The Two Israels
NYTimes Website 2-28-15 Sunday Review | Op-Ed Columnist
NEGEV DESERT, Israel — FOR generations, Americans and others have been donating trees to Israel through the Jewish National Fund.
“Planting a tree in Israel is the perfect way to show you care,” the fund says on its website. An $18 donation buys a tree, turns the desert green, protects the environment and supports an embattled Jewish state. The fund says it has planted more than 250 million trees in Israel so far.
Yet here in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, it looks more complicated. The Bedouin Arabs, the indigenous inhabitants, say that they are being pushed out of their lands by these trees donated by well-meaning contributors.
“Each of those trees is a soldier causing the destruction of our communities, our lives,” Sheikh Sayakh al-Turi, a Bedouin leader, told me. “All those trees are planted on lands of Bedouin who are still living here.”
His son, Aziz, says that the Jewish National Fund destroyed hundreds of his own fruit and olive trees and then replanted the area with new trees to push out the Bedouin. “They want to delete our history and plant Jewish history,” Aziz said.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the president of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group that is helping the Bedouin, backs up these claims.
“J.N.F. does many good things, but this is the dark side,” he said. “Almost anywhere you go in this country where there is a J.N.F. forest, you will find, at its heart, the ruins of an Arab village.”
“I, as a Zionist, believe I have a place here,” Rabbi Ascherman added, “but I don’t want to be here by displacing Aziz.”
The J.N.F. sees it differently, saying that the fundamental problem isn’t trees but Bedouin poverty. Russell Robinson, the chief executive of the fund, says that the J.N.F. follows Israeli law and forestry plans and that it has some programs that directly combat Bedouin poverty.
That’s true, and those anti-poverty efforts seem admirable. Still, I don’t think Americans who have donated trees would feel too good after meeting some of the displaced Bedouin, and the tree-planting raises larger questions: Particularly at a time of hard-line Israeli leadership, how can foreigners support Israel without inadvertently oppressing Arabs?
The Negev Desert is part of Israel itself, not the West Bank, and these Bedouin are Israeli citizens. Yet Israel is pushing the Bedouin off their lands and destroying their homes in ways that would never happen if they were Jewish.
Aziz al-Turi says the Jewish National Fund has planted trees to help push his fellow Bedouins off their lands in the Negev Desert in Israel. Credit Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times
“We have, in many ways, an incredibly strong democracy” notes Rabbi Ascherman, singling out the vibrancy and range of political debate. Yet it doesn’t always work well for the Arab minority.
It’s also a democracy with contradictions. West Bank Jews vote, but not West Bank Palestinians. A Jewish kid in Chicago has a birthright to Israel, but not a Palestinian child next door whose roots are in Haifa.
The roughly 200,000 Bedouin Arabs reflect the ways in which Israeli democracy falls short. The government doesn’t recognize their land claims and has bulldozed Bedouin villages and then herded them into bleak modern townships that are basically the Israeli equivalent of American Indian reservations.
The Turis’ village, Al Araqib, was bulldozed several years ago. When I spoke to the Bedouin, they were huddled in temporary shacks. And the day after I spoke to them, the authorities knocked those shacks down as well.
On my visit here to the Negev, I faced two Israels. One is the thriving democracy that many of us admire, the one that gives disgruntled Arab citizens free speech and ballots, that treats the wounded Syrians brought across the border, that nurtures a civil society that stands up for the Bedouin. This is the Israel that anyone can support without risking harm to Arabs. Any of us would plant a tree in this Israel. (Indeed, Rabbis for Human Rights has its own tree-planting program.)
Yet the other Israel has been gaining ground. It’s more nationalistic, more militaristic, more determined to push Palestinians off land in the West Bank, more eager to dispatch the United States to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. This is the Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will represent in his address to Congress scheduled for this week.
This is also the Israel that antagonizes many Europeans and Americans. Hard-line policies under Netanyahu are turning support for Israel’s government from a bipartisan issue to a Republican one. A poll of Americans published in December found that 51 percent of Republicans wanted the United States to lean toward Israel, but only 17 percent of Democrats agreed (most didn’t want to lean either way). Increasingly, the constituency in America that most reliably backs the Israeli government may be not Jews but Evangelical Christians.
With the Netanyahu speech coming up, American politicians will be strutting and jostling to prove their “pro-Israel” credentials. So this is a moment to remember that the better question is which Israel to support.
SundayReview | Op-Ed Columnist
Winds of War in Gaza, NYTimes Week in Review 3-7-15
GAZA — IT is winter in Gaza, in every wretched sense of the word. Six months after the latest war, the world has moved on, but tens of thousands remain homeless — sometimes crammed into the rubble of bombed-out buildings. Children are dying of the cold, according to the United Nations.
Rabah, an 8-year-old boy who dreams of being a doctor, walked barefoot in near-freezing temperatures with his friends through the rubble of one neighborhood. The United Nations handed out shoes, but he saves them for school. For the first time in his life, he said, he and several friends have no shoes for daily life. Nearly everyone I spoke to said conditions in Gaza are more miserable than they have ever been — exacerbated by pessimism that yet another war may be looming.
