Keren Kayemet Le Yisrael and Environmental Racism in Palestine

11 Jan

by Ben Lorber / article from the Lughnasadh 2012 issue of the Earth First! Journal

IMG_0204Since the idea of Zionism first gripped the minds of a few intellectuals and the limbs of many agrarian pioneers in the early 20th century, the state of Israel has represented its settlement of Palestine, and its uprooting of the Palestinian people, as a rejuvenation of the Earth. Determined to “make the desert bloom,” an international organization named the Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, planted forests, recreational parks, and nature reserves to cover over the ruins of Palestinian villages, as refugees were scattered far from the land upon which they and their ancestors had based their lives and livelihoods.

Today, while Israel portrays itself as a “green democracy,” an eco-friendly pioneer in agricultural techniques, desert ecology, water management and solar energy, Israeli factories drain toxic waste from occupied West Bank hilltops into Palestinian villages. Israeli overpumping of aquifers increases water scarcity and pollution, denying Palestinians access to vital water sources. By greenwashing the occupation, Israel hides its apartheid behind an environmentalist mirage and distracts public attention, not only from its brutal oppression of the Palestinian people,but  from its large-scale degradation of the Earth upon which these tragedies unfold.

The Jewish National Fund

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), perhaps the first transnational environmental NGO, was established in 1901, as the first wave of Jewish immigrants were settling in Palestine under the banner of Zionism.

Throughout the 20th century, as the indigenous Arab population of Palestinefound itself either expelled from its homeland or oppressed under the hand of a foreign invader, the JNF succeeded in raising enormous amounts of money to acquire and develop land throughout the territory that, in 1948, would become known as the State of Israel.

Distinct from other transnational Zionist fundraising and advocacy organizations, the JNF portrayed itself from the beginning as an environmental organization, serving to “protect the land, green the landscape and preserve vital eco-systems,” by “planting seedlings, maintaining forest health, combating desertification, protecting watersheds and managing water flow …[and] balancing the phenomenal growth and development Israel has experienced in the last decade with the maintenance of an ecologically sound environment.”

 The JNF credits itself with planting 250 million trees, building over 210 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 1,000 parks, and providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities throughout Israel. According to the JNF, “Israel is the only country in the world that will enter the 21st century with a net gain in numbers of trees.”

But the JNF promotes an exclusionary, discriminatory brand of environmentalism, suiting a state constructed for a single cultural-religious group. When the JNF began in 1901, it controlled a single olive grove in a land where 94 percent of its neighbors were Arab. Today, the JNF directly owns 13 percent of Israel’s land and effectively controls another 80 percent. Throughout this time, the JNF’s constitution has explicitly stated that its land cannot be rented, leased, sold to, or worked by non-Jews.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the JNF helped to exile hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families, bulldoze their homes, and clear the land to make way for Jewish settlement. It bought large tracts of land from absentee landowners, evicted the local Arab tenant farmers, uprooted olive, carob and pistachio trees, and planted vast swaths of European conifers and eucalyptus trees in place of indigenous arboreta. Forests, parks and recreational facilities were strategically placed atop the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages, so that the fast-growing pines would erase the history of Palestinian existence and prevent refugees from ever returning to their homes. In addition, pine forests were planted to guard and expand settlements. After 1967, they served to seize and divide Palestinian territory within east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The pines helped evoke images of a European wilderness, creating a familiar “natural” environment for the mostly European Jewish settlers, so much so that settlers affectionately nicknamed Carmel National Park, planted partially over the destroyed Palestinian village of al-Tira, “little Switzerland,” for its resemblance to the Swiss Alps. These pine forests often fail to adapt to the local soil and require frequent re-planting. As they age, they demand more water and become more prone to problems like pests, disease and utter conflagrations, such as the 2010 Carmel wildfire, deemed the worst in Israel’s history. Also, the fast-growing acidic pine needles fall to the ground, destroying all other surrounding small plants, ruining the livelihood of Palestinian shepherds, whose animals depend on grazing land.

Clearcutting Palestinian Villages

JNF’s time-tested method of ethnically cleansing, and then “greening,” the desert continues to this day. An ongoing $600 million, ten-year JNF program called Blueprint Negev seeks to develop reservoirs, afforestation, and water conservation programs in the Negev desert at the expense of over 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin, whose unrecognized villages already lack electricity, running water and sewage disposal as a direct result of Israeli policies.

