Picking up a passenger by the hot, treeless roadside, Bedouin advocate ‘Ali Abu Subayh wheels his Fiat around onto a path, spitting rocks and coating the windows with dust, headed toward an “unrecognized village” in southern Israel. Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Israeli government displaced the Bedouin of the Negev desert into a sliver of land less than 2 percent the size of their former range. The government built seven townships for the Bedouin, and simultaneously declared all existing Negev Bedouin villages to be illegal. Today, Abu Subayh and 80,000 other Bedouin citizens of Israel born in one of these 45 “unrecognized” villages are threatened with further displacement. More than once, Abu Subayh, a field worker with the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, has himself returned home to find a piece of paper flapping on the post at the entrance to the goat pen — a demolition order.
Al-‘Araqib is unique among these villages. Like many other unrecognized villages, it was demolished in 1951, and its residents were “temporarily” relocated. Unlike others, however, al-‘Araqib’s old stone ruins remained in place over the decades. Over the years, the original residents returned to work the land and maintain its productivity. And in the 1990s, the residents returned to al-‘Araqib, family by family, and reestablished the village. But in late July, al-‘Araqib was destroyed again by the Israeli government to make way for a Jewish National Fund (JNF) forest. The JNF, a non-profit corporation with quasi-state powers, was not directly involved in the removal of al-‘Araqib; village removal is the domain of the Israel Land Authority, the government agency responsible for managing 93 percent of the land of Israel. By law the JNF nominates ten of the Authority’s 22 directors, however, so when the Authority opts to destroy an “unrecognized village,” the JNF is deeply involved. So, too, when the American wing of the JNF — which has at least 28 offices across the United States, governed by over 18 vice presidents and ten assistant vice presidents — raises money for an “Ambassador’s Forest” to replace the village of al-‘Araqib, the line between house demolition and the greening of the desert is blurred. The Ambassor’s Forest is just one of the tree plantations that Israel has rooted for decades with donations from Jews and other sympathizers of the Zionist project around the world.
Due to funding shortages and international pressure, government threats to remove unrecognized Bedouin villages have generally been carried out home by home, rather than village by village. In the absence of money for all-out Jewish settlement, the government has found it difficult to follow through with the planned removal of entire Bedouin villages, when only rubble will be left behind. But it has been easier to justify replacing tin shacks with trees. The destruction of an entire village of 500 people, all at once — to make way for a JNF tree plantation — therefore sets an important precedent for twenty-first century Israeli policy toward the Bedouin.
Making the Desert Blue (and Green)
The Jewish National Fund forest to be planted on the new ruins of al-‘Araqib is part of a larger effort to green the image of the Negev, in order to encourage more Jewish immigration to the south of the country. The Negev is not the first place the average Israeli dreams of when she contemplates the prospects for a better life. Long treated as a lawless “dumping ground,” the Negev hosts dozens of chemical factories, multiple mining operations, Tel Aviv’s excess waste and the nation’s principal nuclear facility at Dimona. Along with the pollution of the desert, the lack of government investment in either Jewish or Bedouin towns has undermined lingering romantic notions about living in Israel’s “last wilderness.” But the JNF insists that it can transform the image of the desert and boost its desirability through the Blueprint Negev campaign.
Introduced in 2005, around the time of the removal of Gaza’s Jewish settlements, Blueprint Negev aimed to establish a beachhead of 25 towns on Israel’s southern tip and become a symbol of national renewal, under the slogan, “It’s not a mirage, it’s a dream becoming a reality.” Via Blueprint Negev, the JNF intends to attract new immigrants to the desert with the promise of water, bluing it with rivers, lakes and swimming pools, then greening it with golf courses and lawns.
But in this perennial Middle East hot spot, such dreams have a tendency to vaporize. Just as the government effort to concentrate the Bedouin population in the townships has been put on hold due to persistent budget shortfalls, so, too, the plan to build settlements for Jews in the region has been deferred. Within a year and a half of the virtual launch of Blueprint Negev, world Zionist resources were directed to the Lebanon war and more attention went to securing Israel’s borders than to expanding Jewish development in a desert region with a tenuous Jewish majority. Within days after the first Katyusha rockets blasted kibbutz orchards near the Lebanese border and Israeli warplanes commenced relentless bombardments, which eventually killed close to 3,000 Lebanese, the JNF had focused its energies upon the north of the country, launching Operation Northern Renewal.
