By Omar Zahzah
It is a phrase from a longer piece by the Palestinian nationalist poet Mahmoud Darwish that has been frequently cited in standalone translation: “If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.”
If the ancient trees were gifted with faculties comparable to those of humans, they would be so overcome by the oppression faced by their Indigenous stewards that their biological essence, their live preserving gifts, would be irreversibly overrun by sorrow and despair.
But the olive trees don’t only need the gift of empathy to suffer the pains of colonialism. Indeed, if they could bear witness to the insidious cruelty by which the alien Zionist occupiers have weaponized the very Earth itself, they would have even more reason to weep. Planting foreign and invasive tree species has been a standard feature of Zionist settler-colonialism since the first waves of ethnic cleansing that constitute the ongoing Nakba began in 1948.
The advantages this process poses to the colonizers are at least threefold: it provides a means of concealing Zionist war crimes; it prevents Palestinians from returning to the homes from which they have been forcibly displaced; and, of course, it changes the character of the landscape, allowing for the sham Western/religious-colonial artifice Zionists seek to install over Palestine to take root—literally, as it were.
As Rawan Nabil writes,
“In Palestine, settler-colonialism often appears overt and explicit, as with the demolition and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. At the same time, Israel deploys more subtle, sinister forms of erasure, attempting to replace the culture and geography of Palestine with a reimagined Zionist ‘homeland’ so that even the land itself becomes physically unrecognizable to its Indigenous inhabitants.”
The Jewish National Fund, or JNF, an outsourced arm of the colonial Zionist state, has been actively facilitating this process since 1948, cynically fundraising under false pretenses for what they claim are “forestation” efforts, but in reality amount to providing biological cover for colonial ethnic cleansing. The JNF also provided political, financial and intelligence support to the rampaging Zionist militias that slaughtered and dispossessed Palestinians during the massacres that laid the foundation for the so-called “founding” of the Israeli state.
As Yara Hawari explains,
“Of course, the primary aim of Israel’s tree-planting projects is not to help the environment, but to steal and ethnically cleanse Palestinian land… Indeed, the JNF has been using this tree-planting narrative to push forward the theft of Palestinian land for decades. Founded before the state of Israel, the JNF was tasked with acquiring land in Palestine for Jewish settlement by any means possible. After Israel’s establishment, it worked in tandem with the state to appropriate Palestinian land across the so-called Green Line, often designating large swaths of land as national parks and preventing Palestinians from returning to these lands.”
And this process of eco-colonization is not limited to the past. 46 out of 68 JNF parks and forests are directly on top of Palestinian villages. The remainder, naturally, rest atop stolen land. Canada Park, a project funded by JNF Canada, was built on the destruction and depopulation of three villages: Beit Nuba, Imwas, and Yalu. The JNF is using fast-growing invasive trees to actively displace Palestinians in al-Naqab. The newly named forest of Yatir, fully funded by the JNF, is planted on top of Al-Attir village in Al-Naqab, a clear embodiment of the Zionist state’s active campaign to displace the people of Al-Attir deeper into the desert.
Hollow appropriation of variously Left-wing causes is a staple feature of Zionism, which has reacted parasitically to various freedom movements throughout history in order to better conceal its core purpose of Palestinian genocide. Joseph Massad has shown how Zionists systematically appropriated the language of anti-colonial and Civil Rights movements in order to “re-brand” Zionism as continuous with liberation-focused political efforts by making a case for the Israeli state’s non-existent, progressive bona fides. Palestinians are acutely aware of this Zionist political pilfering. The environment is no exception. The use of pseudo-environmentalist values to provide a smokescreen for unmitigated settler-colonial dispossession has a name: greenwashing.
Greenwashing gives ethical cover to colonial Zionist brutality. It also provides the rationale by which the JNF and various other pro-colonial Zionist organizations, foundations and non-profits enjoy charitable status. This charitable status allows the JNF to provide tax credits for donations, meaning that up to 25% of their budget comes from the public’s tax dollars. In other words, “charity” is being weaponized to facilitate ethnic cleansing and genocide in real time.
For these reasons, it’s imperative that all of us living in North America do our utmost to agitate for the revocation of the charitable status enjoyed by organizations such as Regavim, the MZ Foundation, and the Hebron Fund. Such organizations that fund Israeli settler communities (really, colonizer communities are far more apt) in Palestine are able to do so in large part thanks to North American donor funding. We, therefore, share a serious responsibility to bring about an end to this subsidized violence by virtue of our location.
As I type these sentences, the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) is engaged in solidarity demonstrations across the United States and Canada uplifting Palestinian calls to Defund Racism and StopTheJNF, refrains from two campaigns founded in Hebron and Al Naqab targeting the charitable status of organizations bankrolling the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. On Sunday, January 30, PYM Boston led a virtual teach-in and action, “Hands of Al Naqab/Hands off Palestine.” As the Zionist state continues to displace Palestinians in Al Naqab and all of Palestine, it is incumbent upon us to reject greenwashing and join the fight to Defund Racism and StoptheJNF.
Lest we forget, the narrator of Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” also warned the Zionist regime to “beware” of the impacts of colonially-imposed starvation, of the “rage” that would follow starvation leaving nothing to eat but “my oppressor’s flesh.” State-sanctioned dispossession and dehumanization realize their undoing in the very limitlessness of their operations, which inspire the colonized to resist anew in righteous anger.
This past year, Palestinians have risen up in just such righteous anger, rejecting both the sham Oslo Accords (which liquidated Palestinian political resistance for the establishment of the so-called Palestinian Authority which is, despite its name, un-authorized by Israel to do much of anything besides police and incarcerate its own people while settler-colonialism continues unabated) and the relentless violence of the colonial Israeli state. The Unity Intifada is a proud testament to this.
As the Palestinian Youth Movement, we unabashedly support and uplift the resistance of Palestinians from Al-Naqab, Sheikh Jarrah, and all of occupied Palestine. We call on all people of conscience to oppose greenwashing through the aforementioned initiatives.
The future belongs not to the colonizers, nor the corrupt bureaucrats who have long since betrayed their people and cause.
It belongs to all of the Palestinians doing the unstoppable work of securing liberation, stone by stone, chant by chant, from the river to the sea.
(Special thanks to May Darwaza for showing me the source of Darwish’s much-circulated line about the olive trees.)
– Omar Zahzah is the Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). Omar is also an independent scholar, writer and poet and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.