Since 2010, the JNF has attempted to green the Negev by planting 1 million pines in  “GOD TV Forest” over the Palestinian village of al-Araqib, which has been demolished eight times. GOD TV Forest is named after its proud sponsor, a far-right, pro-settler Evangelical Christian organization whose stated purpose is “to plant a million trees to prepare the land for the return of [God’s] son.” As GOD TV Forest and Blueprint Negev seek to flood the semi-arid region with the invasive European pine, Israel seeks to tear the historically semi-nomadic Bedouin from their ancestral grazing lands, and to herd them into unnatural, sedentary lifestyles in impoverished and isolated townships. Social strife and decay of traditional values inevitably accompany this forced acculturation process.

After a century of expulsion, settlement, development and rapid industrialization, indigenous arboreta make up only 11 percent of Israeli forests, and pre-1948 growth accounts for only 10 percent of Israel’s greenery. JNF pine forests, parks and recreation areas blanket the hills of Israel, where tour guides dread the inevitable moment when someone asks “what is that old abandoned mosque doing in the middle of this forest?”

The parallels with European colonization of the American continent are obvious, and in a cruel twist of historical irony, the construction of Israel’s Canada National Park, covering over the destroyed Palestinian village of ‘Imwas in the mid-1980s, was initiated as a simultaneous twinning project along with Toronto’s Downsview Park, which sits atop un-acknowledged First Nations territory.

Making Deserts Boom

The actions of the JNF fulfill the desire to transform and control the land of Palestine, to shape its hills in the Zionist image. When the pioneer Zionist movement arrived from Europe in the late 1800s, they found themselves dis- satisfied with the rocky, semi-arid eastern shore of the Mediterranean, and they sought to “make the desert bloom” as proof that the Jewish people, and not the indigenous Arabs, were the destined cultivators of “a land without people for a people without land.” Bringing little agricultural experience from their mostly lower-middle class urban backgrounds, these pioneers first adopted local Arab small-scale dryland subsistence farming methods, producing mainly unirrigated wheat, barley, potatoes, grapes, olives, and figs for domestic consumption. Soon, however, they dismissed centuries-old sustainable Palestinian agricultural practices and, funded by French banker-philanthropist Baron de Rothschild, used sophisticated European steam engines, mechanized plows, reapers, and threshers to develop capital-intensive vineyards and cash crop plantations for commercial marketing.

Many of the first European Jewish immigrants struck the soil of Palestine with a devout and even mystical appreciation of nature, driven to escape the economic, industrial and social alienation of European society and, through the sweat of agricultural labor, to birth themselves, and the Jewish people, anew as an ecologically integrated, utopian socialist community. Living in communes called kibbutzim—their sense of destiny magnified by the redemptive, exalted status that the land beneath their feet held for thousands of years of Jewish cultural mythology—they filled their journals with passionate, sensual, ecstatic, and sometimes erotic descriptions of the joys of the Earth and agricultural labor. As first Israeli president Chaim Weizmann observed, “it seems as if God had covered the soil of Palestine with rocks and marshes and sand, so that its beauty can only be brought out by those who love it and will devote their lives to healing its wounds.”

At the same time, the JNF’s ecological zeal betrayed a deeply colonial, anthropocentric desire, not to respect and adapt to the land, but to subjugate and transform it, to conquer it through the machinations of human development. “Where we modern ones appear with our auxiliaries,” announced Zionist prophet Theodore Herzl at the turn of the century, “we turn the desert into a garden.”

The motif of making the desert bloom emphasizes, not the desert rocks, but the human agency which controls nature for its own purposes. In one fell swoop, the land of Palestine would be cleared, along with its people, the Arab Palestinians, who, Weizmann maintained, were no different than “the rocks of Judea… obstacles that had to be cleared on a difficult path.”

Green Colonial Capitalism

Today, thanks to decades of largely American aid, the old kibbutzim have become factory suburbs. The small, start-up socialist Zionist experiment has ballooned into the fourth largest arms exporter in the world—a privatized, globally competitive, hyper-militarized nation that markets itself abroad as a model for 21st-century green capitalism, while perpetuating widespread ecological devastation and blatant environmental racism on the ground.

“What country would not experience environmental woes,” says Jewish eco-socialist Joel Kovel in his book Overcoming Zionism, “with a sixfold population increase in half a century in a context of rapid industrialization?” Kovel describes the steady expansion of Israel’s infrastructure of occupation, and the irreversible buildup of its desert war machine, as an “eco-destructive accelerant,” wedding colonizer and colonized together in a “parasitic order” that “builds parallel systems, of roads, water and sewage, electrical networks, etc…[that] both colonize and destroy the land of the Palestinians, while creating, necessarily, a myriad of spaces… chaotically thrown up and turning into sites of a proliferating set of ecological degradations.”

