Protests erupted in southern Israel’s Negev region in mid-January 2022. Bedouin residents revolted against the Jewish tree-planting tradition of Tu-Bishvat. The event was organised by the Jewish National Fund within the broader scope of the project led by the quasi-governmental organisation to afforestate the Negev desert. However, the Bedouin population contends that the area destined for tree planting is not a desert but agricultural land belonging to the Al-Atrash family and the homonymous non-recognised settlement.
What has been going on in the Negev/Naqab? After debunking the mainstream perspectives on the issue, this post will disentangle this complex event by adopting a posthuman security perspective.
But what does that mean? As per all the post-humanities, it entails a post-anthropocentric and post-colonialist view that goes beyond the Eurocentric cosmology centred around “the Man”. Thus, subjectivity is not restricted to individuals, but it is a cooperative trans-species effort that takes place transversally, in assemblages that displace the binaries.
And how does that apply to security? From this perspective, security cannot be considered a condition accruing to human beings only. Instead, concepts of security and insecurity, violence and safety, must be understood in relation to diverse systems, be they organic, material, human, animal, or technological.
Re-centring the ecosystem in its entirety reveals a resilient ecology, rather than an unbalanced ecosystem, which, once subjectivised, actively witnesses and resists the predation to which it is subjected in its organic complexity.
Tu-Bishvat is a Jewish Holiday occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew Month of Shevat, as the name says, but it is also called the New Year Day of Trees, Rosh HaShanah La’llanot. Since the rise of the Zionist movement, the tree festival was re-signified by one of its first organisations: ha-Keren Kayemet Le’Israel, the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). Established in 1901 to buy land for settlement in historical Palestine, the KKL-JNF ritualised Tu-Bishvat as a national tradition for several apt reasons.
First, planting was a vital feature of the so-called “new Jew”: early Zionist discourses expressed much appreciation, if not admiration for agricultural labour, that would have allowed the transformation of the uprooted cosmopolitan Jew into a rooted pioneer. Secondly, planting trees was a great fundraiser to provide for the entire movement and finance the establishment of the Yishuv. Thirdly, stimulated by Ottoman Land Code (1858), the KKL-JNF saw afforestation as a biological declaration of Jewish presence on the land when human immigration was slow and complicated. Last but not least, afforestation domesticated a perceivably hostile environment by planting pine trees that recalled European landscapes.
Over the past 120 years, the JNF planted more than 250 million trees. After the 1948 war and Palestinians’ displacement, trees became the best “guardians of the land”, complementing the Absentee Law that established that those who were not present at the time of Jewish conquest lost any title over their property. Eventually, hundreds of villages’ ruins were covered in green.
This dynamic has made trees an ecological signifier of Jewish presence and Palestinian absence, substantiating the Israeli ado “a land without people for a people without land”. These ideas informed the Dead Negev Doctrine, according to which the Negev/Naqab was a wasteland that required revival by Jewish intervention since the Palestinians, they argued, were unable to cultivate it. Conversely, through afforestation, technological advancement and cultivation, Israel has miraculously “made the desert bloom”, as they say.
The Palestinian Bedouins reject the Israeli narrative. In 1948 the Naqab was home to approximately 75,000/90,000 Bedouins. After the war, only 11,000 remained confined under military rule in the Siyag area up until 1966. Because of their nomadism, their right of property over the land was not recognised.
After the end of military rule, the Bedouins were encouraged to move into seven state-planned townships, where 33% of them were transferred. The rest has continued to hold onto the land in over 40 unrecognised villages that are continuously demolished and deprived of essential services such as access to water, electricity, health care, public transportation and education.
The global indigenous rights discourse was integrated into the Bedouin struggle in the mid-2000s. For Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian scholars and activists, indigenous status represented a shortcut to international audiences. However, this framework has bound the Bedouin rights to the proof of their ‘authenticity’, understood as backwardness and nomadism. This has somehow legitimised the Israeli marginalisation of its Bedouin citizens by requiring them to preserve their traditional way of life, presumably away from the land in the indigenous imaginary. As a result, the younger generation of Bedouin activists has embraced a new struggle stressing their right to choose their lifestyle without compromising their right to land, development, and modernity.
