A ban by Israel on herding black goats – on the pretext they cause environmental damage – is to be repealed after nearly seven decades of enforcement that has decimated the pastoral traditions of Palestinian communities.
The Israeli government appears to have finally conceded that, in an age of climate change, the threat of forest fires to Israeli communities is rapidly growing in the goats’ absence.
The goats traditionally cleared undergrowth, which has become a tinderbox as Israel experiences ever longer and hotter summer droughts. Exactly a year ago, Israel was hit by more than 1,500 fires that caused widespread damage.
The story of the lowly black goat, which has been almost eliminated from Israel, is not simply one of unintended consequences. It serves as a parable for the delusions and self-destructiveness of a Zionism bent on erasing Palestinians and creating a slice of Europe in the Middle East.
The 1950 Plant Protection Law, one of Israel’s earliest measures, was introduced as a way to outlaw the black goat, also known as the Syrian goat, from large areas of the country. The goats had been the lifeblood of Bedouin farming communities.
At the time officials declared that the goat was damaging vegetation, especially millions of pine saplings recently planted as forests.
The trees were fulfilling an important Zionist mission, in the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers. They were there to conceal the rubble of more than 530 Palestinian villages the new state had set about destroying and prevent the return of some 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled during the 1948 war that founded Israel – what Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for “Catastrophe”.
Close by the ruins of the villages, Israel established hundreds of exclusively Jewish communities like the kibbutz and moshav to farm the former lands of the Palestinian refugees.
Both the ban on goats and the mass planting of European pines were part of Zionism’s efforts to sell the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as “environmentalism” – a supposedly green agenda that is now being exposed as a sham.
Planting pine forests
Jews around the world were encouraged to drop pennies into charitable “blue boxes” as a donation to help the young state “redeem the land”.
In fact, the money was being mostly used to plant pine forests over the razed Palestinians villages, making it impossible for the refugees to return and rebuild their homes.
Additionally, the pine was useful because it was fast-growing and evergreen, shrouding in darkness all year evidence of the ethnic cleansing committed during Israel’s creation. And the forests played a psychological role, transforming the landscape in ways designed to make it look familiar to recent European immigrants and ease their homesickness.
Finally, the falling pine needles acidified the soil, leaving it all but impossible for indigenous trees to compete. These native species – including the olive, citrus, almond, walnut, pomegranate, cherry, carob and mulberry – were a vital component of the diet of Palestinian rural communities. Their replacement by the pine was intended to make it even harder for Palestinian refugees to re-establish their communities.
In charge of planting and maintaining these forests was the Jewish National Fund, an internationally recognised Zionist charity. Paradoxically, its website extols its work in Israel as “innovators in ecological development and pioneers in afforestation and fire prevention”. The JNF claims to have planted some 250 million trees across Israel.
In an indication of Israel’s success is selling these colonisation policies as environmentalism, the United Nations lists the JNF as having expertise in climate change, forestry, water management and human settlements. The UN also allows the organisation to sponsor panels and workshops at UN conferences around the world.
In September the JNF attended the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, where, it noted, it would be “presenting its activities in creating a greener world”.
The 1950 legislation, also known as the Goat Damage Law, continued Israel’s land colonisation policies – this time, not against the Palestinian refugees, but against the small number of Palestinian communities that had survived the Nakba.
By the end of the 1948 war, some 150,000 Palestinians were still clinging to their communities, chiefly in the north, in the Galilee, and in the south, in the semi-desert Negev, or Naqab. In 1952, under international pressure, these Palestinians were given citizenship.
Many of the surviving Palestinian communities knew little aside from an agriculture their ancestors had practised in the region for generations. But Zionism’s credo – that “Hebrew labor” would allow Jews to “make the desert bloom” and remake themselves as farmer-warrior “Sabras” – required that Palestinians be displaced from farming land.
Estimates are that some 70 percent of the land belonging to Palestinian communities in Israel was seized by the state – and is now held in trust for Jews around the world. Deprived of land and access to cheap water for agriculture, most Palestinian citizens were forced to become casual laborers, many of them working on building sites in the country’s center.
But one group was seen as a particular threat to the new Zionist ethos – and especially hard to turn into a captive labour force. The Bedouin were located in remote locations in the Galilee’s hills and the dusty plains of the Negev, and their pastoral way of life, herding goats and sheep, made it hard for Israel to control them.
‘Dunam after dunam’
The connection between the land and the goats – and the central role both played in maintaining Palestinian identity and reinforcing a tradition of “sumud”, or steadfastness – was identified early on by the Zionist movement.
One of its early slogans, referring to an Ottoman unit of land measurement, was “dunam after dunam, goat after goat”. The goal was to take Palestine piece by piece, so incrementally and quietly it would pass unnoticed in the rest of the world.
After the Nakba, Israel turned to aggressive containment policies against the Bedouin who had not been expelled outside the state’s new borders. These policies focused on both their lands and herds.
