My legs throbbed, joining my lungs and back in aching protest. I squinted under a flood of Mediterranean sun. Before me, a massive palm tree stood alone, its crown caressing the sky. Its warped, S-shaped trunk was my only anchor in the unmarked, grassy field. This is the place. The thought was a prayer, a drum I tapped continuously, trying to ward off panic. Here. Here. Here.
Aside from the palm, the landscape was shrouded by ten years of change. Dry, scraggly soil had been replaced by thick brush and a commercial almond grove. Even a decade ago, on my first visit to this secluded plain, it had been a challenge to locate the clusters of carved stone that marked the vestiges of my ancestral Palestinian village, ‘Ibdis. Like hundreds of other villages and towns, it was ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias in 1948 during the Nakba, the war in which Israel declared itself a state and displaced over seven hundred thousand Palestinians. Seated in what modern Israel calls the “Northern Negev”—al-Naqab to Arabic speakers—most traces of ‘Ibdis were destroyed.
To locate the remnants of our history, we consulted family stories and a crowdsourced online database. Based on this research, we knew the S-shaped palm tree marked the southeastern corner of the village grounds. On our first visit in 2012, my brother and I fell in line behind my father as he paced a slow line into the past. “They got a new well in 1947—it should be this way. They installed it right before the Nakba,” he murmured. “There was a party that day.” Soon, we stood staring down the well’s dry, silent throat. Nearby, half-hidden by grass, sat the stone slabs of toppled walls and broken graves.
But my father wasn’t there this time. I had spent the last two hours running roughshod through the brush, thatching my arms with cuts, bracing with each footfall to strike some hidden hole or snake. My brother and sister-in-law clambered opposite me. Aside from a few solitary stones, we failed to locate any of the ruins that should have crouched nearby. Worst of all, we found no trace of what, for me, is our village’s crown jewel: the jamayza tree.
Already decades old in my grandmother’s youth, the sycamore fig branched thick and high, arching at the edge of the village, bearing shade and thrice-yearly fruit. A pre-Nakba map named the local valley after her (in my mind, the tree is she): Wad-al-Jamayza. Her spreading branches loomed in family lore as an oasis between home and field, a place where farmers reclined and children played.
In 2012, my father, brother, and I had entered the shelter of her limbs, finding cool relief after our breathless trek across razed earth. Beneath her dusky leaves, the land was littered with small, near-ripe figs. We held the small fruit wistfully, a sweetness we would not know. But the greater emotion was exuberance. For a moment, the tree’s materiality felt like victory: a chance to touch our roots.
I have spent the years since that day clasping the memory of that gentle giant with equal parts love and fear. Her silhouette, framed by that field of absences, looked so tenuous. Her body was a glitch in an imperialist machine that none of us were meant to survive. My grandmother had died two years before our first visit to ‘Ibdis, and though she was buried in Saudi Arabia, her final country of exile, the jamayza always felt like her true resting place. In the countless nights I dreamed of her, I often pictured this tree. She’d been a refugee for forty-three years by the time I was born, meaning I’d never seen her, truly, at home. I needed her to have that shelter. I needed it too.
And then came my return in March 2023. Shuddering and sweat-slicked, I confronted my secret dread. An almond grove stood precisely where the jamayza should have been. A phalanx of tight, straight rows arrayed atop our history.
The Lie of the Land
To another’s eye, the transformation of this land might be viewed as “progress”: in 2012, the ground was mostly bare, a crust of soil dotted with wan watermelons. (We pilfered one, cracking it open under the jamayza tree, discovering its insides were parched and pale.) Now, the almond trees make for a lush multitude, a rippling green horizon that stretches for a quarter mile in every direction. In this, the land of ‘Ibdis seems to reflect the familiar Zionist claim of having “made the desert bloom.”
How natural it would be, to exaggerate the richness of pre-Nakba life, to wax idyllic over the farms and homes lost in 1948. Yet my family’s memories are echoed in the archives.
