This last week, about 60,000 people had to flee from their homes in Haifa as forest fires were reaching the city outskirts. With the help of several countries’ firefighter crews (including four Palestinian ones), the Israeli firefighters now seem to have gained control of the fires. During the same week, about a dozen of smaller fires started in forests across the country, recalling to a lesser degree the situation in 2010, when a massive wildfire had burnt Mount Carmel (South of Haifa) and killed 44 people. Members of the Israeli government including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were quick on their feet to accuse Palestinian living in Israel (citizens deprived of the recognition of their Palestinian-ness) to have triggered these fires and they promised severe punishment for the accused supposed arsonists, describing “new forms of terrorism,” and suggesting stripping the accused’s citizenships and destroying their family homes (for more on the collective punishment that home demolitions constitute, see my article about it in the new issue of The Funambulist Magazine). The fact that the Israeli government intends to systematically blame Palestinians for every problems of the Israeli society, in particular when it is being accused of unpreparedness, should not surprise us. This article does not even intend to debunk these accusations and, on the contrary, even accepts them in order to fundamentally deny to the Israeli forests the status of natural innocence that the Zionist narrative pretends that they embody.
(below) Jewish National Fund money-collecting blue boxes: before 1948 to buy land in Palestine, after 1948 to grow forests in Israel.
As described in a previous article entitled “Make the Desert Bloom: Manufacturing the Israeli Territory/Narrative,” in order to understand the political role of the Israeli forests, one must study the history of the organization in charge of planting and maintaining them: the Jewish National Fund (JNF). It is a non-governmental organization controlled by the World Zionist Organization that, until the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, had been collecting money (thanks to small money boxes like the ones shown below) 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. In the three last months of the British Mandate on Palestine in May 1948, various Zionists paramilitary groups started besieging Palestinian villages, subsequently evicting and destroying them. This process of systematic and massive dispossession, displacement and destruction continued after May during the war that was claimed to legitimize the creation of the State of Israel on a large part of Palestine. 800,000 Palestinians (about half of the Palestinian population back then) thus became refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip without any possibility to return to their villages and towns. As described many times on this blog, the successive Israeli governments’ strategy in order to manufacture a national narrative that does not include the massive and systematic violence that the Nakba actually constituted, consisted in minimizing and concealing the past presence of the Palestinian people on the land claimed by the State of Israel. The ruins of the evicted and destroyed Palestinian villages were thus demolished in the 1950s and in some instances, forest planted by the JNF were grown on their past location (like in Lubya as showed in the film The Village under the Forest by Mark J Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum). The double-story that a ruin is, by definition, able to unfold (the assertion of its past existence and the marks of its slow or accelerated destruction) was thus denied to the Palestinian narrative, thus adding an additional layer of dispossessive violence to the Zionist enterprise.
(above) Ruin remains of the villages of Bayyarat Hannun (left) and Yibna (right) / Excerpts of the book Les Absents (2016) by Bruno Fert.
(below) JNF’s largest forest, Birya before (1953) and after its plantation (2008)
Concealing the last remains of Palestinian ruins and, through them, the narrative they carried, was however not the only political aim of these newly grown forests. One of the important reasons that some Israeli forests are currently burning is that these forests are made of pine trees, well-known for their high degree of inflammability, in particular in a very dry environment as the climate in Palestine provides. The reason this type of trees were planted, rather than more vernacular species insists on the Ashkenazim dominating part of the Zionist imaginary. The implementation of pine trees in Israel contributes to provide a visual representation of the Israeli claim of “exceptionalism” in the region, and was meant to appear as an extension of Europe (the Swiss mountains are often cited as an example) in a geographical context that the 19th-century orientalists had mostly described as arid and deserted — Palestine was more often described through its southern desert than through its northern continuity of the Lebanese and Golan fertile lands. Moreover, settler colonialism has yet to find a better way to assert and implement itself than through its usual operations of geoengineering that claim land in imposing a control on it.
(above) JNF “Tree Center” website inciting the Jewish diaspora to fund the planting of a tree for various occasions.
(below) The aforestation of the Negev desert: the Zionist imaginary of “making the desert bloom” at work / Excerpt of The Erasure Trilogy (2015) by photographer Fazal Sheikh
Whether some Palestinians actually contributed to the current fires — couldn’t it be arguably seen as a form of non-violent resistance as they are hypocritically encouraged to undertake by Western nations? — or it was instead the ghosts of the Nakba, as friend Karim Kattan suggests in an forthcoming novel, the current fires of Israeli forests cannot be read in the apolitical understanding of natural disasters (the further question being, do natural disasters still exist anywhere?) but, rather through the prism of Palestine’s political history. In this regard, it is hard not to appreciate the symbol of olive trees growing in the dead trunk of pine trees unfit for the climate in which they were forced to grow, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006). Through this specific symbol and the fires, we should perhaps refrain (however tempting it might be) from the idea of a natural order that would refuse to leave unpunished operations that challenged it but, rather, think that the depoliticization of what they represent fundamentally reinforces the dominant narrative. If we are to accept the newly defined paradigm of the so-called “anthropocene” (regardless of the ironic anthropocentrism and chronocentrism it constitutes), we need to refuse to be moralist ‘tree-huggers’ that consider the conventional forms of “nature” in a complete denial of the political reasons that brought them to existence. As always when it comes to thinking of the future of Palestine, we should refrain from nostalgia and, as such, we should not make the mistake of thinking than burning all the forests planted by the JNF and thus going back to a supposedly original flora would end the apartheid implemented through the Zionist project. However, when we see a pine tree burning in Israel, we can certainly distinguish a tiny part of this project burning through it. What we construct with the ashes is up to us.