Not much later, in 2008, attention shifted south again as the Israeli army invaded Gaza in response to the Qassam rockets launched into the Negev, and the JNF introduced Operation Security Blanket. Instead of building up new Blueprint Negev settlements, the JNF allocated millions for a rocket-proof indoor playground replete with a jungle gym, video game arcade, disco, merry-go-round, swing sets, therapy rooms, barbecue pit and, according to the JNF, “rooms that double as bomb shelters.” As publicity and funding was diverted from north to south again, the JNF relied upon a settler group, the OR Movement, to push Blueprint Negev forward on the grassroots level. The JNF aimed to build 25 settlements by 2010, but by 2009, only seven small ones had been established, three of them by OR’s Negev branch prior to joining forces with the JNF. Neither the JNF nor the OR Movement is directly involved in the removal of any Bedouin village. Their role in the settlement of Israel has been to create models for Jewish habitation — to replace.
From Barren to Luxurious
The publicity push for Blueprint Negev intensified in early 2006, when Israeli President Shimon Peres lauded its first planned development town as a new beacon for Americans “who want to make aliyah and live in style.” Soon, he told the Israeli public, there would be a haven for wealthy young Americans in Israel’s Negev desert. There would be homes with central air conditioning and other Western amenities, a lavish community center with gym facilities and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
American Jewish leaders continue to promote Peres’ vision for the Negev. It will be “pure Zionism,” says Daniel Mattio, the chairman of the Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund, which was created in 2008 to speed the rate of Jewish settlement in the Negev. It will be “a fresh new community with fresh new attitudes,” “a type of utopia,” “pluralistic and diverse,” dedicated to “sustainable living,” says Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who leads the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago (where he was rabbi of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel) and co-founded the Fund. There will be an organic farm, a bed-and-breakfast and an art gallery, says the JNF. There will be shops, synagogues and a think tank devoted to religious diversity. There will be eco-tourism. Planners say the community will retain an American sensibility even after the Americans have been outnumbered.
The place they have in mind is Carmit, one of 14 new settlements planned by the JNF as part of the revised Blueprint Negev. Today Carmit is little more than an access road, earth-moving machines and a few mounds of pebbles surrounded by Bedouin villages in all directions. Mattio and Lopatin originally planned to move to the desert outpost in the summer of 2010, when the first houses were scheduled to be completed. They were prepared to bring with them 100 American families, who would be followed by 100 Israeli families, and eventually be joined by 2,400 more. The idea was to inspire hundreds of thousands of “Anglo-Jews” and Israelis to make their way to new desert developments. A former JNF-America president, Estée Lauder scion Ronald Lauder, billed Blueprint Negev as an opportunity for Americans to “make aliyah the pioneering way.” But several years after Peres promoted Carmit as an affluent haven for Anglo-Jews in the desert, the first houses have yet to be constructed.
In fact, Blueprint Negev is less a concrete development plan than a public relations and fundraising campaign seeking to inspire American Jewish investment in Jewish settlement of the Negev. It appeals to American Jewish romance surrounding the re-rooting of the Jewish people in its desert origins, and deep nostalgia for Israel’s halcyon days, the blooming of a modern Jewish state in a wild terrain.
Twenty-First Century Pioneers
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, alloyed the JNF and the settlers with such sentiments when he laid out his vision for the modernization of the young country before an assembly of Zionist pioneers in 1954. “For those who make the desert bloom,” he said, “there is room for hundreds, thousands and even millions.” This vision — linking water, population and desert development — is the basis of the JNF’s oldest, and also its latest, efforts in a region comprising over half of the territory of Israel. For its part, the American branch of the JNF has long viewed control over water resources as essential to the survival of Israel, working in close cooperation with international irrigation experts to channel water to outposts and JNF forests in all regions of the country.