Today, Israel covertly transports waste products from its own country into dumps and quarries throughout the occupied West Bank. Israeli settlers in the West Bank produce similar amounts of wastewater to the Palestinian population despite being outnumbered more than six to one. Solid wastes from Israeli settlements and military camps throughout the West Bank are dumped without restriction on Palestinian land, fields and side roads. Industry regularly moves from Israel to the West Bank, where labor is cheaper, environmental regulations are lenient, and waste products—generated from the production of aluminum, leather tanning, textile dyeing, batteries, fiberglass, plastics and other chemicals—can flow freely down to Palestinian villages in the surrounding valleys.

At least seven industrial zones and at least 200 factories have either moved from Israel into the West Bank, or have been constructed by the Israeli government inside the West Bank. This is a blatant violation of international law.

In 1982, when Geshuri Industries moved their pesticide, insecticide and fertilizer production from Israel, where it was declared a health hazard, into the West Bank, the owner began the courteous practice of closing the factory for the one month every year that a change in wind direction would blow its pollutants towards Israel.

The construction of Israel’s mammoth Apartheid wall, beginning in 2002,  has destroyed Palestinian-owned agricultural land and has brought with it all the contamination associated with the use of heavy machinery and millions of tons of concrete. The wall has isolated Palestinian communities from vital water sources, and has interfered with natural drainage systems in the West Bank, causing flooding and environmental damage in times of high rainfall.

Gaza and the West Bank

The JNF’s greening of Israel does not extend to the West Bank and Gaza, where the infrastructure of occupation breeds widespread deforestation. While the JNF made hilltops within the internationally-recognized borders of Israel bloom with forests, parks, playgrounds and recreation areas so that, to quote their website, “the heroic men and women of the Israel Defense Forces can share precious time with their loved ones,” 95 percent of the forests of Gaza disappeared between 1971 and 1999, due to the extensive spread of settlements and military bases alongside pervasive Israeli bombing. Contrary to the JNF’s commitment to “combat desertification,” the threat of permanent desertification looms over the West Bank, as increasing illegal settlement expansion, facilitated by the JNF, steals large tracts of land traditionally used by Palestinian villages for grazing, leaving the few remaining grazing areas available to Palestinian pastoralists threatened by overgrazing.


Israel’s discriminatory distribution of water is an instance of environmental racism at its finest. “Presently,” writes Joel Kovel, “Israel faces both an absolute shortage of water owing to persistent overconsumption, as well as persistent contamination of the existing water, thanks to rampant development and industrialization.”

As population growth, combined with a rising standard of living, has led to an over-utilization of renewable water sources, Israel embarks on costly cloud- seeding and desalination experiments to increase its water supply, while destroying the rain-water cisterns and wells of agrarian Palestinian villages.  

The Jordan River, an international river basin unilaterally monopolized by Israel, has seen its average flow decrease from 1250 million cubic meters (MCM)/year in 1953 to 152-203 mcm due to two enormous  reservoirs, and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry runoff that, to the dismay of Christian pilgrims worldwide, the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East decreed it unsafe for baptism in 2010. As the Jordan River is drained to a trickle, the Dead Sea, also polluted, has shrunk into two separate, rapidly drying seas further downstream, as its salts are pumped by Israeli companies to flood the global market with exotic cosmetic products.

As overpumping of regional underground aquifers (all monopolized by Israel) has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and has caused saline water intrusion in many areas, growing water scarcity is used as a tool of oppression against the Palestinians. In the Jordan Valley, an oppressive matrix of check points,closed military zones, army training grounds, nature reserves, settlements and settler-only  roads striates the desert with the  infrastructure of environmental racism, isolating Palestinian Bedouin villages from access to water sources.

Impoverished communities, 40 percent of whom consume less water than the minimum global standard set by the World Health Organization—must travel across a desert, criss-crossed with Israeli checkpoints, to bring overpriced and often unsanitary water tankers home to the scattered villages of makeshift shacks and mud brick houses. While the 56,000 Palestinian Bedouin in the Jordan Valley consume an average of 37 MCM of water per year, the 9,400 Israeli settlers consume an average of 41 MCM.