Lacking other toys, boys like Rabah sometimes play with the remains of Israeli rockets that destroyed their homes.
Gaza has been compared to an open-air prison, and, in the years I’ve been coming here, that has never felt more true, partly because so many Gazans are now literally left in the open air. But people joke wryly that at least prisons have reliable electricity.
Rubble and bombed-out buildings, dot Gaza six months after the latest war.
The suffering here has multiple causes. Israel sustains a siege that amounts to economic warfare on an entire population. Hamas provokes Israel, squanders resources and is brutal and oppressive in its own right. Egypt has closed smuggling tunnels that used to relieve the stranglehold, and it mostly keeps its border with Gaza closed. The 1.8 million Gazans are on their own, and one step forward should be international pressure on Israel and Egypt to ease the blockade.
Yet I have to acknowledge that Israel’s strategy of collective punishment may be succeeding with a sector of the population. Gazans aren’t monolithic in their views any more than Americans, but many said that they were sick of war and of Hamas and don’t want rockets fired at Israel for fear of terrible retribution.
“I don’t want resistance,” said Khadra Abed, a 50-year-old woman living with her family in the remains of her home. “We’ve had enough suffering.”
Halima Jundiya, a 65-year-old matriarch who says the children in her family are still traumatized by war, was blunt: “We don’t want Hamas to fire rockets. We don’t want another war.”
One bearded young man said he worked for Hamas but had turned against it, because government salaries were no longer being paid. “I hate Hamas,” he said, which seemed an odd thing for a Hamas officer to say.
Yet Israel should understand clearly that its bombings also put some on the path to becoming fighters. A 14-year-old boy, Ahmed Jundiya, is part of the same clan as Halima, but he draws the opposite conclusion: He aspires to grow up and massacre Israelis.
“War made us feel we will die anyway, so why not die with dignity,” Ahmed told me. “I want to be a fighter.”
Ahmed keeps a poster of a family friend who was killed while firing rockets at Israel, and he says he yearns to do the same. I asked him how he could possibly favor more warfare after all the bloodshed Gaza had endured, and he shrugged.
“Maybe we can kill all of them, and then it will get better,” he said. I asked him if he really wanted to wipe out all of Israel, and he nodded. “I will give my soul to kill all Israelis,” he said.
Some of that is teen bravado, and some may reflect the unfortunate reality that, if you’re a teenage boy, one of the few career paths available is as a fighter. Ahmed’s father is an unemployed construction worker, the boy explains with a hint of distaste.
Over all, my sense is that the suffering has left some Gazans more disenchanted with fighting, and others yearning for violent revenge. It’s difficult to be sure how those forces balance out.
Israel and Egypt both have legitimate security concerns in Gaza (an Egyptian court recently declared Hamas a terrorist organization), but the Israeli human rights organization Gisha notes that it’s ridiculous for Israel to insist that the ongoing economic stranglehold is essential for security. Gisha introduced me to Aya Abit, 24, who is married to a Palestinian man in the West Bank. They have a 5-month-old baby whom the father has never seen because Israel won’t allow Abit to leave Gaza.
“I cry every day,” she says. “I don’t know what to do.”
Likewise, Israel prevents some Gazan students accepted at American or other foreign universities from leaving to study. That’s counterproductive: More Western-educated Gazans might be a moderating presence, but the point seems to be to make all Gazans suffer.
Senior Israeli officials understand that the economic blockade has undermined the independent business community that could counter Hamas. So Israeli officials have been saying the right things recently about easing the blockade, but not much has changed.
On a visit to Gaza in 2010, I visited a cookie factory in Gaza run by Mohammed Telbani, a prominent businessman. I returned on this visit, and I found that Israel had bombed Telbani’s factory repeatedly during the war.
Telbani has restored part of the factory, but Israel won’t allow three European technicians into Gaza to set up Danish machinery that is sitting idle. And a packaging machine has been out of operation for months because he needs a spare part that Israel won’t allow in. Israel pretty much seals off Gaza — journalists are a rare exception — and isolation and despair mark Gaza today.
This blockade isn’t as dramatic as the bombings, but, in the long run, it’s soul-destroying. Businesses can’t sell their goods; students can’t go to West Bank universities; a wife can’t join her husband. True, Hamas’s misrule is central to the problem, but we don’t have influence over Hamas; we do have influence over Israel. The U.S. and other global powers should call more forcefully on both Israel and Egypt to ease this siege of Gaza.
Telbani is a pragmatic businessman, a fluent Hebrew speaker whose aim is to sell cookies, hire workers and make money. He sounded far more bitter toward Israelis on this visit than before, and I told him so.
“They burned $22 million for no reason,” he replied indignantly. “What I created in 45 years, they destroyed in less than two hours. What should I tell them? ‘Thank you’?
“This is the worst time ever,” he added. “People have nothing to lose. So I expect another war.”