It’s a story that echoes other ecocolonial imaginaries, and its integral role in the Zionist project dates to decades before the declaration of Israel. In the late 1800s, an era of empires and burgeoning nationalisms, early Zionists became convinced that the answer to European anti-Semitism lay in establishing an exclusively Jewish colony elsewhere. Discarding earlier propositions of settlement in East Africa, they set their sights on Palestine, describing it as “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
This was one half of a paradoxical imperialist logic: Palestine was terra nullius, but also a land that cried out for rescue from indigenous neglect. The Zionists, notes researcher Alan George,
attempted to convince world opinion that the country was a virtually uninhabited desert. . . . At the same time, to those who knew that Palestine was already inhabited by Arabs, the Zionists emphasized the technical superiority of their agriculture to that of the native farmers.
Thus, Zionist leaders simultaneously clamored to claim Palestinian land while deploring its backward state. In their European frame of reference, they viewed the Mediterranean environs as an undifferentiated “desert,” coding anti-native logic in ecological rhetoric. “The desert is a reproach to mankind,” wrote David Ben-Gurion, founder and first prime minister of Israel, “It is criminal waste.” Here, “desert,” can be read as “Arab,” while “waste” stands for the apparent failure to dominate and exploit the soil. Other early Zionists harmonized with this sentiment, with calls to “conquer” the desert, “rescuing” the land from misuse. By overwriting the small-plot, rain-irrigated farmlands that supported hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the land and people merged into a blank canvas for civilizing aims.
This narrative was also expedient in recruiting potential settlers into a wholesale Zionist identity forged around a new, “muscular Judaism.” In this paradigm, colonization of land—and agricultural labor in particular—was cast as a purifying exploit. Leaders promulgated an archetypal “new Jew”: rugged, agrarian, and rooted to the earth. His existence would simultaneously repudiate the emasculating urban lifestyle of Europe and the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as feeble and displaced. “Through purifying agricultural toil, Jews would at once redeem the land and be redeemed by it,” wrote Ben Ehrenreich in his report on Zionist strategies of hydraulic domination for Harper’s.
In reality, the settlers found themselves struggling. In 1882, the Jewish population comprised approximately 5 percent of Palestine’s inhabitants, or roughly twenty-four thousand people. These communities were primarily concentrated in four holy cities, meaning there were no Jewish agricultural villages for the first Zionist settlers to join. The pioneering “olim,” mostly hailing from European cities, were generally inexperienced in the realm of agriculture. As one settler wrote in 1882,
We looked down upon the Arabs . . . these primitives would see what a European could do in this forsaken land using proficient tools and rational farming methods. However, the catch is that we ourselves only knew from hearsay about European farming.
In an ironic but familiar colonial turn, the settlers were forced, at first, to seek help from indigenous Palestinians—who, it turned out, did exist on the supposedly empty land. As Hebrew University professor Ran Aaronsohn notes in an article for Agricultural History, the settlers even resorted to hiring some locals as farming instructors, “despite having an ideologically negative attitude towards the local Arab agriculture and its methods.” He adds that, for a brief stint, the settlers mimicked their native neighbors, who were largely subsistence farmers of dryland (non-irrigated) crops.
Yet this inconvenient alliance was soon abandoned. The fledgling agricultural endeavors caught the attention of the wealthy benefactor Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, whose extensive financial backing of Jewish settlements was predicated on a shift toward more modern, intensive, and commercial farming models. (Rothschild also imposed his bourgeois sensibility by pushing colonies toward the cultivation of commodities such as wine and silk.) As Aaronsohn notes, the settlers moved from noninvasive indigenous strategies to methods heavy on capital investment and “an assortment of European machinery.” They “drained the swamps, fertilized the land systematically, [and] dug deep wells,” inaugurating a new era of techno-supremacy.
Rothschild’s efforts carried on for decades under the banner of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association but were superseded in the 1930s by the Jewish National Fund. The JNF blended Biblical imagery with utopic agricultural language in its call for the “reclamation” of Palestine, wherein settlers could “rescue the soil” in a “triumph over two thousand years of neglect.” As the JNF notes in its self-authored history, “The Fund’s work may be seen as two hands: in the one, a pen; in the other, a spade. One hand surveyed the terrain, the other tilled it. One hand extended from a sleek business suit, the other, from dusty overalls.”
