“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
JNF forests burning in Northern Israel (photo by Oren Ziv/Active Stills)
Four days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to place thousands of migrant workers from Africa and Southeast Asia 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.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is cursed with a penchant for intellectual honesty
In a little noticed article on page 19 of the September 1 edition of Maariv, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, assailed the actors and artists who have refused to perform at the theater in the Jewish settlement of Ariel. As a proud advocate of Greater Israel and professed friend of even the most fanatical members of the settlement enterprise (see his remarks at the recent funeral of murdered settlers in Kiryat Arba), Rivlin’s attack would not have been significant if he hadn’t revealed some uncomfortable facts in the process.
Seemingly lost in his anger at the lefty artists, Rivlin conceded that the founders of Israel, the cream of the kibbutznikim, had carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing to a massive degree. “I say to those who want to boycott – Deer Balkum [‘beware’ in Arabic],” Rivlin said to Maariv. “Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948..] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel.”
So according to one of the most powerful politicians in Israel, the official story of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which denies that Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 (they “abandoned their homes…at the request of Arab leaders,” the ministry’s website claims), is false. The Nakba happened after all. But in Rivlin’s view, those who carried out the Nakba no “moral right” to oppose settlement activity because they stole more from the Palestinians than the settlers intend to steal.
As it is said, there is no honor among thieves.
Here is a complete translation of the Hebrew-only Maariv report (thanks to the great Aki Orr for translation assistance):
Rivlin castigates the boycotting artists (“Ma’ariv” Sept. 1, bottom of page 19)
Rubi Rivlin, Chairman of the KNESSET, yesterday viciously attacked Israeli artists, players, and writers, who imposed a cultural boycott on the town of ARIEL, due to its location beyond the “Green Line” [in territories conquered in 1967]
“I say to those who want to boycott – Deer Balkum [“beware” in Arabic] Those who expelled Arabs from En-Karem, from Jaffa, and from Katamon [in 1948..] lost the moral right to boycott Ariel” said Rivlin to “Ma’ariv” yesterday.
Rivlin described the artists’ call for a boycott as “lacking intellectual honesty” adding that those who settled in Ariel and other places in Judea and Samaria [the official Israeli name for the occupied West Bank] did so “due to the orders of society, and some may say – due to the orders of Zionism.”
“The Negev affords me the pleasure of watching a wasteland develop into the most fruitful portion of Israel by a totally Jewish act of creation.” –David Ben Gurion, Memoirs
In the middle of the night on August 10, residents of the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Arakib sent a panicked text message to Israeli activists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Israeli police helicopters were buzzing overhead, surveying the scene ahead of what was likely to be a new round of demolitions. Three activists staying in the village had been nabbed during a night raid. Having already witnessed the razing of their homes twice in the past two weeks, the residents of Al-Arakib expected the third round of demolitions to arrive tonight, on the eve of Ramadan. During Ramadan, when the villagers fasted all day, the police and Israeli Land Adminstration reasoned they would be too weakened to rebuild — it was prime time for destruction.
I arrived in Al-Arakib at 3 AM with a handful of Jerusalem-based activists. A local couple hauled out mattresses and blankets and poured us small cups of coffee. “I’ve had enough of sleeping,” the man grumbled as he reclined next to his wife. He seemed grateful to have company. I laid down and stared at the desert sky, listening to the man describe in a lulled tone the experience of watching his neighbors’ homes crumple under the teeth of bulldozers again and again. As he trailed off, I heard a low droning sound in the distance. Were they here already? I looked around at the others. No one to register the slightest sign of concern. Finally, I slipped into a light slumber.
Two hours later I was torn from my sleep. “They’re here!” someone shouted in Hebrew. I leapt from my mattress and scrambled up a dune until I reached the center of the village. A phalanx of one hundred riot cops had assembled in a tight formation. They were bristling with assault weapons and centurion shields. Flanked by bulldozers, the police quickly ringed the activists and journalists, who numbered about two dozen, and began forcibly pushing them away from the site of the demolitions. Their intention seemed to be to prevent any brave souls from standing between the bulldozers and the homes they sought to destroy. Dispatched by a faceless network of clerks and engineers in air-conditioned offices to do the dirty work of the state, the police performed their duty with cold efficiency.
As the bulldozers trundled around the village, tearing tarps from plywood pylons, crushing tin roofs, and dragging the shattered structures into hulking piles, the villagers watched with resignation. Seated on her bed in the naked desert, a girl wiped a few tears from her eyes, grimacing at the sight before her. On a nearby hill, a man quizzed his daughter on surahs from the Quran before sending her to collect mattresses from beneath the dusty waste of what used to be their sleeping quarters. An old woman stood impassively by a flock of birds perched on the collapsed remains of her house. Dispossession and homelessness have become nearly mundane in Al-Arakib.
