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Jewish National Fund Challenged for Complicity in Ethnic Cleansing

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Issue: 77 Section: Foreign Policy Ramallah, Tel Aviv

April 6, 2011

Jewish National Fund Challenged for Complicity in Ethnic Cleansing

Canadian, Israeli activists push to remove organization's charitable status

by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

Canada Park is being built over the ruins of former Palestinian villages. The JNF-Canada is funding the project, leading Palestinians and Canadians alike to demand that its charitable status be revoked. Photo: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

JERUSALEM—Israeli, Palestinian and international protestors gathered in Tel Aviv and Ramallah in late February to denounce ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But instead of levelling their criticisms at the Israeli state, the chants and banners were aimed at an unexpected target: Canada.

Among other issues, protesters were targetting Canada for its role in building Canada Park, an Israeli park built over the ruins of three Palestinian villages with donations made to the Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF-Canada). JNF-Canada's role is being challenged both at home and in Israel, while a targetted campaign against the JNF overall is underway.

“Canada Park was planted and funded with the support of the Jewish National Fund of Canada over the lands and over the ruins of three ethnically cleansed villages: Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba, occupied and ethnically cleansed in the course and the wake of the 1967 [Six Days] war,” explained Israeli activist Uri Davis, member of the Committee for Defending the Latrun Villages, in Tel Aviv.

Plaques featuring the names of donors to Canada Park line the area. Donations to the JNF-Canada, the charity which built the park on top of bulldozed Palestinian villages, are tax-deductible. Photo: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Institutionalized Racism: The history of the JNF

The Jewish National Fund was created in 1901 before the founding of the State of Israel. Early Zionist leaders used the organization to secure property and land rights for exclusive Jewish use in British-mandate Palestine.

“The JNF was the principal Zionist tool for the colonization of Palestine. It served as the agency the Zionist movement used to buy Palestinian land upon which it then settled Jewish immigrants,” wrote Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

According to Pappe, in the early 1940s the head of the Jewish National Fund’s settlement department, Yossef Weitz, stated, “All we need is 400 tractors, each tractor can cultivate 3,000 dunam—cultivating not just for the purpose of procuring food but in order to prevent anyone from returning to their lands.”

Today, the JNF controls approximately 13 per cent of the land in Israel, which it continues to lease only to Jews. This land falls under the management of the Israeli Lands Administration (ILA), an Israeli governmental agency that controls 93 per cent of the land in Israel.

In addition, the JNF controls 50 per cent of the seats at the ILA Council, giving the organization substantial power to decide how virtually all ILA lands are distributed. Under Israeli law, the JNF has also been given the same status as a public authority for the purposes of confiscating land.

According to a 2006 brief submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights by Habitat International Coalition and Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, “Palestinian citizens, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, are denied access to [the JNF’s] 13 per cent of "Israel Lands." This discriminatory policy contributes to the institutionalization of racially segregated towns and villages throughout the state.”

The report continues: “Due to the explicitly discriminatory nature of the ILA and JNF’s policies, Adalah and HIC call upon the Commission to initiate an investigation into Israel’s discriminatory land allocation policies and to urge the State of Israel to cease discriminatory land allocation practices using institutions such as the JNF, and to apply covenanted principles of equality, just distribution and fairness.”

“Canada Park represents a blatant violation of international law, but it also represents a blatant violation of official Canadian policy condemning any intervention of settlement or occupation or change of demographic composition or any other alteration in the 1967 occupied territories,” he added.

JNF-Canada operates as a charity and collects approximately $10 million annually in tax-deductible donations. Canadian citizens have donated about $15 million to the JNF, which has gone to fund Canada Park and similar projects.

Located in the Latrun enclave, just off the major highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Canada Park is a popular weekend picnic and hiking spot for Israeli families. What most road signs or tourist brochures won’t tell you, however, is that Canada Park extends several kilometres into the West Bank, far beyond the Green Line, the internationally recognized armistice line separating Israeli and Palestinian territory.

Today, the majority of Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba’s original Palestinian inhabitants are refugees living in Jordan or in and around the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since they are barred from entering Israel, these Palestinian residents are unable to access Canada Park, or visit the ruins of their ancestral villages.

According to the JNF-Canada website, “The history of the Jewish National Fund of Canada and the State of Israel are inseparable. Jewish National Fund of Canada land reclamation projects have created the infrastructure for countless residential areas and other communities across Israel.”

Operating as a branch of JNF-Israel, the JNF-Canada website vaguely states that the funds raised by JNF-Canada “are primarily directed to the payment of wages to workers engaged in various aspects of Jewish National Fund activities.”

Today, the JNF operates 11 regional offices across Canada, from Vancouver to Halifax.

Scott Weinstein is a Steering Committee member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), which according to its website is “an organization that promotes a just resolution to the dispute in Israel and Palestine through the application of international law and respect for the human rights of all parties.”

Weinstein told The Dominion that IJV is working on a campaign to raise awareness in Canada about the Jewish National Fund and its activities, including how it built Canada Park over Palestinian communities. The long-term goal, he said, will be to de-list the JNF as a Canadian charity.

“The JNF's legal mission and strategy is explicit—Land [sic] for Jews only. Technically, the land is collectively titled to the JNF. Palestinians are denied the right to their land—forever—be it in Israel or even the occupied territories,” Weinstein wrote in an email to The Dominion.

