“Our forest is growing over, well, over a ruined village,” A.B. Yehoshua wrote in his novella “Facing the Forests.” The massive wildfire in the Jerusalem Hills last week exposed the underpinning of the view through the trees. The agricultural terraces were revealed in their full glory, and also revealed a historic record that Israel has always sought to obscure and erase – traces of Palestinian life on this land.
On my trips to the West Bank and the occupied territories, when I passed by the expansive areas of Palestinian farmland, I was always awed by the sight of the long chain of terraces, mustabat or mudrajat in Arabic. I thrilled at their grandeur and the precision of the work that attests to the connection between the Palestinian fellah and his land. I would wonder – Why doesn’t the same “phenomenon” exist in the hills of the Galilee?
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When I grew up, I learned a little in school about Israeli history. I didn’t learn that Israel erased Palestinian agriculture in the Galilee and that the Jewish National Fund buried it once and for all, but I did learn that “The Jews brought trees with them” and planted them in the Land of Israel. How sterile and green. Greta Thunberg would be proud of you.
The Zionist movement knew that in the war for this land it was not enough to conquer the land and expel its inhabitants, you also had to build up a story and an ethos and a narrative, something that will fit with the myth of “a people without a land for a land without a people.” Therefore, after the conquest of the land and the expulsion, all trace of the people who once lived here had to be destroyed. This included trees that grew without human intervention and those that were planted by fellahin, who know this land as they do their children and as they do the terraces they built in the hills.
This is how white foreigners who never in their lives were fellahin or worked the land for a living came up with the national forestation project on the ruins of Arab villages, which David Ben-Gurion decided to flatten, such as Ma’alul and Suhmata. The forestation project including the importation of cypress and pine trees that were alien to this land and belong to colder climes, so that the new inhabitants would feel more at home and less as if they were in somebody else’s home.
The planting of combustible cypresses and pines, which are not suited to the weather in this land, is not just an act of national erasure of the Palestinian natives, but also an act of arrogance and patronage, characteristics typical of colonialist movements throughout the world. All because they did not understand the nature, in both senses of the word, of the countries they conquered.
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Forgive me, but a biblical-historical connection is not sufficient. Throughout the history of colonialism, the new settlers – whether they ultimately left or stayed – were unable to impose their imported identity on the new place and to completely erase the place’s native identity. It’s a little like the forests surrounding Jerusalem: When the fire comes and burns them, one small truth is revealed, after so much effort went into concealing it.