The villagers remain devoted to the nomadic Bedouin tradition. (Why else would they resist with such tenacity the Israeli government’s plan to resettle them in one of the Indian reservation-style “development communities” the state has created for them?) However, they have established a permanent presence in the areas around their village that pre-dates the foundation of Israel. Al-Arakib’s cemetery, for example, contains the graves dating back to the end of the 19th century. Yet the Bedouins’ historical claim to the Negev has not convinced the state that they deserve legal recognition. Nor have their attempts to demonstrate their loyalty by serving as front-line combat soldiers in the Israeli Army. In the eyes of the state, the Arabs of the Negev are at best quasi-human.
In 1953, the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion (original name: David Gryn) moved to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev. A self-described messianist who rejected the existence of God while simultaneously describing the Torah as his political guidebook, Ben Gurion saw the Negev as a blank slate for realizing his revolutionary fever dreams. In his memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small settlements throughout the Negev. Just as he disdained the cosmopolitan spirit of Tel Aviv’s urbanists, Ben Gurion was disgusted by the sight of the open desert, describing it as “a criminal waste.” In the place of sand dunes, he imagined a Jewish replica of Northern Europe.
“When I look out of my window and see a tree standing [in the Negev],” Ben Gurion wrote, “that tree gives me a greater sense of beauty and personal delight than all the vast forests I have seen in Switzerland or Scandinavia… Not only because I helped to grow them but because they constitute a gift of man to Nature, and a gift of the Jews to the cradle of their culture.”
With the ethnocentric Ashkenazi outlook of Labor Zionism, Ben Gurion held deep contempt for non-European cultures. He denigrated the Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Arab countries as “savage” and as “a primitive community” that reveres pimps and thieves. But he at least acknowledged their existence in Israeli society. In his writings about the Negev, Ben Gurion did not once mention the presence of the tens of thousands of Arab Beduoins whose villages abutted his kibbutz. To him, their culture was void; they lived in a “wasteland.” They were obstacles to his utopian vision, not human beings.
Today the Israeli government remains committed to fulfilling Ben Gurion’s fantasies even though the Israeli public has completely turned its back on the Negev. “It seems that the fantasies grow stronger especially when the Jews do not move to live in the desert,” the Israeli blogger Eyal Niv wrote. “The more the Jews back away from the desert, the more their leaders toughen the force, frequency, and cruelty of the expulsion of its other residents.”
In the areas in and around Al-Arakib, just 5 km north of the city of Beersheva, the Jewish National Fund is in the process of planting the “Ambassador Forest.” The forest will cover the land inhabited for over 100 years by the residents of Al-Arakib and prevent them from ever returning. The “Blueprint Negev” plan of the Jewish National Fund, an organization that claims to be acting “on behalf of Jewish people everywhere,” can only be realized through harsh military force, the razing of villages, and ultimately, ethnic cleansing. The meting out of these practices against citizens of Israel should raise serious questions about the country’s claim to uphold democratic values.
After the Israeli Police completed their third demolition of Al-Arakib, the villagers collected the remains of their homes and, with the assistance of a few international and Jewish Israeli activists, began rebuilding again. Without any recourse from the state or its courts, they have no other option but to start over from scratch. And they have nowhere else to go.
Underprivileged Israeli teens signed up for the "summer camp of destruction"
On July 31, I published a piece about a group of high school age Israelis who helped the Israeli police level the Bedouin Arab village of al-Arakib. Since publishing the story, “The Summer Camp of Destruction,” I have received unconfirmed accounts from witnesses that the youth volunteers sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” while police bulldozers destroyed homes. Nothing is unbelievable at this point.
Based on the impressions of a friend who counsels members of the IDF and Border Police on coping with human rights violations they committed, I identified the youth volunteers as members of the Israeli police civil guard. However, their vests read “Reshet Biatachon. According to the Tarabut blog, which is published in Hebrew, the teens were working for a security outsourcing firm for minimum wage. This fact makes the story no less disturbing.
The background of the youth is perhaps more significant than the identity of the entity they were working for. Most appeared to be Mizrahi (Jews of Arab descent), while the rest appeared Ethiopian, and Russian. These are, of course, the three most marginalized, victimized groups within Jewish Israeli society, and are therefore the most inclined to prove their loyalty as front line soldiers in Border Police units battling the only caste lower than them: the Arabs.