One modern-day outpost looks out over one of the only fully forested regions in the Negev, planted by the JNF. The settlement of Sansana survives the difficult desert conditions through complete access to water and other manifestations of state support. In late 2009, Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak approved expansion of the illegal outpost into a state-sanctioned settlement, and ordered construction of 440 housing units on the Israeli side of the separation barrier being built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Pending that construction, Sansana retains a frontier feel, replete with hilltop caravans and lookout towers. Its early settlers have taken on the personae of pioneers in a pristine and empty wilderness.
In 2000, as the second intifada exploded, a cadre of five childhood friends who had just finished their military service mobilized 15 families to move to the then-failing settlement of Sansana. Two years later, having successfully reestablished a Jewish presence in the settlement, they founded the OR Movement to settle the Negev and the Galilee; from 2002 on, they established five communities in the Negev and are currently initiating four more, including Carmit. In 2005, OR Negev achieved notoriety for helping the settlers who had been evacuated from Gaza relocate to these new Negev settlements.
That same year, JNF-America head Russell Robinson was meeting with potential Blueprint Negev partners at the King David Hotel, entertaining their proposals for securing Israel’s demographic-territorial claim to the Negev. “I can’t begin to tell you about all the strange ideas people had,” he said. “One man was certain it was all about windmills.” “Two young men in sandals, cutoffs and T-shirts,” walked in, Robinson recalled. “They looked like something that had come out of a kibbutz hall meeting.” These were the representatives of the OR Movement. “They had chutzpah. They didn’t know how to take no for an answer. All day, people had been telling me, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ These men said, ‘We can.’”
Though run by Israelis, OR Negev employs American homesteading rhetoric, drawing on the romantic imagery of a lawless frontier and taking up the mantle of manifest destiny. The choice catchphrase of its chief executive officer, Roni Flamer, is: “Go south, young man!” In 2009, the OR Movement was the third largest recipient of JNF-America funds. Today the settlements established through the southern wing of the movement, OR Negev, are the basis of Blueprint Negev. The group recruits settlers through what it calls “the only comprehensive population information center in Israel.”
OR says it seeks to reinforce the eternal bond between the People of Israel and their land. Progressive American-Israeli planning scholars such as Daniel Orenstein — a former JNF-America board member — consider OR an illegal settlement movement dedicated to staking out lands for Jews in order to offset the presence of Arabs on Israeli lands. Noam Dolgin of the Green Zionist Alliance positions himself as neutral: “We support many organizations that engage in projects linking the sustainable to the strategic…. I support [OR’s] right to have an opinion that we need to expand into the Negev. I don’t necessarily agree with their approach. There’s a process in place and there would be less controversy if organizations of all kinds, including OR, would adhere to it.”
But while OR Negev once operated on the fringes of the formal planning process — in violation of official Negev development plans that prohibited sprawl into the desert’s last open spaces — today it operates under the sponsorship (and overt political protection) of the JNF. Thanks to OR Negev’s extra-legal settlement activity, a scattering of new settlements now form a triangle in the region around the Negev’s urban center, Beersheva.
OR Negev’s success at seeing its once illegal settlements retroactively legalized is best understood by going back to the roots of JNF-America settlement ideology. The American Zionist settlement movement — like the homestead movement in North America — has long pointed to its physical and financial investment in the land in order to plant evidence of ownership. Initially, that investment was often communal, and embodied by the kibbutz. At the turn of the twentieth century, however, many influential American Jews — chief among them Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis — voiced opposition to the socialist orientation of the kibbutz and sought to export to Israel an American homesteading model based on private land ownership.
According to the American homesteading principle of “sweat equity,” settlers could expropriate territory through their sustained presence and labor. JNF-America advocated the homestead as a capitalist alternative to the kibbutz, merging the baalebat (bourgeoisie) and chalutz (pioneer) to form a modern settler-entrepreneur who would test himself physically and economically in the harsh elements. Most Zionist thinkers envisioned the entirety of Palestine prior to Jewish immigration and investment as an empty, scorched land — and, more than any other region of Palestine, the Negev desert was seen as a wasteland awaiting Zionist modernization.