Even so, the rustic utopia envisioned by Rothschild and other Zionist leaders never truly materialized. By 1933, only 18 percent of Jews earned their living exclusively from agriculture, which was already showing signs of decline in comparison to other industries, such as manufacturing. Yet the most pragmatic Zionist brass remained untroubled by this lackluster progress. The nationalist project was heavily subsidized by investments from abroad—an estimated £178 million from 1920–1947—and other sectors, such as commerce, were developing in the cities. The agrarian vision was just one instrument toward the ultimate goal: the appropriation of as much land as possible.
The urgency of this goal increased in the 1930s. The British, who had occupied Palestine since 1920, had been offering both direct and tacit support for the Zionist settlement project. This triggered increasing resistance from the Palestinian population, who saw their material and political position eroding. Grassroots rebellion grew into an organized general strike in 1936, which lasted from April to October. Though the British succeeded in breaking the strike by way of violent suppression and disingenuous diplomacy, the unrest continued throughout the decade.
When the “Arab Revolts” drove the British to discussions of partitioning Palestine between Arabs and Jews, the Zionists scrambled to establish “facts on the ground” favorable to their aims. One particular concern was the Naqab desert to the south, which the British proposed allotting to the Palestinians in the Peel Commission, a plan presented in 1937. Though the plan was never enacted, it spurred a Zionist land rush in the south. The following years brought a campaign of rapid settlements, some of which appeared literally overnight.
“Henceforth,” recalled Joseph Weitz, director of the Land and Afforestation Department of the Jewish National Fund, “we were to witness an encouraging phenomenon of penetrating beyond the legal wall into forbidden territory, of redeeming important, extensive areas and settling them in various ways.” While JNF president Menachem Ussishkin urged his cohort to press for far-flung parcels of land, he noted, “it is not agriculture that guides us, but primarily the desire to ensure for the nation a country of broader borders” (emphasis mine). Making the desert bloom was only a priority to the extent that it reflected, and enabled, Zionist control.
They woke up for fajr prayer, of course—they were surrounded with all those roosters. Dad worked in the fields all day, Sittoo stayed back in the morning after breakfast, to prepare the lunch and dinner. She’d go out at noonish time, with the basket of lunch up on her head. They would eat there in the field. After, she’d stay and help him until sunset, and they would walk back together.
Here’s what I know about their crops: there was قمح and شعير (wheat and barley). That you grow in the spring, and in the summer you تحصد (harvest). Then in the winter, there were a lot of vegetables and fruit. They had orange. Also in the spring, they had سم سم , lots of سم سم (sesame). They were famous for that.
Also in the summer, they planted cucumbers and tomatoes and بامية (okra), they have of course fig trees and a few olive trees. Lots of grapes, and oranges and lemons . . . When they harvest the summer vegetables they dry it. They would dry it and eat in the winter.
They were just like, mostly growing for themselves. I mean, of course, they would take their sesame and شعير and قمح and sell the extra in the bigger cities. Dad used to go to big cities to buy some stuff, maybe like some extra olives or stuff like that. He would go to al-Lid, Ramla, and Yaffa to buy those things. Mostly olives, to make olive oil out of.
But they were mostly sufficient. They have apricot, خوخ (peaches/plums), almond. Lots of almond trees, I remember the [stories about] the almond trees and two big jamayza trees. Lots of watermelon, tons of that summer stuff. I never got to taste any of it, of course, but Mama would talk about it all the time. All those different kinds of okra.
These lines are lifted from a transcript of oral history about ‘Ibdis that I collected from my father, Ziyad, in the winter of 2020. His soft voice trailed off at the mention of okra—a favorite food for both of us—as if he, like me, scarcely dared imagine the taste of crops pulled from our ancestral soil. He was born after the Nakba, in a refugee camp in Gaza. Life in ‘Ibdis was, for him too, a secondhand memory.
To another’s eye, the transformation of this land might be viewed as “progress.”