Sustainable agricultural practices are made difficult because of water scarcity, and perishable produce, delayed for hours at Israeli checkpoints, often spoils on its way to market.

Unrecognized Bedouin villages live in dire poverty, cut off from basic services such as health care, education and employment, barred by Israeli law from building any permanent structure (be it a water well, an animal pen, a storage shed or a family home). Yet, 36 Israeli Jordan Valley agricultural settlements utilize state-of-the-art technology, along with an unlimited water supply, to grow a wide variety of genetically modified fruit and vegetable produce, propelling Israel into the international agribusiness industry as the world’s sixth largest cultivator of genetically modified crops. While Bedouin families see their makeshift structures demolished by Israeli bulldozers on a daily basis, every Israeli settler family in the Jordan Valley is given, in addition to unlimited water supply: a free house, $20,000, 70 dunnams (km2) of land, free healthcare and a 75 percent discount on electricity, utilities and transportation.

Lake Hula

The ethnic cleansing and ecological degradation of Lake Hula in 1950 provides a perfect example of the JNF’s catastrophic failure as an environmental organization, and cruel success as a colonial enterprise. In 1933, the Palestine Land Development Corporation (using JNF and private funds) forcibly evicted the Ghawarani tribe from one of the oldest documented lakes and wetlands in history—the Huleh Valley in the Eastern Galilee, near Syria. As descendants of deserters from the invading Egyptian army in the 1830s, and Algerian refugees from the failed 1847 revolt against French rule, the Ghawarani had lived for two centuries in reed huts, mud-brick shacks and woolen tents, practicing reed basket and mat weaving, plus seasonal  agriculture, fishing, and the raising of livestock such as chicken, geese and water buffalo.

Echoing founder of Israel David Ben-Gurion’s 1944 proclamation that “we must conquer the sea and the desert, for those will provide us with room for new settlers and will serve as a laboratory for the development of new forms of economic and agricultural endeavor,” the JNF, anxious to form a buffer of agricultural expansion between Israel and Syria, drained Lake Hula in 1950 without a study of its ecological impact, ignoring the warnings of scientists that the peat soil under the swamps would not make fertile land.

Agricultural development of the exposed peat soils, weathered and eroded by wind without their vegetation cover, proved un-successful, and the reckless experiment destroyed a rich, diverse ecosystem of aquatic biota, flora and fauna unique to the region. Despite a JNF hydrologist’s certainty that “our peat is Zionist peat… our peat will not do damage,” the decomposing peat soils released nutrients and ground pollutants into the Jordan River and the entropic Lake Tiberius, creating crop-damaging black dust and making large tracts of land susceptible to damaging underground fires. The Hula Valley was left stagnant and largely depopulated, until a $23 million dollar JNF re-flooding in 1996 created the smaller and shallower Lake Agmon, restoring a meager portion of the area’s now-extinct wildlife.


As the dependence of the imperial West on Gulf oil increases precipitously, Israel’s occupation of Palestine becomes a crucial focal point for the global dominance of Empire, a concentrated site of its cruelest eco-genocidal machinations. In Israel’s occupation of Palestine, we see how environmental devastation coincides with ethnic cleansing, and how the former is used to deepen the latter. The quest for justice in Palestine lies at the heart of anti- imperialist struggle worldwide, a struggle in defense of the Earth, and the dis-possessed that wander upon it.

In the words of Coya White Hat Artichoker, member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and founding member of the LGBTQ Two Spirit First Nations Collective:

“I see what is happening in Palestine as an indigenous struggle for sovereignty, at times, even the right to exist. It is also [a story] of genocide… I see Israel’s systemic and intentional destruction and removal of Palestinian lives, homes, and communities as very similar to the destruction of communities, lives, and removal of Native people from their traditional lands. I no longer see terrorists there any more; I see people resisting and fighting extinction… I believe that as people in the US who make these connections, it’s important to be thoughtful about what is happening, in our names and with the US government’s money.”  

 This article appears in the Lughnasadh 2012 issue of the Earth First! Journal. Order one here or subscribe today to receive future issues.

Ben Lorber has published articles in the Electronic Intifada, the Palestine Chronicle, Mondo Weiss, Common Dreams, and other publications. He gives special thanks to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network’s 2011 e-book Greenwashing Apartheid: The Jewish National Fund’s Environmental Cover Up as a crucial source of inspiration and information for this article.