From its inception in 1948, the state classified all lands lacking a legal title, as “waste lands” or mawat, an Arabic term according to which the Ottomans classified “waste lands” as state property. Israel appropriated this classification, aware that hardly a single Bedouin village had legally registered its lands under the Ottomans. Thereafter, hardly a single indigenous Bedouin citizen received government approval to initiate any significant agricultural enterprise of his own. A criminal stigma began to pervade Bedouin self-subsistence efforts, now considered an “invasion” of national domain. As Bedouin agricultural lands were retroactively deemed illegal, successful Jewish homesteads were retroactively recognized. The government tacitly and extra-legally encouraged Jewish settlers — just like those in the OR Movement today — to construct private homes and out-buildings on state land, and offered them annual subsidies to engage in cultivation.
Brandeis, the first director of JNF-America, the organization’s funding capital, referred to Zionists as “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers.” He believed Jews in America could play a decisive role in the restoration of the fallen biblical kingdom. The pilgrims and their descendants had referred to New England as “New Israel” and presumed that the ten lost tribes of Israel were to be found among the native peoples of North America — a conceit that cast biblical legitimacy over the conquest of the New World. Centuries after the Puritans, JNF-America drew on their rhetoric to justify what it viewed as the return of the natives of the Land of Israel. “The United States had its manifest destiny in the West,” Lauder wrote in 2004. “Russia looked to its frozen tundra to the East. Many countries have had vast areas of what many considered to be uninhabitable land at one time, which eventually became some of the most important parts of their developed societies. For Israel, that land is the Negev.” Russell Robinson, asked if the JNF and OR use the phrase “manifest destiny” as part of an overarching strategy, said: “Words are sometimes used in different ways for different people, and we’re talking to Americans. You try to bring them to you with vision and with romance: Here God is, allowing you to participate in the creation process. I think that manifest destiny is part of our responsibility. Call it manifest responsibility.”
Today, several Blueprint Negev settlements run microtourism enterprises on the frontier, staking out a Jewish presence as they invite Zionist devotees from all over the world — potential immigrants — to lay claim to the status of both the “native” and the “pioneer.” In recent years the JNF has recruited American students to journey to Negev Jewish communities for an “alternative” spring break, where they volunteer on an agricultural settlement, visit Blueprint Negev projects and even listen to Bedouin storytelling. In addition to paying their own way, participants are required to raise $975 for Blueprint Negev. At one tourist village, visitors can view themselves as pioneers as they sleep in teepee structures like the conical tents used by both the early Zionist pioneers in temporary camps along the frontier, and the early Israeli boy scouts who wore desert kaffiyas with their uniform. Alternately, visitors can play the role of the Indian, as Jewish settlers lead them through Indian ceremonies and offer them “wigwams” at the end of the night.
“The Wild South”
A man sits astride a weary horse with gentle eyes; in his right hand, he holds a lasso, in his left, the reins. “Yes, there are cowboys in Israel,” the Israeli Tourism Ministry advertised in a 2007 edition of the New York Times Magazine. Like an American cowboy, the Israeli’s hat is worn and floppy, his red plaid shirt is rolled up informally at the sleeves, he has a full beard and his eyes squint in the sun. The bottom of the page reads, in capital-lettered fine print: “NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU.” “This land is ours,” said Robinson. “There is no controversy, no argument, no discussion. But if we don’t take care of it, it can become desert; it can be taken from us.” JNF-America’s president sees the “reclamation” of the Negev as fundamental to ensuring the state’s survival. Meanwhile, the OR Movement defines “taking care of” the land in terms of staking Jewish belonging and ownership.
