to be the worst terror attack in Israel's history."

Tags: carmel fire, ethnic cleansing, israel, jnf, nakba, palestine, palestinians, zionism

    • Max Blumenthal
    • Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The NationThe Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al Jazeera Eng...

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