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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Forest Cover

Forest Cover

By Sharif S Elmusa 0

Part of the Zionist vision for Israel was to return to prehistory, to the Biblical land of milk and honey. As if planting trees over villages would remove every trace of their Arab inhabitants, writes Sharif S Elmusa

In the beginning the Eraser razed the village.

He let the villagers be frightened into fleeing

their houses and their fields,

and He saw that they had fled,

and He heard the ghosts talking

strange talk in the empty houses,

and He let the houses be rubble, without form,

and let the stray animals roam the site,

and He saw that the sight was an unnecessary reminder,

and He let there be a forest of non-native trees

rise above and cover the debris,

and He saw that the forest was like a natural growth,

and He let a sign rise on the side

of the highway, bearing the site’s new name,

and He saw that the new name derived from his own tale,

and He let the old name be expunged

from His kingdom’s maps and encyclopedias

and He saw that the old name was gone,

and He saw all that He unmade and, O wow,

was it good and, on the sixth day, He took a break.

Waking up on the seventh day,

He saw that the refugees had multiplied

and become fabulists, conjuring forest fires.

Unlike the Biblical creation myth “Genesis”, which tells of a universe created from nothingness, the poem above, which appeared in my book, Flawed Landscape, commences with a living village. The village is invaded by an unspecified, alien force, which expels the inhabitants and razes the houses, turning the place into a ghostly ruin that the invader cannot stand gazing at, and so he covers it with a forest and symbolic baggage of his own. The Bible story is about emplacement, whereas the poem is about displacement and replacement.

          I wrote the poem after I had worked with a group of Palestinian scholars on the encyclopedic book, All That Remains: The Palestinian villages occupied and depopulated by Israel in 1948, edited by Walid Khalidi. One of the things I did was to write the history of each of the 418 villages that were identified by field researchers. As I wrote, I realised that the outline of the history of each village was the same—monotonously elegiac. A village existed, sometimes from prehistory, had a continuous Arab/Muslim presence for 1,500 years or so, then suffered a common fate at the hands of Zionist/Israeli forces in the aftermath of the issuance of the 1947 UN Partition of the country and the 1948 war.

Canada Park

          Most of the villages were completely bulldozed, quite a few were partially destroyed so that the remaining houses and facilities could be used by an influx of Jewish immigrants. More than a handful of villages underwent a transformation of identity, like ‘Ayn Karim and al-Maliha which are today posh neighbourhoods of West Jerusalem, or ‘Ayn Hawd in the north on a mountain peak overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, now a Jewish artists’ colony. The Palestinian inhabitants who stayed in ‘Ayn Hawd became “internal refugees” in Israel, were relegated to a space on the mountain slope, and had to fight long legal and political battles to receive municipal services.

          The sites of nearly 80 razed villages were buried by forests. The institution that carried out this task was the Jewish National Fund (JNF), after the demolition equipment of the government had cleared the sites. A pivotal institution, the JNF was created in the early years of the Zionist movement and mandated with land acquisition and management, especially the planting of trees. In late spring 2015, I visited, together with two friends, Canada Park, one of the forested sites.

          Canada Park rises on the ruins of three Palestinian villages—Bayt Nuba, Imwas and Yalu—near Jerusalem. The villages were occupied, not in 1948, but in 1967, during the second Arab-Israeli war. More than 6,000 residents were ordered out of their houses by the invading troops, gathered into public spaces, and ushered out of their villages. After, the villages were razed because their locations were considered a strategic asset on the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Park was founded in 1973 and occupies 80,000 acres. It is managed jointly by the JNF. The name derives from the park’s financing by Jewish donors from Canada, whose names are inscribed on plaques placed in various spots in the Park. Money from Jews in the West has been the main source of finance for the forestation projects.

          If you walk through this space with information acquired only from official Israeli maps, the park’s website, and from the scattered signs, you are unlikely to know that Palestinian villages had been present here. The forest of trees and symbols are tasked with the job of obfuscation. The very names of the villages are expunged from these sources. What you learn from the JNF website, for example, about Canada Park is of extant items, like an olive press or the wall of a church, from earlier historical periods, such as the Byzantines or the Crusaders. The Arab presence of 1,500 years is summarily dismissed in a total of three sentences with vast temporal leaps.