The relationship between Bedouin and Jews in the Negev has never been tenser. In recent years, the “last frontier” has come to be referred to as the “wild South,” as Jewish squatters on state lands have used vigilante tactics in response to what they call Bedouin trespassing. The flashpoint in this twenty-first century conflict came in early February 2007, when Shai Dromi, a Jewish rancher developing an illegal settlement on the Green Line (the boundary between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories) in the Negev desert, killed Khalid al-Atrash, a Bedouin man attempting to steal his sheep. Within a few weeks of the killing, amidst a flurry of pro-Dromi protests spreading all the way from the desert to Jerusalem, the incident reached the Knesset, where a “self-defense bill” to legalize Dromi’s actions — inspired by Texas statutes — passed all of its readings and became law. “What happened to Dromi could have happened to us,” a settler told a local newspaper. “If we have to go to war, we’ll go to war.” Another area farmer offered his preferred solution: “Every person wakes up in the morning, goes and shoots a Bedouin. There are 100,000 people shooting Bedouins. What are you going to do, punish them all?” Small Jewish militias sprout in the Negev each day, he said.
For such settlers the Zionist mantra of “making the desert bloom” does not only mean seeding the Land of Israel with Jewish development. It does not even mean combating desertification, realizing the potential of a land supposedly laid to waste by its non-Jewish inhabitants. It means eradicating Bedouin invaders on their terrain. These settlers are not the first to interpret Ben Gurion’s vision thus. Indeed, after masses of Palestinians were expelled from their lands during the 1948 war, the head of the JNF, Josef Weitz, strongly objected that, unlike in the north of the country, not all Negev Bedouin returnees following the war were evicted. He lamented that their pastures were not universally “plowed over so that no trace of them remains,” making way for Jewish farmers to cultivate ready-made fields.
Orenstein suggests that with the OR-JNF alliance, the JNF’s environmental “land reclamation” efforts in the Negev have begun to lose their distinction from the OR Movement’s goal of “reclaiming land for Jews.” Others, such as environmental justice advocate Devorah Brous, argue that the JNF’s approach to “land reclamation” was always double-edged.
The JNF, after all, literally planted the borders of the Jewish state. As Hebrew University geographer Ilan Solomon explains, the JNF tree line follows the Green Line, demarcating the border so distinctly that it is visible from space.
All over the country in the years following the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel, the JNF planted pine forests on the sites of Arab villages whose inhabitants had left or were expelled from their homes. Today, as the JNF continues to advertise itself as “the caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners — Jewish people everywhere,” Palestinian-Bedouin citizens of Israel are seen as, at best, guests in the country’s national parks.
More recently, the JNF has planted forests expressly in order to limit Bedouin “incursion” into open spaces and restrict Bedouin herding. To that end, after the “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, the JNF put settlers from Gaza to work planting 500 acres of olive trees in a ring around the affluent Jewish suburb of Omer. Soon to be accompanied by a golf course and hotel, another planned 2,000 acres of olive trees will render it one of the largest urban greenspaces in Israel. Omer Local Council chairman Pini Badash explained that the planting project aims “to assert control over the land within Omer’s municipal boundaries” and limit Bedouin grazing. Brous offered her own interpretation: “Planting as a means of demarcating Jewish versus Arab space is a tangible form of greenwashing.”
On JNF-America’s six-day “environmental mission” to Israel in May, the itinerary featured a visit to an OR Negev settlement to “learn what life is like as a true modern-day pioneer.” OR Negev settlers established the Jewish outpost of Givot Bar on the lands claimed by al-‘Araqib residents in 2004. Just a few years later the JNF replaced Givot Bar’s caravans with permanent houses and heralded the budding Forman-Axelband Family Forest project, planned for the remaining area. While the American Jewish delegates were speaking with OR Negev settlers, Nouri al-‘Uqbi received visitors of his own in al-‘Araqib. Al-‘Uqbi, perhaps the most tenacious Bedouin advocate anywhere, has been non-violently resisting removal since 2006, awaiting the monthly demolition of his makeshift dwelling, and continually re-pitching a protest tent next to the stone foundations upon which he was born. Had the Americans on the “environmental mission” come just three months later, they might have noticed an unusually large number of police in the area. They might have spotted a few dozen Bedouin and Israeli protesters camped nearby. More likely, the itinerary would have been changed well in advance of the moment when bulldozers rolled in to demolish the village of al-‘Araqib.