A Wildfire Is Burning All Illusions in Israel
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
"When I look out my window today and see a tree standing there, that tree gives me a greater sense of beauty and personal delight than all the vast forests I have seen in Switzerland or Scandinavia. Because every tree here was planted by us." -- David Ben Gurion, Memoirs
"Why are there so many Arabs here? Why didn't you chase them away?" -- David Ben Gurion during a visit to Nazareth, July 1948
Four days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to place thousands of migrant workers in a prison camp deep in the Negev Desert because, as he claimed, they pose a "threat to the character of [the] country," a burning tree trunk fell into a bus full of Israeli Prison Service cadets, killing forty passengers. The tree was among hundreds of thousands turned to ash by the forest fire pouring across northern Israel, and which now threatens to engulf outskirts of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. Over the last four days, more than 12,300 acres have burned in the Mount Carmel area, a devastating swath of destruction in a country the size of New Jersey. While the cause of the fire has not been established, it has laid bare the myths of Israel's foundation.
Israelis are treating the fire as one of their greatest tragedies in recent years. A friend who grew up in the Haifa area told me over the weekend that he was devastated by the images of destruction he saw on TV. His friend's brother was among those who perished in the bus accident. Though he is a dedicated Zionist who supported Netanyahu's election bid in 2008, like so many Israelis, he was furious at the response -- or lack of one -- by the government. "Our leaders are complete idiots, but you already know that," he told me. "They invested so much to prepare for all kinds of crazy war scenarios but didn't do anything to protect civilians from the basic things you are supposed to take for granted."
On 3 December, Netanyahu informed the country, "We do not have what it takes to put out the fire, but help is on the way." To beat back the blaze, Bibi has had to beg for assistance from his counterpart in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and Israel's American and British patrons. Israel is a wealthy country which boasts to the world about its innovative spirit -- its US-based lobbyists market it as a "Start-Up Nation" -- but its performance during the forest fire revealed the sad truth: its government has prioritized offensive military capacity and occupation maintenance so extensively that it has completely neglected the country's infrastructure, emergency preparedness and most of all, the general welfare of its citizens.
Beyond the embarrassing spectacle of Turkish supply planes landing in Tel Aviv just six months after Israeli commandoes massacred Turkish aid volunteers on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, or the confessions of impotence by the hard-men Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the fire exposed a terrible history that had been concealed by layers of official mythology and piles of fallen pine needles.
"There are no facts"
Among the towns that have been evacuated is Ein Hod, a bohemian artists' colony nestled in the hills to the north and east of Haifa. This is not the first time Ein Hod was evacuated, however. The first time was in 1948, when the town's original Palestinian inhabitants were driven from their homes by a manmade disaster known as the Nakba.
Most of the original inhabitants of Ein Hod, which was called Ayn Hawd prior to the expulsions of '48, and was continuously populated since the 12th century, were expelled to refugee camps in Jordan and Jenin in the West Bank. But a small and exceptionally resilient band of residents fled to the hills, set up a makeshift camp and watched as Jewish foreigners moved into their homes.
In 1953, a Romanian Dadaist sculptor named Marcel Janco convinced the army not to bulldoze Ein Hod as it did the scores of nearby Palestinian towns it had ethnically cleansed five years prior. He proposed establishing an art commune to generate tourism and contribute to the culture of Zionism. Today, the rustic stone homes that once belonged to Palestinians are quaint artist studios, while the village mosque has been converted into an airy bar called Bonanza. Visitors to the town are greeted at the entrance by Benjamin Levy's "The Modest Couple in a Sardine Can," a sculpture depicting a nude woman and a suited gentleman in a sardine can, which was unveiled by Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2001.
After the catastrophe of 1948, the original Palestinians of Ayn Hawd set up their own village three kilometers away from what is today known as Eid Hod. For decades the villagers resisted attempts to dispossess them and were surrounded by a fence during the 1970s to prevent them from expanding according to natural growth. But they finally won official recognition in 2005. This meant that for the first time since the establishment of Israel they could receive electricity and trash service. Meanwhile, more than forty other Palestinian villages inside Israel remain "unrecognized." The 80,000 or so residents of the villages, which lay mostly in the Negev desert, are tax-paying citizens of Israel. However, they have few rights; their homes are routinely demolished to make way for Jewish settlements and they are deprived of basic services.
I visited both Ein Hod and Ayn Hawd in June. When the residents of the Jewish village Ein Hod saw me filming, they reacted with a mixture of suspicion and hostility. "I know what you're doing!" an elderly woman sneered at me, insisting that I not film her. Inside the bar, I asked patrons if the place was in fact a converted mosque. "Yeah, but that's how all of Israel is," a woman from a nearby kibbutz told me as she sipped on a beer. "This whole country is built on top of Arab villages. So maybe it's best to let bygones be bygones."
I provoked another annoyed reaction when I began filming a tour guide leading a group of elderly Israelis around the village. Speaking in Hebrew, the guide told the tourists as she took them through the art studios that they were inside "third generation houses" -- forget the Arabs who lived in them for hundreds of years. In the studios I noticed that much of the art being produced was Judaica kitsch for sale to foreign tourists -- generic shtetl scenes from the long lost, distant world immortalized in films like Fiddler on the Roof.
Later, before taking her group to the town's Hurdy Gurdy museum, the guide mentioned a "welcoming committee" that vetted potential residents. Presumably this was how Ein Hod kept the pesky Arabs down the road from returning home. That and the Absentee Property Law of 1950 which placed all "abandoned" Arab property in the hands of the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Land Administration, a provision that consolidated what the exiled Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament Azmi Bishara called "the largest armed robbery in history."
During a break, the tour guide pulled me aside and demanded to know who I was. It was clear the villagers had grown wary of curious outsiders. Introducing herself as Shuli Linda Yarkon, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University, the tour guide told me she's the leading authority on Ein Hod. She said I had to allow her to review all the footage I shot. She claimed that this would ensure that I not mistranslate words she used like kibbush, a Hebrew term that means "conquest" but is commonly used to refer to the occupation of Palestine.
"So what about the conquest you mentioned?" I asked her. "Why didn't you tell the tourists who lived in the houses before 1948?" Visibly irritated, Yarkon remarked, "I've concluded after years of research that there are really no facts when you discuss this issue. There are only narratives." She assured me that Ein Hod's Jewish population maintained excellent relations with the expelled residents: "Go ask them. They will tell you how they feel."
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.
Redeeming the land
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. Thirty 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."