“Since Israel was founded, no new Palestinian villages, forests or territory in Israel have been allowed, but hundreds of Jewish villages, cities, parks and forests are constructed. Thanks to Canadian JNF tax support, Palestinian territory shrinks as Jewish territory expands. Palestinian olive trees are destroyed so Jews can plant non-native pine trees, or orange trees,” he explained. “The propaganda cover-up of a very unethical mission is frankly upsetting, and shocking to many who learn the reality.”

A few hundred metres from the Palestinian Bedouin village of al-Araqib sit a half-dozen bulldozers. Surrounded by razor wire and heavily guarded by Israeli police officers and soldiers, a sign hangs on a shed inside the permanent bulldozer encampment: “Works being carried out by Keren Kayemeth Leisrael –Jewish National Fund.”

“There was police in al-Araqib and also the [JNF] bulldozers. They plowed some parts of the land. We tried to resist them, but we were arrested and handcuffed,” explained 17-year-old al-Araqib resident Adam Salim Abu Mdeghem.

Located inside Israel proper in the Israeli Negev desert about an hour south of Tel Aviv, al-Araqib has been demolished a total of 19 times since July 2010. The village’s destruction was commissioned by the JNF’s Israeli branch.

The Jewish National Fund in Israel aims to plant a forest over the village of al-Araqib. Co-sponsored by evangelical Christian organization God-TV, this forest would involve forcibly displacing the 300 Indigenous residents of al-Araqib, who are all Israeli citizens.

Since JNF-Canada is a chapter of JNF-Israel, funds allocated to the JNF in Canada are transferred to projects sponsored by the organization in Israel, such as planting trees in the Negev or Galilee, or restoring the Old City walls in Jerusalem, among others.

It is unclear whether the specific trees JNF-Israel wants to plant over al-Araqib lands were donated or purchased thanks to donations provided by Canadians. JNF-Canada does, however, advertise a project called "Action Plan Negev.” This is “a program designed to meet the challenge of developing the Negev for the 21st century” and aims to populate the Negev region.

The destruction of al-Araqib is part of a larger JNF-Israel project called “Blueprint Negev.” Launched in 2005 at the cost of $600 million, the project aims to increase the population in the Negev area by 250,000 Jewish residents by 2013.

Whether “Action Plan Negev” and “Blueprint Negev” are directly related, or constitute two parts of the same program, however, is unspecified.

Haia Noach, the Director of the Negev Co-Existence Forum, a joint Jewish-Arab organization that, among other things, works for Bedouin land rights in the Negev, explained that as the forestation authority in Israel, the JNF developed the project to plant trees over al-Araqib.

She said that while the JNF initially denied any involvement in the destruction of al-Araqib, residents and local activists saw JNF bulldozers destroying property in the village during a demolition in early February 2011.

“We connect them directly and they are responsible for what is going on there, to the fact that people lost their houses, lost their herds, their orchards,” Noach said.

“The situation is devastating, but this is what we have,” said Abu Mdeghem, sitting on the hillside next to the small, make-shift tent where he, his parents and seven other siblings now live. “I am...very sad for what has happened to the al-Araqib area. We never expected that anything would happen to our land.”

According to Noach, the JNF’s policy doesn’t end in al-Araqib; the organization is threatening the existence of dozens of other Palestinian Bedouin villages that have existed in the area for hundreds of years.

“The JNF is willingly part of this game where they serve as a foresting authority. [You] see it all over Israel, in the North and even in the South,” Noach said.

“There will be more and more Arab villages in the Negev that are threatened by the forestation of the JNF.”

A new campaign called “Stop the JNF” was recently launched with the goal of documenting and exposing the Jewish National Fund’s complicity in Israeli ethnic cleansing, disrupting JNF fundraising activities and revoking the organization’s charitable status in countries around the world.

According to Akram Salhab, an organizer of this international campaign and Communications Officer at Badil, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, the campaign aims to co-ordinate between various organizations and provide the resources and information needed for a united campaign.

“One of the first aims of the campaign is to expose and document the role of the JNF. One of the problems with trying to understand the role of the JNF is that it's shrouded in an esoteric legal language, which is indicative more broadly of the way in which the Israeli apartheid regime functions,” Salhab explained.

Despite this challenge, Salhab said he is hopeful that the campaign will unite activists around the world who are working to raise awareness about the JNF’s complicity in Israeli crimes.

“Our main aim is to influence public opinion and influence individuals in places where the JNF collects the largest amount of revenue. The problem with that is that those are the places where the JNF has a [great] deal of support. So we’re trying to find places where we can set a precedent of JNF discriminatory policy,” he said.

According to IJV’s Weinstein, this campaign will focus on first educating the Canadian public about the JNF’s true nature and making connections between Indigenous land rights in Israel/Palestine and Canada.

“Imagine if we had a Canadian charity that provided homes and parks to English Canadians only, on land taken from French Canadians. It could never happen, except if we lied about what the charity does. Yet it is precisely what we have done to the Native people of Canada—and few of us are proud of that legacy. So there are Canadian examples where we can make common cause with human rights issues around Indigenous land rights,” Weinstein explained.

“Most Canadians don't realize that our taxes support the JNF mission to erase Palestinian villages and lives so Jews can live as first-class citizens,” he continued. “We don't know that we support racial discrimination in Israel that would be illegal in Canada.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.

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