For 112 years, the Jewish National Fund has played a central role in the on-going displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from their land and homes. The JNF was instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and continues to play a central role in maintaining Israel’s regime of apartheid. The JNF controls vast properties belonging to millions of Palestinians, developing them exclusively for persons of “Jewish nationality,” a concept established and promoted in the JNF’s charter to exclude all others.
In early January 2013, the international campaign to Stop the JNF organized its third annual study tour. Activists from the UK, US, and Italy came to Palestine to learn about the work of the JNF and meet the people organizing to return to or stay on their land. We saw a range or JNF projects from Al-Arakib, an unrecognized Bedouin village facing expulsion to make way for a new JNF forest to Silwan East Jerusalem where a JNF subsidiary helps takeover Palestinian homes and transfer them to illegal Jewish settlers to American Independence Park where the JNF simultaneously covers up the ruins of Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and also proudly displays maps of how Zionist militias attacked these villages in October 1948.
The JNF is most commonly known for its campaign to “plant a tree in Israel” in order to “make the desert bloom.” Though it is not possible to replace what is lost when people are displaced, a way of life is destroyed, and 1,000 year old olive trees uprooted, the Plant-a-Tree in Palestine project, a part of the Stop the JNF campaign, seeks to support the on-going struggle of Palestinians to rebuild by providing resources for villages to plant trees that are indigenous to Palestine’s natural environment and agricultural life.
With the donations collected by the Plant-a-Tree project, the Palestinian partners of the project – Stop the Wall Campaign and the Palestinian Farmers’ Union – bought olive trees to be planted in Susiya and Khirbet Twayel as part of the study tour. These villages were selected because they are facing extreme ethnic cleansing policies and the local communities are in dire need of solidarity actions to draw attention to their plight and help them resist displacement.
Due to a terrible storm, the planting in Susiya was postponed but on 13 January, I went to Khirbet Twayel with local activists, farmers, and members of the Stop the JNF 2013 study tour to plant together the 112 trees donated through the Plant a Tree in Palestine project. Each tree stands for one year of existence of the Jewish National Fund, a year of dispossession and expulsion as well as one year of Palestinian and international resistance to JNF policies.
Khirbet Twayel is a little hamlet of 20 families (about 150 people) near the town of Aqraba, southeast of Nablus. This hamlet is a farming and shepherding community and I was told it’s considered the most fertile area of the Nablus district. The Israeli army declared Khirbet Twayel a “closed military zone” and plans to evict the population and confiscate the land. Demolition orders have been handed out to the villagers for everything from the mosque (currently under construction) to houses, animal shelters, green houses and water wells which are the villagers’ lifeline providing drinking water for people and their animals. Even the electricity grid, which has only recently connected the village thanks to funding of approximately $200,000 from the Belgian Government, is threatened with demolition.
Hamza, a youth activist from the nearby town of Aqraba explained the long history of land confiscation in this area. As he held up a map depicting the nearby lands already taken by Israel, I thought of the maps we have all seen of Palestine slowly shrinking. Here we were, standing in one of the villages that Israel wants to erase from the 2013 version. Even now, this village is barely known. Our bus driver told me he had fruitlessly searched for Khirbet Twayel on his maps the night before. It’s easy to take what most people never knew existed.
But for one day, Khirbet Twayel was in the spotlight. Many people, young and old, gathered to dig into the rich earth and put beautiful saplings into the ground. TV cameras from national news programs made the trek to this remote village. Jamal Juma’, coordinator of Stop the Wall, welcomed the crowd and explained the connection between the Stop the JNF campaign and the tree planting action. “The donations that the Jewish National Fund collects around the world are contributing to the catastrophe of our people. It started in 1948 but it continues today here in Khirbet Twayel, in Susiya, in the Jordan Valley. These areas are facing a systematic expulsion process but our struggle together is going to stop the Israeli colonization and occupation.”
Khaled, a refugee living in Al-Fara Camp near Nablus, enthusiastically planted the first tree of the day. Beside each sapling, we put up a sign with the name of a Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed. Jamal explained “the signs are a message that by destroying these villages or by building on the ruins of these villages, you are not going to remove them from the history.” Khaled inserted a sign that read “Bab Al-Shams,” which had been cleared by Israeli forces just hours before. He then searched for the name of his own village, Im Al-Zeinat, and spoke of fig and pomegranate trees, of village springs, and of breathtaking views as he placed the village sign in the ground. He told me that though none of the homes in Im Al-Zeinat are still standing, he could still find the pile of stones that was his family’s home because his father had repeatedly explained the exact location. Despite the years and despite the JNF forests planted on top of many of these villages, the memories and the will to return are still alive.
The Plant-a-Tree in Palestine project is a joint project of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, Stop the Wall, the Palestinian Farmers’ Union, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and is part of the international campaign to stop the JNF.
Learn more at www.StoptheJNF.org
Josie Shields-Stromsness is the program director at the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA). She lives in Palestine and can be reached at josie AT mecaforpeace DOT org.