Admittedly, I had in the past absorbed these stories with a touch of skepticism. How natural it would be to exaggerate the richness of pre-Nakba life, to wax idyllic over the farms and homes lost in 1948. Yet my family’s memories are echoed in the archives: ‘Ibdis was recorded in a 1596 Ottoman file as having a population of 193 and fields of “wheat, barley, sesame, and fruits,” as well as other types of produce and property, “such as goats, beehives, and vineyards.” An entry in All That Remains, a masterful record of 418 ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, tells me that ‘Ibdis “was known in the region for its quality grains . . . the villagers also grew fruit trees, including grapes, apricots and oranges.” With a population of 540 in 1945, its cultivated land was parceled in irregular, family plots totaling 4,307 dunum (roughly 1,065 acres) of dryland crops and 149 dunum (37 acres) of orchards, including almond groves.
This was typical of Palestine in the era, writes researcher Alan George. Contrary to Zionist claims of barrenness, by 1945, an estimated 30 percent of the total cultivable Arab-owned land in Palestine had been cultivated, using traditional methods such as rain-watered farming and wooden plows. This figure, according to George, included the farming of “marginal lands” that later, more commercially minded Zionist settlers would deem not worth exploiting. In other cases, new immigrants superimposed their agricultural exploits upon land that had been tended for generations by Palestinian farming families.
The immediate fate of ‘Ibdis after the Nakba is difficult to trace. I know my grandparents survived when many of our relatives did not. I know they and their newborns sought shelter with Bedouins for the next seven years, dodging Zionist “cleaning up” exercises and praying for return. I don’t know if, or when, they accepted that their exile would be permanent. I know that in 1955, my grandmother moved with her children to a refugee camp in Gaza, while my grandfather sought work in Saudi Arabia. I know she settled in Deir Balah, a Gazan city named after date palms. There, my grandmother planted a single banana tree. It remained bare for the entirety of their decade-plus sojourn. My father, who was born there, remembers staring at the tree, daydreaming of fruit.
Last March, still squinting at the Israeli almond grove, I took out my phone and video called my father for the third time that day. His face appeared, his salt-and-pepper hair lit with North Carolinian sun. I swerved the camera left and right, a touch of frenzy in my voice. “We still can’t find the well, Baba, I don’t know . . . and we can’t find the jamayza tree . . .” I watched my brother approach, his face flushed and shoulders sloped. Together, three diasporic Palestinians, we tried again to triangulate ourselves home. The tall grass defied us, but the almond grove proved our main antagonist. Its tight, uniform rows had swallowed most of what would have been ‘Ibdis, including our grandmother’s tree. Eventually, my father’s voice grew hoarse. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be this time.” He was attempting to lift the sense of failure from us. I looked at my brother’s burning cheeks as rage snaked up my throat. I croaked a half-apology and hung up without a goodbye.
Exporting the Myth
“Today, we celebrate seventy-five years of vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East, seventy-five years of dynamism, ingenuity and groundbreaking innovations,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, on April 27, 2023, in a congratulatory video message posted to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Israel’s independence. “You have literally made the desert bloom, as I could see during my visit to the Negev last year.” During her trip, she lauded Israel’s “unique expertise in innovative, resource-efficient agriculture” (and could not resist repeating, “the founders of your country have basically made crops spring up from the driest of deserts”).
The EU president’s remarks reflect the way the Zionist agricultural miracle narrative grew from nation-building myth to a major export. In recent years, the country has presented itself as an exemplar for addressing climate change, including through its high-tech approaches to water and agriculture, such as drip irrigation, AI-powered pesticide programs, and data-collecting drones. In addition to its multibillion-dollar agritech export industry, Israel burnishes its humanitarian credentials by dispatching agricultural consultants to “developing” nations in Africa and Asia.
It also deigns to help the struggling United States. On a 2014 visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted to an audience of drought-stricken Californians that “Israel does not have a water problem,” and, should the state follow Israel’s lead, California wouldn’t have one either. Two years later, a delegation from the California Department of Food and Agriculture traveled to Israel, where they were tutored in farming efficiencies. Two members of the California almond industry joined the group, including Bob Curtis, the director of agricultural affairs for the Almond Board of California. Upon his return, Curtis enthused about Israeli expertise. While California already uses Israeli agritech, Curtis implied its adoption should be explored in almond orchards across the state, which produce 80 percent of the world’s supply.