In the first stage of the Arab occupation of the land of Israel in the 7th century CE, this valley served as a center for their forces… Many fierce battles also took place here during the War of Independence, between the IDF and the Jordanian Legion… The Arabic name of the place [which has a Roman bathhouse and a church on the border of the Park] is Sheikh Ubeid, who according to Arabic tradition was the main commander of the Muslim army that died in the 7th century in the Emmaus plague.

          The signs in the Park itself are all in Hebrew and in English; the only ones in Arabic begin “Strictly Forbidden”. The Jewish names of the donors and several spots all highlight the Jewish character of the place. These names are gathered also as witnesses to the benevolence and worthiness of the project, and to its legitimacy. They say this is a national park, transcending the particular, provincial sites of the villages. It is also a Canada park, catapulting the imagination into a distant geography.

'Ayn Karim, West Jerusalaem

‘Ayn Karim, West Jerusalaem

          Such negation of the history of the villages in this Park applies, according to Noga Kadman (Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the depopulated Palestinian villages of 1948), to nearly all those that were razed. Tree-planting on the whole is meant to eradicate Palestinian presence and history, to cover the sites and cover up the deed of expulsion and destruction. At the same time, it is intended to cement the bond of the Jews with the land, help them strike roots, and rescue the land from a purportedly former state of desolation. The plan is to found a modern, European-looking landscape. These objectives were the core of the Zionist vision, which persists as Israeli official policy. It applies to nearly all aspects concerning history and landscape, and as Edward Said also noted, to the entire “Question of Palestine”.

          As a growing number of Jewish and other historians argue, Israel bears many characteristics of European colonial settler states in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere. Yet, the JNF’s foresting of the land stands in contrast to at least the initial practices of those states in regard to native forests. In countries like Canada and the United States, settlers took over the land and cleared large portions of forests for the utilitarian purposes of building houses and ships, and for energy production. They were guided by the idea of progress, premised on the conquest of nature and of aboriginal peoples, pictured as nature-like who did not appreciate the value of the wealth in the forests, and so kept the land in an undeveloped state.

          Zionist ideology inherited from Europe, where it was born, the ideas of nationalism and progress, with its own fundamentalist, backward-looking vision. Zionism posited that the only real history of the Jews happened during their presence in Palestine, their two millennia of “exile” being an inauthentic sort of existence. Moreover, the land of Palestine during the relatively short Jewish periods was green with fields and forests, a land of milk and honey, in Biblical lingo, but became desolate during the subsequent two thousand years under foreign occupiers and in Jewish absence. It was the returning Jews who would “redeem” the land by making the desert bloom and so redeem themselves.

          Making the desert bloom was also touted as the “conquest of the desert”, exactly the same as the European idea of the conquest of nature. Even the trees that were planted were not indigenous to Palestine, but European pines: for Zionists wanted ultimately to be modern like Europeans, similar to other oppressed groups who think to be is to be like the oppressor. For them, the indigenous people of Palestine were “Orientals”, if they were visible at all and, any rate, Arabs who could be driven out to other Arab countries.

          This ideological baggage is illustrated in a couple of pre-1948 poems, cited by Kadman. The first poem is by the poet Cha’im Hefer, 

          A JNF forest, a green spot on empty land…forests that set facts on the ground…forests that are political value…an arid land became the land of the dew and picnic for the entire family.

          The second was composed in Hungarian by a Jewish immigrant in the settlement establish on top of the village of Umm Zara (a.k.a. Muzayri’a):

          Jewish again/ ‘Umm Zara’ will no longer be host to the owl [symbol of ruination], we will build the future with sweat on our brow./ We will demolish the clay houses, abandoned remains,/ and build dwellings in their place.

          To see the place as a doomed wasteland can only be a special effect of ideological blinkers. To illustrate, even before the Zionist movement was born at the end of the 19th century, Palestine had been an exporter of citrus fruit, sesame seeds, olive oil and olive oil-based soap to the region and Europe. The country had an estimated 3.5 million olive trees on the eve of World War I, a number that had doubled by the end of World War II, thanks to the diligence and entrepreneurship of the Palestinian peasantry. Still, assuming the land was indeed a desert, why would such conditions justify taking it away and expelling its owners?

