KKL-JNF to move ahead with flashpoint tree planting in Negev

Group’s chair defends practice as crucial for protecting against ‘incursions, environmental harm, illegal construction. trespassing’; critics say intention is to displace Bedouins

KKL workers plant trees in the sandy soil of Kibbutz Mefalsim, located in the north-west Negev desert near to the Gaza border, in August, 2022. The trees are planted to hide the kibbutz from the view of rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip close by. (KKL)
KKL workers plant trees in the sandy soil of Kibbutz Mefalsim, located in the north-west Negev desert near to the Gaza border, in August, 2022. The trees are planted to hide the kibbutz from the view of rocket launchers in the Gaza Strip close by. (KKL)

The Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeYisrael said Sunday it will move ahead with plans to plant trees near Nahal Yatir in the Negev, which last year triggered a violent response.

In her first decision as JNF-KKL chairwoman since entering office earlier this month, Ifat Ovadia-Luski said the organization will carry out tree planting and other agricultural work in the area “without any delays.”

She did not provide a specific date for such activity, which often occurs around the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, which begins this year on February 5.

According to the Walla news site, planting is expected to begin next Sunday, January 29.

Noting the purpose of the practice, Ovadia-Luski said planting would take place “on state-owned lands that protect against incursions, environmental harm, illegal construction and trespassing — all common phenomena in the desert region.”

She said JNF-KKL was “at the forefront of protecting, developing and building the country,” and added that “holding onto and protecting the land, and planting trees were core values of JNF-KKL from the early days of the Zionist movement and we’re proud to be leading these fields today as well.”

According to Yitzhak Wasserlauf of Otzma Yehudit who serves as Development of the Periphery, the Negev and the Galilee Minister, JNF-KKL’s decision to plant trees this year was reached thanks to pressure exerted by him in recent days.

Ifat Ovadia-Luski (WZO)

Last year, the practice was temporarily stopped due to riots among Bedouin residents of the Negev, with some setting fire to tires, blocking roads, and hurling stones at civilian cars. Two police officers were injured in the riots. Planting resumed two days later, under heavy security.

Bedouins in the area claim the agricultural work encroaches on their unrecognized lands and that KKL-JNF is seeking to displace them.

Negev Bedouins have a contentious relationship with the state. For decades, the government has sought to move them into recognized, planned cities, but many still live in a constellation of illegal hamlets that sprawl across Israel’s southern desert.

The Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, currently in the opposition, denounced the decision to move forward with this year’s tree-planting.

“This is a despicable and outrageous decision disguised in the form of planting trees. What residents of the Negev need is full recognition of the unrecognized [Bedouin] villages and towns, infrastructure and rights — not another display of ‘governance,'” the party said in a statement.

Bedouin youth during a protest against tree planting by the Jewish National Fund, outside the Bedouin village of al-Atrash in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 13, 2022. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Other critics of JNF-KKL’s signature program include environmentalists who consider the practice harmful, as it has allowed a single species of trees to spread unchecked, diminishing biodiversity and increasing the risk of forest fires.

Tobias Siegal contributed to this report. 

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