Israel’s purported greenness is not without a material basis. In their trips to the Naqab, von der Leyen and Curtis would have seen, as I did on my pilgrimage to ‘Ibdis, an impressive number of farms and man-made forests, often in stark contrast to their surroundings. From thirty thousand hectares of irrigated land in 1948, the country now waters nearly two hundred thousand hectares. Yet for all the physical and rhetorical space these plantations and parks occupy, their domestic impact is slight: agriculture represents just over one percent of the nation’s GDP and less than 2 percent of its exports, making for a considerable trade deficit in food and agricultural products, according to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report.
This relatively small output has come at an exorbitant environmental cost: in the 1970s, Israel was devoting more than 75 percent of its freshwater to agriculture and in 2000 was still using almost 60 percent. After the three main reservoirs utilized by Israel dropped below critical levels, the Knesset launched an inquiry in 2001 scrutinizing this disproportionate allocation of water and decades-old subsidies to farmers. Though Israel had been plagued by three years of drought, the committee found the origin of the crisis was “not brought about only by climactic changes” but rather was “primarily manmade.” Their writeup cited an earlier report by State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porath, which blamed “agricultural crops, that not only fail to contribute to the national economy, but cause it significant economic damage, in addition to the damage caused by the over-pumping from the reservoirs.”
However, the committee concluded that no significant cuts to the industry should be made, as “agriculture has a Zionist-strategic-political value, which goes beyond its economic contribution.” Keeping the desert in bloom is worth the extravagant cost.
Of course, Israel has never had to bear the real brunt of its own expenditure. The committee’s inquiry elided the vast architecture of water theft on which the agriculture industry relies. An estimated 40 percent of Israel’s water supply is derived from the West Bank, where Israel directly controls 85 percent of the water and separates 95 percent of Palestinians from their historic water sources. In addition to using Palestinian water to supply the roughly seven hundred thousand Israeli settlers living illegally in the Occupied West Bank, Israel has been diverting water from the Occupied Territories for decades. Much of it goes to Israel’s agricultural projects in the Naqab, including the territory where ‘Ibdis now lies under roughly 130 acres of irrigated almond trees.
In a systematic deprivation of water Amnesty International decried as “truly staggering,” Palestinians are functionally forbidden from building their own wells, and their rainwater cisterns are often destroyed. As a result, many Palestinians are forced to turn to Israeli sources, such as the semiprivatized company Mekorot, to purchase water drawn from beneath their own feet. According to a 2012 report, more than three hundred thousand Palestinians are not connected to any water infrastructure. For water delivered by truck, these Palestinians often end up paying 500 percent more than Israelis. In poor and rural communities, water expenses often consume half of a family’s monthly income.
Her body was a glitch in an imperialist machine that none of us were meant to survive.
One might assume that, in a warming world, someone in the Middle East must go thirsty. But the criminal imbalance in water is not inevitable. While the Knesset inquiry did not prompt significant adjustments to water use—no halting of desert “greening” or draining of settlement swimming pools—drying conditions did spur an aggressive drive toward efficiency. In recent years, Israel has invested billions in its water infrastructure, including increasing the amount of water it recycles and opening massive desalination plants. Less than ten years after the Knesset inquiry, Israel began claiming that it had conquered its water crisis. Israel’s ability to “overcome” its “difficult environment,” boasted one 2008 report published by the Israeli embassy, “lies in the determination and ingenuity of farmers and scientists . . . demonstrating to the world that the real value of land is a function of how it is utilized.”
In typical fashion, it has leveraged these “solutions” for profit: Israel is now home to at least three hundred water-related companies and over a hundred startups; water and water-related technologies and services are a $2 billion industry. The “solutions” they offer are often problematic—desalination, for example, is energy-intensive and detrimental to marine life. Even so, its much-touted water surplus makes it obvious that Israel could sustain its own population without choking the Palestinians dry.
But systematically depriving Palestinians of water has its own “Zionist-strategic-political value.” As Palestinian wells and farms dry up, populations may be forced to relocate, leaving their land vulnerable to seizure by the army or settlers. In other instances, Israel declares an area a military firing zone or “nature reserve,” effectively annexing some of the West Bank’s choicest agricultural grounds. A 2015 UN report found that the Israeli occupation denies Palestinians access to at least 63 percent of the agricultural resources of the West Bank, from water to fertile farming land to grazing areas. In Gaza, where a polluted aquifer renders 96 percent of water unfit for human use, the formerly robust agriculture sector has shrunken to less than 5 percent of the GDP.
