How Israel Weaponizes Tree Planting to Displace Palestinians

Israel has long used forestation projects to push Palestinians off their lands. That has included the ongoing displacement of Bedouin people in the Naqab desert by a large tree-planting project, funded in large part by charitable donations from the US.

The Yatir Forest in Israel, 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Yatir Forest in present-day Israel is an entirely planted woodland in the desert region referred to by Palestinians as the Naqab and Israelis as the Negev. The four million trees that make up the Yatir were planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) beginning in the 1960s, as part of a long-standing campaign pitching tree planting in Israel to Jews in the United States and elsewhere as a beneficent act of environmentalism and a means of memorializing loved ones.

In reality, as +972 Magazine describes, the JNF’s forestry workers were accompanied by militarized Israeli police, armed with rubber bullets and tear gas, when they displaced the Bedouin, the pastoral Arab tribes, who lived where the trees stand today.

Since 1948, the Israeli government has used “afforestation,” or the planting of trees, to uproot Palestinian communities like Atir, to forcibly limit the growth of others, and to hide evidence of yet others already destroyed. Along the way, organizations like the JNF have helped both finance the operations and launder them to unsuspecting contributors.

Displacement via Afforestation

“Since the Nakba, afforestation has been employed as a tool to facilitate displacement and dispossess Palestinian lands,” says Myssana Morany, attorney at the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. (“Nakba,” or “catastrophe” in Arabic, is how Palestinians refer to their displacement by Zionist forces in 1948.)

Palestinian displacement via Israeli afforestation takes many forms, as Morany describes. Immediately following the Nakba, Zionists used trees to conceal the ruins of destroyed Palestinian communities and to discourage their displaced residents from returning. Those Palestinian communities still left standing were sometimes ringed with “nature reserves,” allowing the state to confiscate private Palestinian land for ostensible public use while simultaneously preventing the future growth of those communities.

More recently, the Israel Land Authority and the JNF have been on a planting spree in the Naqab, displacing Bedouin communities like Atir, whose residents have become “trespassers” where they once lived or worked, as it is now regarded as state land. Altogether, the JNF boasts of planting 250 million trees in Israel and continues to prominently solicit donations to plant more on its website.

An interactive map created by Adalah and Bimkom, an Israeli human rights organization, identifies Bedouin communities in the Naqab still under threat from the Israeli government. Following the Nakba, the majority of Bedouin communities in Israel were forced onto reservations concentrated in a closed military area known as the Siyag (also sometimes referred to as the Sayig) and still lack basic services and infrastructure.

To this day, the Israeli government has officially recognized less than a dozen of the Bedouin communities in the Siyag, leaving the remaining thirty-four under constant threat of eviction and demolition. At least nine are under imminent threat, meaning eviction proceedings or demolitions have already begun. These communities may be displaced under a variety of pretexts from the Israeli government, including afforestation projects.

While the JNF touts the environmental benefits of afforestation projects as revitalizing soil, preventing flooding, and fighting climate change through carbon capture, even that appears to be untrue. Critics cited by the Yale School of the Environment say the Yatir Forest has obliterated a diverse ecosystem for rare species and may in fact be accelerating climate change by retaining more heat than the desert previously reflected back into space. According to Morany, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the largest nonprofit environmental organization in the country, has also argued that afforestation projects in the Naqab should be stopped, saying that they “constitute a significant threat to the unique biodiversity” of the land.

Israeli afforestation is not confined to the internationally recognized borders of Israel either. Morany cites policy papers from current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous governing coalition in 2022 that explicitly committed the government to afforestation in parts of the West Bank, which is widely considered to be Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel. According to the Akevot Institute, which points to internal JNF documents from 1987, the organization has also been planting in the West Bank for decades in order to prevent Palestinians from otherwise using land that could be turned into illegal Israeli settlements in the future.

Ending the Charity-to-Malice Pipeline

Adalah has attempted to prevent further afforestation projects, as well as the displacement of Palestinians in general, via legal avenues in Israel, but has had little success, according to Morany. To begin with, there is widespread hesitation by Palestinians to engage the legal system in Israel, which frequently rules against them, establishing an adverse judgment whether there was previously at least legal uncertainty.

Furthermore, Morany charges that, when presented with clear evidence and strong legal claims of Palestinian ownership, Israeli courts resort to loopholes, like arbitrarily reclassifying afforestation projects as agricultural projects, which are adjudicated by Israeli bureaucrats, politicians, and JNF members behind closed doors. There is also entrenched Zionism in the legal system, as evident in an Israeli Supreme Court case from 2010, in which one of the justices defended afforestation by citing extensively from the Bible.

Unable to appeal to the courts or defend their lands from forestry workers flanked by militarized police, Palestinians continue to be displaced by trees, many of them funded by charity, but planted with malice. Severing that charity-to-malice pipeline may present one of the only means of staunching Israeli afforestation efforts against Palestinians.

“Israeli authorities and the JNF engage in greenwashing to mask their crimes across historic Palestine, making themselves appear as eco-friendly efforts while causing severe harm to Palestinians and, at times, also to the environment,” says Morany. “We’ve already observed an instance where donors, upon reflection, come to acknowledge and apologize for the consequences of their contributions to JNF afforestation.”

The instance Morany is referring to is the South Africa Forest. Funded by contributions to the JNF by South African Jews, the forest was planted over the Palestinian village of Lubya, whose residents were displaced during the Nakba. In 2015, South Africans, including some of the original contributors to the forest, formally apologized for their role in displacing the Palestinians as part of Stop the JNF, an international campaign to reveal the true nature of Israeli afforestation. The campaign provides educational material and organizing resources on the JNF, stopping afforestation, and ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine in general. It also solicits donations of its own to plant trees — olive trees in the West Bank, to support Palestinian farmers.