We have looked into the Israeli-Jewish perspective and Bedouin/Palestinian ones. That is to say, we have taken a humanperspective. So what does the Negev/Naqab itself say about all of this from a posthuman perspective?
Desert comes from the Latin deserere, to abandon. This fits the characterisation of the Negev as a terra nullius, a no one’s land, and even wasted because not cultivated. However, the Negev is actually an arid to semi-arid region.
Drylands cover 41% of the world’s landmass. As climate change has been linked to accelerated desertification, afforestation has become one of the key weapons against it: think of the great green wall in Africa. In the Negev/Naqab, the afforestation project started in 1964 and gave rise to the Yatir forest, which is the most extensive planted woodland in the country, home to 4 million Aleppo pine trees across 7,400 acres.
According to the KKL-JNF the forest combated soil erosion and stormwater runoff, seized remarkable amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cooled the environment down for human leisure and provided a habitat for new species of animals. However, other ecologists have criticised the afforestation project, maintaining instead that it accelerates soil erosion via the use of heavy machinery, warms up the area because of the dark canopy’s heat island effect and pushes out native species in competition with Mediterranean ones colonising the new habitat. What is more, the forest itself is dying out in many of its parts.
In short, where the KKL-JNF sees a treed landscape as indicative of environmental health, their opponents see a rare and essential landscape worth being conserved. Yet, as the expanding posthumanities emphasise, it is time to go beyond what is understood to be individual human perception.
The Negev/Naqab has its vision on the matter too. The land does not speak the human language, but the environment, and each substance embedded in it, capture traces and records the events in its own way. These records are both modes of aesthetic registration and modes of erasure.
Matthew Fuller – Professor of Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths – and Eyal Weizman – architect and founder of Forensic Architecture – have put together a theorisation of investigative aesthetics. Accordingly, aesthetics is sensing and making sense and, as such, it does not exclusively refer to the property or capacity of humans only but of other sensing organisms, such as animals, plants and material substances, which themselves apprehend their environment.
In the desert, for instance, the relative dryness of the terrain captures the traces of human and climatic factors. Just as the photographic film is inscribed when exposed to light witnessing what is present as well as traces of what has been erased, the desert environment shows ruined homes, cemeteries, wells, agricultural fields.
The method used to translate what can be seen in aerial photography to the surface of the terrain is called ground truth. For instance, the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab appeared wholly cultivated in the 1945 aerial pictures. Yet, the state’s argument to the contrary is substantiated by the fact that Bedouin agriculture “leaves only gentle marks on the land, not in the way Western agricultural settlements would render” as Weizman mentioned.
Kedar, Amara and Yiftachel made sense of the images proving that the local Bedouin communities had a long tradition of semi-nomadism, adapting to the ecology of the Negev/Naqab and thus practising agriculture where and when the weather allowed it and pasturing the rest of the time in line with the ecological rhythms. That does not mean that they did not own land. Indeed, they returned to the same places every year, generation after generation.
Today, Bedouin villages are not visible in satellite images available to the public. However, notes Weizman, they are visible to the state agencies monitoring their expansion, but this top-down perspective is not available to the inhabitants of the villages.
Many projects sought to counter-hegemonically appropriate this privileged perspective empowering the bottom-up struggle. One of these was the use of community satellites, which is to say, digital cameras attached to kites with the aim of socialising ground truth. Thanks to a collaboration among the village council, Forensic Architecture, Zochrot and Public Lab, this was carried out within the Bedouin community of Al-Araqib too.
Not only were the Bedouins allowed to take the means of dispossession in their hands to re-affirm their rights over the land, but the Negev/Naqab itself participated in re-establishing truth and achieving justice for all: the environment, the people, the endangered animal and vegetal species, and the sand that preserved the ruins of erased villages and their cemeteries. They are all pleading to be listened to. Imagine what would be possible if we really started to.
Cover photo: Mountains Landscape. The Negev Desert, by Avi Theret on Unsplash (CC 2021).