In addition to devastating the Palestinian economy, these deprivations directly threaten Palestinian survival: a 2010–2011 agricultural census showed that around 71 percent of Palestinian farms used all of their produce for family consumption. In the West Bank and Gaza, 1.84 million Palestinians face food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme; of those numbers, which make up a third of the Palestinian population in these territories, 1.1 million are severely food insecure.
Lack of water has also driven the small Palestinian almond sector to its knees. While the almonds in ‘Ibdis and elsewhere were once sustained by rainfall, climate change has made almond cultivation virtually impossible without intensive irrigation. Forbidden from digging wells on their own land, farmers face the exorbitant cost of purchasing water. Any harvest they manage to grow is undercut by the almonds produced with subsidized water and automated technology in Israel or on settlements, which sell for roughly half the price. After multiple seasons of drought, many Palestinians are uprooting their almond trees and planting cheaper, drier alternatives.
In contrast, the Israel Almond Council in 2019 boasted a “booming . . . industry encompass[ing] 6,200 hectares (15,320 acres) of breathtaking almond trees countrywide.” The same press release lists the illegally occupied Golan Heights in Syria and the so-called Judean Plains in the West Bank as primary sites of “Israeli” almond growth. The exact ownership of the grove that sits atop ‘Ibdis is difficult to ascertain, as the entanglements of public and private interests are often deliberately obscured. Weeks of sleuthing with the help of an Israeli activist and amateur historian lead to only the slightest clues: the nearby kibbutz of Negba and the moshav Masuot Yitzhak united in 2020 in a joint agricultural venture, listing almonds as one of their intended crops. The partnership was lauded as the first-ever cooperative between a secular and a religious settlement—entrenched differences superseded by the Zionist cause.
On August 15, 2021, wildfires engulfed the forested hills outside Jerusalem. The blaze raged for three days, consuming nearly five thousand acres of trees. When the smoke cleared, a startling sight appeared: the remains of numerous Palestinian villages and six-hundred-year-old terraced farms. These traces of Palestinian history, including what once was acres of olive and fig groves, had lain hidden beneath European pine.
In poor and rural communities, water expenses often consume half of a family’s monthly income.
In life, the burned trees were part of the Zionist “afforestation” regime, a practice integral to both Israel’s “greening the desert” narrative as well as a nationwide cover-up. It’s an operation spearheaded by the JNF, which today directly controls around 13 percent of Israel’s land and exerts powerful influence over the rest. The JNF boasts it has planted over 260 million trees in its century-plus lifetime, creating “luscious belts of green” and underscoring its sustainability bona fides. But according to Israeli human rights organization Zochrot, JNF-administered forests and parks conceal the ruins of eighty-nine Palestinian villages.
The strategy of usurping history with conifers became central in the 1940s, as Zionist leaders sought to “guard the land” from displaced Palestinians attempting to repatriate. The planting began before the Nakba—over five million trees had been seeded by 1947—but accelerated exponentially after the declaration of Israel. For decades, the afforestation efforts consisted almost exclusively of pine, replacing indigenous polyculture and decimating biodiversity. Pinus halepensis, the species favored by the JNF, is prone to fire, owing to the acidity of its needles, as well as its low canopy base height and retention of dead branches and open cones. In addition to being reminiscent of European forests, these pines also grow quickly, aiding Zionist memoricide by erasing traces of Palestinian life and foreclosing its return.
Today, Israel continues to use trees as a tool of dispossession. On January 13, 2022, hundreds of heavily armed police accompanied JNF workers as they broke ground on a forest that would displace the Palestinian Bedouin village of Sa’wa in the Naqab. Faced with protests from the residents, who hold Israeli citizenship, the police unleashed rubber-coated steel bullets and drones that dropped tear gas grenades. Clashes continued for days as the JNF enforced its purported mission to “preserve the land” amid mass arrests and civilian injuries. The afforestation was eventually suspended, but similar projects—and protests—are ongoing.