          We do not know how Israeli or Jewish donors today feel about the villages under the trees they financed and planted. It may be that there are, as Gil Hochberg says, “afterlives of ruins”, and that a “haunting” continues to stir in the Israeli social psyche because of this unresolved trauma. Hochberg arrives at this conclusion from reading several Israeli works of fiction. One such story is “Facing the Forests” (1962) by the leading Israeli novelist, Abraham Yehoshua. In it an unnamed graduate student doing his work on the Crusades takes a job as a forest guard. He learns subsequently that a destroyed Arab village lay beneath his trust. In addition to the guard and the manager, there are a Palestinian man, mute, like the buried village, and his young daughter working in the forest. Gradually, the guard begins to suspect that the man was planning to set the place on fire, but he does not do anything to prevent him, if not actually colluding with him. Eventually a fire is indeed started by the mute Arab which eats up the forest; he is locked behind bars while the Israeli watchman goes scot-free. 

          The spectre of Palestinians setting fires to forests rears its head every time forests catch fire in Israel, as happened in November 2016, after a series of wildfires engulfed forests near the northern city of Haifa. They had ignited after a long dry spell; nonetheless, the Israeli press reported that state security had embarked on an investigation of what it claimed to be politically motivated arson, a thinly veiled reference to Palestinian perpetrators, a suspicion later proved to be misplaced.

          But Palestinians are not mute and do not burn forests because they would be afraid of erasing whatever remains of their villages. The mute, or the deliberately silent, are usually those who wrong others, and their enablers. Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory excoriates the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and other German intellectuals and artists, for promoting an exclusive ethno-nationalism based on the presumed purity of a race descending from the Germanic tribes that roamed the forests long ago and held back the Romans’ advances. The philosopher took up residence in the Black Forest after World War II, pursuing more universal inquiries, never renouncing his Nazi past. Schama says of Heidegger and like-minded Germans, “What they all share is a fateful implication in national, tribal myth: a force hard to resist, but which leads up the forest path to a wooden grave.”

          Earlier in the book Schama informs the reader with relish how as a schoolboy in England he donated money to the JNF for planting trees in the Galilee, in an annual ritual freighted with ideological indoctrination, evoking hills denuded by goat and sheep, a Jewish diaspora that was sand, and an Israel that was a tall forest. He stays completely silent, however, about what many forests conceal beneath them, when more than a third of his thick volume is devoted to other forests.

          Schama’s silence ironically matches that of Heidegger himself in an often cited poem by the German-Jewish poet Paul Celan, who survived the Holocaust. The poem is titled “Todtnauberg”, after the name of the philosopher’s residence in the Black Forest. Celan went to visit Heidegger, whom he had admired, perhaps believing that he would be haunted by his past and would offer some penitence or express sorrow. But no meaningful conversation took place between the philosopher and the poet. The “thinking man” maintained his customary silence, as Schama would do more than 50 years later about the Palestinian villages.

          Except for a very few, it seems that the prevalent attitude in Israel is indifference. Whatever the attitude of Israelis and their helpers may be, Palestinians have kept the villages in their memories; they do not need fires to reveal them. They memorialise them in vernacular books that map their locations, describe their geographies and economies, recount their histories, enumerate their population, houses and schools, tell the names of families, and of those who perished in the resistance, and record their songs and proverbs. In 1976 they declared March 30 as “Land Day”, which became an annual remembrance day, and prompted the poet Mahmoud Darwish to write that “March”, not TS Eliot’s April, “is the cruellest month”. It is spring time when the landscape becomes redolent with wild flowers, especially the red anemones, the little spokesmen of beauty. On that day they organise commemoration rallies and visits to the destroyed villages.

          Not just on those days. When they go they see the invisible in the visible. They can tell that a village existed from the cactus plants, with which the peasants marked the borders of their fields and villages. The cactus tree continually regenerates, even if pulled out of the earth; its stubborn roots ensure a comeback. It has become one of the potent cultural symbols, in paintings and poems and songs. It is sabr in Arabic, and the song says, “yaa ‘ayn kuni sabbara” (O eye, be patient, be vigilant). When we visited Canada Park, we spotted a cactus tree on a hill, we climbed and stood by it. It familiarised the strangeness of the Park, even if I could not touch the thorny leaves.

This essay was first published in July-September 2018 issue.

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