The former South African ambassador to Israel says he’ll be returning a certificate informing him that 18 trees had been planted in his honour in an Israeli forest by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.
Ismail Coovadia, whose term came to an end in December last year, told the Mail & Guardian that when he returned to South Africa he opened the certificate, expecting it to acknowledge his period of ambassadorial service but was disturbed to learn that the trees had been planted in his name and without his permission in a forest planted by the JNF.
According to an article published by Human Rights Watch, “Erasing Links to the Land in the Negev”, the “Ambassadors Forest” was inaugurated in December 2005 and lies on the demolished Bedouin village of al-Araqib. It is one of several forests planted by the JNF in Israel.
Others include Switzerland Forest, Canada Park, British Park, Norwegian Kings Forest and South Africa Forest.
In a letter sent to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of South Africa, Coovadia stated that the certificate was “nothing less than an offence to his dignity and integrity”.
“Regrettably, my permission was not sought to plant a tree in my or the name of a South African ambassador on usurped land, the rightful land of the Palestinians and Bedouins. … I was not a party to, and never will be, to the planting of ’18 trees’, in my ‘honour’ on expropriated and stolen land.
“In view of this inhuman act against ordinary people, I shall be returning the ‘certificate’ to the director general of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs with a humble request to remove the “18 trees … planted … in my ‘honour’.”
Meanwhile, two members of Stop the JNF – a worldwide group which campaigns against the fund – Alan Horwitz and Shereen Usdin, said they had also received letters from the South African chapter of the organisation informing them that trees had been planted in their names. Horwitz said he believed this constituted a case of political point-scoring on the part of the JNF.
“They want to show us they can co-opt us in, whether we like it or not,” he said.
Asked whether it was ethical to plant trees in the name of individuals without first acquiring their permission to do so, Amber Cummins the deputy director of JNF South Africa, said: “We are just the organisation that received the donation and were just carrying out the donor’s wishes.
“This was an unusual case. Usually it’s for their own family members that people make donations, for example people donate money to put up plaques in the name of their deceased parents. But in this case, we received an anonymous donation and were told to put up a plaque in their names [Horwitz and Usdin] and that’s what we did,” she said.
Cummins said the fund was responsible for forestry throughout Israel. It had “originated in 1901 as the financial arm of the Zionist movement and had distributed charity boxes to Jewish families all over the world into which people would put coins. The purpose was to purchase land wherever available in Palestine at full prices, from whomever was willing to sell it in the hope that this area would eventually become Israel,” she explained.
“In terms of Ottoman Law, if one purchased land and one wasn’t a resident on that land, one way of securing the land was to plant trees on it. So this became a major focus of the JNF. At that time the land was as barren as is possible – the greening of the land was very important to the pioneers as well as in terms of settling the land, and it was also beneficial to the entire Middle East in terms of the benefits of afforestation.”
Cummins said that there are now about 260-million trees in Israel.
JNF South Africa is largely responsible for South Africa Forest, which is featured in a documentary, The Village under the Forest, that recently premiered at the Encounters Film Festival.
In her production notes, filmmaker Heidi Grunebaum writes that the forest was planted on a destroyed Palestinian village “Lubya was forcibly depopulated in mid-July 1948 by Israeli military units, during what is called The War of Independence in Israeli nationalist histories and what Palestinians call the Nakba [Catastrophe],” she wrote.
However, Cummins questioned whether Lubya existed in 1948.
“The information I’m getting from Israel – which is not confirmed –indicates that it didn’t even exist at the time of 1948. It had, in fact, been destroyed many years before that and nobody had even lived there; it was just rubble with a few structures and olive trees and they are trying to investigate that now.”
Grunebaum said that Palestinian oral historian Dr Mahmoud Issa wrote a book about Lubya, in which his parents had lived.
“His book is based on years of archival research and on oral recordings from 700 interviews with Lubyans inside Israel, in the Palestinian diaspora in Arab countries and in European countries.”
Self-exile claim ‘is a fabrication’
Every year on May 15 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba (Catastrophe) in remembrance of the displacement that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.
According to the Jewish National Fund’s Amber Cummins, 711000 Arabs left their homes voluntarily “in the face of the war of aggression against Israel”.
“We know that at the time that Israeli independence was declared, the surrounding Arab countries called on Arabs who lived in Israel to move out, to flee, promising them a swift victory over Israel and that they would wipe Israel off the face of the map whereupon they would be able to return to their homes with more land than they had before.
“With that … Arabs left voluntarily. There was no expulsion/nakba, it was an evacuation, a voluntary evacuation, they fled. Everybody was leaving, so in all probability, the people who didn’t want to leave also left when they saw those people leaving,” she said. “Israel didn’t have the military force available to expel these people. Most of them were Holocaust survivors being pushed from pillar to post around Europe. The whole country had three or five tanks. It is made out that this vicious Israeli army carried out this expulsion. How could they have?”
But Ran Greenstein, a professor of sociology at Wits University who specialises in the study of Israeli/Palestinian and South African history and politics said that the facts of the war were well documented by Israeli historians, Palestinians scholars, as well as the verbal accounts of survivors on both sides. “The Institute of Palestine Studies has created a site that includes dozens of memoirs, analyses and records about the Nakba,” he pointed out.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who directs the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said: “It’s a fabrication that there was a call from the Arabs to leave. The professional Israeli historiography found out that there was no such call. Recently, in Haaretz, it was revealed how this lie was marketed after the war as part of a propaganda effort to cover the ethnic cleansing.
“Arab armies entered Palestine on May 15 1948, when 300 000 Palestinians had already become refugees. By that time, the whole Palestinian population of Haifa and Jaffa, nearly 110000 people altogether, had been expelled. The Arab governments did not want to send in their armies, but after the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9 1948, there was public pressure to stop the ethnic cleansing and hence, the entrance of the armies to Palestine.”
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