3 Responses to “Keren Kayemet Le Yisrael and Environmental Racism in Palestine”

  1. meqdadtaheri January 12, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Water shortage in Palestine is the result of the Palestinian Water Authority’s repeated failures to implement approved water projects and the contamination of ground water and environmental damage from untreated sewage and pollution.

    This forces Israel to supply 21 million cubic meters of water to Palestine beyond its obligations under the Interim Agreements.

    Theft of water is happening. But it’s the Palestinians who are stealing water from the Israelis by illegally tapping into Israeli water infrastructure.

    Israel sells Palestine water at 2.6 shekel per cubic meter (their pre-agreed price). To its own municipalities Israel sells water at 3.86 shekel per cubic meter.

    West Bank settlers—80% of whom sit on 3% of the land that under any agreement would be on the Israeli side—consume less than their Israeli allowance per the Interim Agreements of 150 million cubic meters per year.

  2. meqdadtaheri January 12, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    The Jews turned Lake Hula into a wildlife heaven. Ornithologists from all over the world arrive there to study bird migration.

    If Palestine was developed prior to the Zionist immigration, how come it was Zionists who were dying of malaria as they were drying the swamps? How come it was the Zionists who introduced the eucalyptus trees in that effort? How come the first Arab school in Palestine was built by Jews? This was the school in the village of Ja’una, near Rosh Pinna.

    How come foreign visitors to Palestine, prior to the Zionist settlement, like Mark Twain, only describe “a desolate country, a silent, mournful expanse, an unpeopled deserts, afflicted with swamps, malaria and Bedouin gangs of drifting robbers. A land sparsely dotted with ‘squalid,’ ‘filthy’ villages, where huts were ‘frescoed with disks of camel dung’—’the sorriest sight in the world’—where Arab kids ‘in all stages of mutilation and decay’ would run up to traveling Howajjis, begging in ‘an agonizing and most infernal chorus’ for Bucksheesh.”

    Then look at what happened as a result of the Zionist development. According to British Mandate statistics, the number of Arabs living next to Jewish industrial centers increased dramatically between 1922 and 1947. In Haifa, their numbers swelled by 290%, in Jaffa by 148%. In contrast, the Arab population in Nablus grew by just 42%, in Bethlehem by 37%, and in Gaza the Arab population declined by 2%.

    There were a few wealthy Arab families in southern Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria (no Arab considered Palestine a country back then), but these wealthy families couldn’t care less about the fellahin (the farmers). For them, Arab nationalism was a perfect diversion, directing the fellahin’s anger away from them and toward the Jews. So they stoked nationalism even as they, themselves, sold land to the Jews, at exorbitant prices. They had bought the land for next to nothing a few decades earlier after the Tanzimat—the Ottoman reforms—and specifically the Land Code of 1858, made miri, or state land, available for sale.

    Sellers to the Zionists included Sa’ad al-Shuqeiri—a Muslim religious scholar and the father of the first chairman of the PLO, Ahmed Shuqeiri; the al-Husseinis—the family of the mufti, the leader of the Arabs of Palestine; the Nashashibis; the al-Husseinis of Gaza—the family of Yasser Arafat; the two branches of the Abd-al-Hadi family in Nablus and Jenin—the family of the Istiqlal party leader; the al-Alamis, al-Suranis, al-Shantis, and other fervent anti-Zionists.

    The fellahin, whether owners of small parcels or tenant laborers, struggled to survive against malaria, which was a major killer; black-water fever; high infant mortality; droughts; floods; poor yields; starvation; locusts, like the devastating 1915 attack; land seizures by powerful emirs and beys from Beirut and Damascus; land grabs by local strongmen; Bedouin raids by the Beni Saher, the Ghualla, the Aneize and other tribes, who wreaked havoc; and internal wars between the Qais and Yaman and between different villages, which left entire villages burned and groves uprooted.

    In contrast, the Jewish labor union, the Histadrut, with its socialist agenda, also assisted Arab laborers in their wage struggles.

    But as Arab nationalism turned Zionism into a lightening rod, all Arab frustrations were directed by the wealthy Arab families toward the Jews, and attacks on Jews, including massacres like the one in 1929 in al-Khalil, started with the Nabi Musa celebrations of 1920 in al-Quds.

    Your version of history may lead to events such as the ones brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Bloomfield’s award-winning book, “Palestine,” in which actual history and future predictions are thinly veiled as fiction.

  3. Personal Guided Tours Of Tel Aviv July 5, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    It’s genuinely very complicated in this full of activity life to listen news on Television, therefore I only use world wide web for that reason, and take the latest news.

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