In 1965, the year before military rule over Palestinian citizens ended, a Planning and Building Law de-recognised almost all Bedouin communities. Their homes were declared illegal and they were denied all public services.
Israel’s goal was to pen the Bedouin up in a handful of urbanised “townships”, forcing them to abandon agriculture and become casual labourers in a Jewish economy, like other Palestinian citizens.
The 1950 Plant Protection Law struck an especially hard blow against the Bedouin. The black goats supplied them with milk for their own use and for sale, and the hides were used for tents and blankets.
As agriculture minister in the late 1970s, Ariel Sharon stepped up the campaign against the Bedouin – and similarly preferred to veil his policies as a bogus concern about ecology.
In his case, he had a private investment in the state’s success in “Judaising” the Negev and getting rid of most of the Bedouin: in 1972 he had acquired a vast ranch there, covering 4 sq km.
The land had formerly belonged to refugees from the destroyed Palestinian village of Houg, now imprisoned in Gaza. Palestinian physician and author Hatim Kanaaneh notes that the village’s only remaining structure, the mosque, was “serving as the pen for [Sharon’s] Arabian thoroughbred horses”.
The Green Patrol
Five years after be bought Sycamore ranch, Sharon created the “Green Patrol”, a paramilitary unit of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, whose tasks included seizing and slaughtering the Bedouin’s black goats.
Palestinian community activist Maha Qupty notes that in the first three years of the Green Patrol’s operations, the number of black goats was slashed by 60 percent, from 220,000 to 80,000. The patrol’s practices were so brutal that an official watchdog, the State Comptroller, censured the unit in his 1980 report.
The number of goats in Israel has fallen much further in recent years. A report in the Haaretz newspaper noted that by 2013 there were only 2,000 goats still grazing in and around the vast Carmel forest, next to Haifa, down from 15,000 before the Green Patrol’s establishment.
And it was in that same Carmel Ridge that the danger posed by the goats’ enforced disappearance first became apparent.
The extensive forest hugging the slopes of the Carmel Ridge was planted to enforce and conceal the expulsion of several Palestinian villages. But in 2010 the forest was engulfed in flames that ultimately claimed the lives of 44 people. The majority were warders travelling to Damun prison, where Palestinian political prisoners are held outside the occupied territories in violation of international law.
The fire, which raged for four days, required the evacuation of 17,000 people from their homes, including from sections of Haifa.
That blaze was a prelude to much more widespread fires a year ago, at the end of a long dry summer. Some 1,700 fires were reported across Israel and the West Bank, many of them in the forests Israel had planted over the destroyed villages. Haifa was again badly damaged.
Zionism’s self-inflicted wounds
In both the 2010 and 2016 forest fire outbreaks, Palestinian citizens were accused by police and government officials of being responsible, despite a dearth of evidence – and convictions – to back up such claims.
Allegations of arson were a useful deflection from the reality: that the fires were a Zionist own goal. The danger posed by planting unsuitable European pine forests in the arid conditions of the Middle East had been aggravated by longer summers, as climate change kicked in, and by the destruction of the black goats. They had cleared the vegetation around the trees that prevented the fires from quickly spreading.
In fact, there had been warnings that these pine forests were a fire hazard long before the advent of significant climate change. Nearly 20 years ago, I visited a kibbutz on the edge of the Carmel Ridge where there had been a recent fire.
Nir Etzion sits on the agricultural lands of Ayn Hawd, which was a rare example of a Palestinian village that had escaped destruction – in its case, to be reinvented as a Jewish artists’ colony under a similar name, Ein Hod.
The staff at Nir Etzion told me a familiar and paranoid tale: that internal Palestinian refugees, living close by, had started the fire to drive them from their kibbutz. The kibbutzniks overlooked the fact that the refugees themselves were put in much graver danger by the fire.
As I recounted in my contribution to a book of essays, Catastrophe Remembered, experts were clear even then that the European pine forests on the Carmel Ridge were dangerous in the region’s dry conditions.
‘Repair historic injustice’
But until this month, the dreams of the Zionist movement – of disappearing all traces of a Palestine that existed before Israel’s creation – had proved far more potent than the danger of forest fires.
Paradoxically, it has taken Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, to pry his colleagues from their delusions and face up to the reality of climate change.
Zahalka is the moving force behind the effort to repeal the 1950 law, justifying its revocation on a study by a good Zionist institution – the Technion, Israel’s renowned technical university. Its research has confirmed a wisdom that was obvious to generations of Palestinian farmers: that the goats graze on dry bushes and shrubs, and thereby suppress the risk of fires.
Zahalka has won backing from the agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, and Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister. Both are tightly linked to the settler movement, and Ariel is a director of the JNF.
But faced with the scientific evidence and the threat of more fires, Ariel has climbed down. “Goats are an important factor in fire prevention, and we want to encourage the act of grazing,” he now says.
Sadly, it has taken Israeli governments nearly 70 years to reverse their policy of destroying the black goat – a policy that intentionally sought to wreck Palestinian agriculture, and with it Palestinian communities, heritage and identity.