From Stealing Land to Funding Vigilantes: Charity JNF style

The Jewish National Fund carefully cultivates the image of a benign organisation that acts as a steward of the land and a protector of the environment. In reality, it’s a landholding company that acquired most of its properties through force. The entire history of the JNF is bound up with the objective of the Zionist movement to drive the Palestinians off their land in order to replace them with Jewish settlers.

In Palestine, in the early 19th century and between the two world wars, under British rule, this was carried out mainly by buying up land from absentee landlords.  Yet even these early land purchases were rarely the simple exchanging of money for land.  The Palestinian tenants were evicted with whatever physical force was required and the settlers who acquired the land either relied on the Ottoman and, later, the British authorities to enforce their purchase, or they took matters into their own hands. Recalling the development of Rosh Pina, an early Jewish settlement in Eastern Galilee, a Zionist activist, Yitzhak Epstein, wrote in 1907: “…if we do not wish to deceive ourselves, we can certainly admit that we have thrown poor people out of their derelict homes and taken away their livelihood. …To this day the lament rings in my ears, the weeping Arab women on the day their families left the village of Ja’uni, which is Rosh Pina, to go and settle in the Hauran, which lies beyond the Jordan River to the east.” 

Ygael Gluckstein (later known in the UK as Tony Cliff), recalled how, in 1944, four kibbutzim got together “to oust the Arabs from the villages which were on land the Jewish National Fund had bought from Arab landlords.  They therefore formed a long phalanx at the foot of the hill, picked up stones as they climbed up and threw them at the Arabs on the other side…  They fled in fear and the Zionists took over the whole hill.”   The colonisation and accompanying violence in Mandate Palestine was generally on a small scale, though it often secured strategically significant land. Yet prior to the Nakba, the Zionist movement had gained control of only 7 per cent of Palestine’s agricultural land.  It was the 1948 Nakba, that enabled the Zionist movement to take over most of Palestine.  The ownership and management of the conquered land was passed to the JNF and to the Israel Land Authority, of which half the board members are to this day JNF nominees. 

Once Israel was established, Israel turned to preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their land, in a “war on returnees”. Of the Palestinians who remained, many were removed by Israel on the grounds of “security needs” or development plans. Since 1967, similar pretexts have been used in the West Bank, to facilitate Jewish settlement expansion.

A recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs points to a year-by-year escalation in Jewish settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. In “the first 10 months of 2021”, its officials reported late last year, “there have been 410 attacks by settlers against Palestinians (302 against property and 108 against individuals). Four Palestinians were killed by settlers this year. In 2020, there was a total of 358 recorded attacks. In 2019, there were 335 such attacks.  These settler attacks are primarily directed against rural Palestinian families living on small farms or in villages and towns in the occupied West Bank located in close proximity to Israeli settlements.” Israel/OPT: UN experts warn of rising levels of Israeli settler violence in a climate of impunity – occupied Palestinian territory | ReliefWeb 

The settler attacks are an integral part of Israeli state policy. A B’Tselem report (State Business, November 2021) notes: “the state has misappropriated land from Palestinian shepherding and farming communities in the West Bank through systemic, ongoing violence perpetrated by the settlers living near them, with the full support of state authorities”. About 50 of the 150 settler outposts in the West Bank are farms, all of them illegal in international and even in Israeli law. A report describing the activities of one such farm near Batir, noted: “Farms are considered ‘cost-efficient’ outposts as they mostly consist of one family, a herd of sheep, and volunteers to help herd and guard. The herding is often used to enlarge the outpost’s territory – pushing out Palestinians whose herds grazed the same area before the new outposts popped up”. (Ha’aretz,17 March 2022)  

This is eerily reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing carried out by 19th century settler colonialism. In South Africa, “…the Boers were in the habit of extending their territory by simply herding their cattle into native territory, destroying native gardens and taking over native lands”. (John Bodley, Victims of Progress, p.30) This is not the only parallel.  Settlers at the frontiers of their expansion equip themselves with firearms.  In the West Bank, settler outposts have their own groups of vigilantes though they can also call on help from the Israeli army and police.

The Israeli state, to pre-empt international criticism, disavows any role in the settlers’ violence against Palestinians even as it facilitates it. This tactic of dissimulating the state’s outsourcing the most egregious colonial practices also has precedents. On the British state’s colonisation of land in Queensland, Australia, Mark Levene writes: “It is a paradox that the frontier became a more vicious place after the Crown withdrew its army from frontier operations in 1838, insisting instead that the Australian colonies organise their own border patrols to deal with aboriginal disturbances. By exterminating the natives not at one remove, but twice-removed, while at the same time making it invisible, Queensland effectively gave to the Colonial Office in London freedom to claim that such behaviour had nothing to do with official native policy but was the result of rogue administrators, in subordinate junior police officers or unruly settlers.” (The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide, p.76).  Although the Israeli army has not withdrawn from the West Bank and participates in some settler attacks on Palestinians, like the British in Queensland, it allows the settlers the space to roam freely, enabling them to attack Palestinian farmers, their livestock, orchards and agricultural equipment. The army subsequently denies any knowledge of these activities.

Of the thousands of acres of land in the West Bank that have been confiscated from Palestinians, Human Rights organisation B’Tselem in Settler Violence=State Violence, notes that some were seized “using official means: issuing military orders, declaring the area ‘state land,’ a ‘firing zone’ or a ‘nature reserve,’ and expropriating land. Other areas have been effectively taken over by settlers through daily acts of violence, including attacks on Palestinians and their property.” While these appear to be two different approaches, they are, in reality, one. B’Tselem points out: “Settler violence against Palestinians is part of the strategy employed by Israel’s apartheid regime, which seeks to take over more and more West Bank land.”

Reflecting the overall drift to the far right in Israeli politics, the JNF-KKL has come to directly funding the most radical wing of the settler movement, which is currently behind the most aggressive expansionism in East Jerusalem and the West Bank..  Aligned with this is the JNF UK’s support for several pre-army academies: Derech Eretz, Naveh-Otzem, Ein Prat, Or Me’Ophir, Nachson, Meitarim Lachishand and Hashomer Hachadas.  These academies publicise themselves as providing military training programmes for those aspiring to reach officer rank in the Israeli army. The geographical location of several of them suggests that they are turning out vigilantes for the settler movement who, with the connivance of the Israeli military, are behind the growing number of attacks on Palestinians and their farms.