# PALESTINE /// “Make the Desert Bloom”: Manufacturing the Israeli Territory/Narrative


Léopold Lambert – Paris on April 7, 2015
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Too often along the lines of the work articulated here, I tend to propose a vision of Palestine that is involuntarily centered on a post-1967 narrative. The latter reinforces the essential separation between the various people living on this territory, while forgetting the 5 millions Palestinian refugees from the political equation. It also encourages a future vision aiming towards the so-called “two-state solution” against which I have regularly argued (see this past article for instance). The imaginary to which I would like to contribute instead, is one that insists on the single entity that is historical Palestine and its territorial capacity to host every historical waves of migration, including the contemporary ones from East Africa. In order to so, we need to take seriously the responsibility of the successive Israeli governments, their army and their various institutions for all forms of modification of the territory we call Israel since 1948.

As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes precisely throughout The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006), the first of these modifications consisted in the forced or military induced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from this territory during the Nakba. The various modifications of the territory that followed 1948 were thus as much dedicated to host and organize the life of this new nation (there were a bit less than 1.5 million Jewish citizens in 1951), as to construct its founding myth. In this regard, the latter could not possibly have been based on the violence of the massacres, looting, and massive expulsion of two-third of the local population (80% of the Palestinians living on what we now call Israel).

The 1948 ethnic cleansing had been thoroughly prepared and its method had been elaborated with precision — if we follow Pappé, we can think that the several massacres that occurred during the Nakba did so when the plan was not followed, and not the other way around. A massive amount of TNT was used to destroy every Palestinian house one by one (about 1Kg per house), thus preventing any return of those who then became the overwhelming number of refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. This type of destruction was far enough to, indeed, prevent any return — each returnee caught by the Israeli soldiers was shot anyway — but this method left the Palestinian villages in the state of ruin, that thus were able to attest to their past existence, as I attempted to show in the article “The Right to the Ruin” (May 2013). The ruin was thus a legal and cultural witness of the crime that funded the State of Israel and, for this reason, had to be demolished and hidden.

The main actor of the modification of the territory from 1950 to today has been the Jewish National Found (JNF), a non-governmental organization controlled by the World Zionist Organization that, until then, had been collecting money (thanks to small money boxes like the ones shown above) within the worldwide Jewish diaspora during the first half of the 20th century, in order to buy as many parcels of land as possible from the Palestinian farmers and landowners. The new function of the JNF after the military takeover of the land by the Israeli army was to “plant trees” (as the subtitle of its website suggests synthetically). In an age where ecology essentially functions through the pictorial, planting trees could not be seen in any other way than a genuine one. However, this strategy of afforestation (growing a forest where there is not any) is as politically charged as the other (more explicit) means of implementing the apartheid state described at length on this blog.

 View from what used to be the Palestinian village of Khulda between Jerusalem and Jaffa

The newly grown forests had a double-role: the first one consisted in hiding the last vestiges of the pre-Nakba Palestinian villages as the film The Village under the Forest by Mark J Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum (2013) illustrates in the case of Lubya near the Sea of Galilee. The second contributed to the “Europeanization” of the Israeli territory, considered “too Arab” by the Ashkenazim Zionist movement and its leader David Ben Gurion. Both the urban scale that denies to the Palestinian ruins to recount their past existence as villages, and the territorial scale that asserts a form of European life conditions, act as memoricide of what Palestine used to be, and manufacture a mythological narrative in the creation of the State of Israel.

 South limit of the West Bank where the Apartheid Wall follows the 1949 Green Line as attested by the Yatir Forest line (map created for this article)

One does not manufacture a territory without manufacturing its climate too, as we know all too well. In a recent lecture given at the University of British Columbia, Eyal Weizman presented his new short book, The Conflict Shoreline (Steidl, forthcoming 2015) as part of the Erasure Trilogy by Fazal Sheikh. This volume describes the Israeli will to engineer a European climate on its territory through this multitude of new forests, and thus to actualize the biblical prophecy of the desert blooming (“the desert will bloom with flowers,” Isaiah 35:2). Weizman’s interest for such a will consists in the evolution of the geographical line delineating the desert (i.e., where there is less than 200 millimeters of precipitation per year) and the systematic eviction of the Palestinian Bedouin population from their villages situated in proximity of this line. Throughout the book, he uses compelling aerial photographs by Sheikh in order to show the various modifications of the territory in the Negev, in particular the JNF efforts to grow forests in the desert. In addition of climatic and legal characteristics, the symbolic aspect of this afforestation is noted by Weizman when he describes what the JNF has called “The Ambassador Forest” seeded on the land of the repeatedly destroyed Bedouin village of al’Araqib. All ambassadors in Israel were offered two dozen of trees planted in their honor; all accepted to the exception of the South African ambassador who was explicit in his refusal of Apartheid strategy (see article on The Electronic Intifada).

When manufacturing symbols, one is never far from seeing them operating against the targeted narrative. In this regard, it is hard not to perceive a strong symbol in the difficulty that the newly introduced pine trees had to face, growing in a soil in which they had been forced. In his book, Pappé relates testimonies asserting that, in some cases, local olive trees grew from the very cracked trunks of dead pine trees. Such an example shows well the difference between contributing to an ecology and “ecologizing” a territory. In order to do so, the JNF and the Israeli government had to invest drastic efforts in the exploitation of crucial appropriated resources like water. The strong contribution to the state of Apartheid of this action allows us to follow Naama Meishar when she described a “not only anthropocentric, but also ethnocentric” ecology in a text entitled “Fragile Guardians: Nature Reserves and Forests Facing Arab Villages” (2003) (see also this excerpt in a publication edited by Malkit Shoshan).

 Ariel Sharon Park near Tel Aviv

The Ariel Sharon Park, inaugurated in 2014 near Tel Aviv, is situated on a plateau formed by the accumulation of 25 million tons of waste. Here again, the self-claimed ecological discourse of the Israeli modification of the territory is hard to sustain. However, we can observe the symbol that this particular park took the name of Ariel Sharon, a man whose military and governmental carrier synthesizes well the extent of the Israeli holistic action to ensure the militarized state of Apartheid. In 1948, Sharon took part of the Nakba with his unit of the Haganah (the ancestor of the IDF), in the 1967 war he was commanding an armored division in the Sinai, and during the first war on Lebanon (1982) he was the crucial Minister of Defense (1981-1983) whose decisions provided the conditions for the massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra in Beirut by the Christian phalanges. Three decades later, he was the Prime Minister (2001-2006) who allowed the Apartheid Wall to be build in the West Bank. These military and governmental roles are the most known aspect of Sharon’s carrier. However, the rest of his political portfolio should not be forgotten: he also was Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor (1984-1990), Minister of Housing and Construction (1990-1992), thus in charge of the West Bank and Gaza Israeli settlements, Minister of Energy and Water Resources (1996-1999), with the crucial implications discussed above and, most importantly for this text’s argument, he was also the Minister of Agriculture between 1977 and 1981. During this time, he worked closely with the JNF in its strategy of afforestation and even formed the “Green Patrol,” in charge of enforcing the so-called ‘ecological’ legislation, and targeting in particular the Bedouin populations.

The modification of the territory by the Israeli government and its partners like the JNF is thus profoundly anchored within the same logic of ethnocratic organization of life in Palestine/Israel. Although the ‘ecological’ aspect of this logic might be less explicit than the continuous military siege on Gaza or the occupation/colonization of the West Bank, we should fully integrate it to our examination of the state of Apartheid, as it will have crucial repercussions in the way a unique state could be formed around the strict equality of the totality of its citizens.