These recent struggles are a continuation of a long history of resistance by Palestinian Bedouins. Some two hundred thousand Bedouins reside in the Naqab region today, descendants of the few thousand who remained on or near their land after an estimated ninety thousand were driven out during the Nakba and the “mopping up” exercises that ensued. In a juridical-rhetorical echo of early Zionist intent, the state of Israel portrays the Bedouin as primitive and rootless, despite the fact that many Bedouins settled in towns and cultivated farmland well before 1948. This presumed “nomadic lifestyle” is used by the state of Israel to justify forcing the population into impoverished townships and off of their ancestral land. Still, approximately ninety thousand continue to live in “unrecognized villages,” communities which the State of Israel has declared illegal and thus subject to demolition.
Such demolitions are often cloaked in green, justified by alibis of “afforestation” and “agricultural development.” The JNF, which enjoys tax-exempt status in over fifty countries and receives hundreds of millions in donations each year, has been deputized by the Israeli government as the ecological front for its expansionist designs in the region. In its Blueprint Negev plan, the JNF repeats familiar language in its promise to “revitalize” a “once barren desert” with its goal of settling five hundred thousand Jewish Israelis to the south. In addition to “state-of-the-art” medical centers and schools, the JNF pledges to install “new bodies of water,” along with bike paths, nature areas, and parks in the vein of Be’er Sheva River Park, a $300 million greenscape that will soon include a twenty-three-acre artificial lake.
In the path of these developments, Bedouin communities, along with other Palestinians from Jenin to Gaza to the global diaspora, continue to resist. The village of Al-Araqib has been demolished 219 times as of July 2023. In response to the protests at Sa’wa, JNF chairman Avraham Duvdevani declared “We will continue planting in the entire Negev. This is part of the Zionist vision.”
Tree of Life
Pocketing my phone after the call with our father, I turned to look at my brother. Last time we were in ‘Ibdis, I was barely twenty, and he was seventeen. Then, I felt protective of him, somehow still a boy in my eyes. This time, his beard and broad limbs reminded me that he does not need me to be strong. “Can we try one more time?” I pleaded. His blue eyes grew soft, his lips pressing into a line. He knew what I was asking and gave a sober, single nod. I listened, half-dazed, as my brother consulted a topographical map on his phone, reasoning aloud about the location of the jamayza tree. An engineer, his sense of spatiality far outstrips my own, and so I simply waited. We walked back toward the grove.
The strategy of usurping history with conifers became central in the 1940s, as Zionist leaders sought to “guard the land” from displaced Palestinians attempting to repatriate.
The rigid lines of the almond trees forced us to zigzag, clambering between crowded trunks, up and down mounded soil. My sister-in-law caught up to us. Though all three of us are similarly tall, the other two pulled ahead of me, their long legs gliding over the uneven terrain. As the minutes stretched, there was no sound but the breeze, birdcalls, and the soft scramble of our steps. I tried to focus on my breath, the sensation of dirt beneath my soles. But my ears were ringing, the tightness in my throat betraying how my heart already caved. The almond trees were planted far too tightly; surely, there was no space for a jamayza inside these acres of uniformity.
Then, like a flag snapping in the wind, my sister-in-law’s head whipped around to me. Her mouth opened. Wordless, she gave three vigorous nods, her eyes lit—then I saw her. An administrative oversight or some stronger miracle, the jamayza surged amid the almond trees. She rose several times the height of the orchard rows, arms stretching by the dozen, poised and bursting green. My companions paused, taking her in, as I swept past to wrap myself against her chest.
I knew there is something overdetermined, something caricatured, about a woman hugging a tree. Yet there could have been no other gesture—my flesh pressed to her memory. Against her cool, sinewy bark, I felt a gentle charge. Energy vibrated into me, slowing my pulse to her song, an echo of my earlier prayer. Still. Here. Still. Here.
Many thanks to the following individuals for their help in reporting this piece: Ziyad Shihadah, Tariq Shihadah, Laura Shihadah, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Saleem Abu Ghazaleh, M. Alkhufash, and Uri Zachem.