Palestinian solidarity activists in North America are accustomed to being abandoned by many of their “progressive allies”, be it church officials or municipal councils or politicians. This is the sad reality of working in today’s political landscape, where opportunism runs rampant and the pro-Israel lobby has often succeeded in dominating the agenda with its relentless smear and intimidation campaigns. But the cut runs deeper and is profoundly more devastating when it is a long-time genuine ally that enables the Zionist settler colonialist narrative; such is the case with the recent visit of a Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) delegation to Cuba and their presentation at a climate conference in Havana. A visit that besmirches the long history of joint struggle and solidarity between the Cuban and Palestinian peoples.
Most of the Israeli media carried the story of the visit with glowing headlines, declaring “For first time Israeli scientist presents at conference in Cuba”. If that weren’t enough of an affront, this particular Israeli scientist Doron Markel was also the chief scientist for the JNF and came with a delegation that included KKL-JNF CEO Amnon Ben-Ami, KKL-JNF Deputy Chairman Hernán Felman, Deputy Chairman Zeev Noiman, and Latin America Department Director Ariel Goldewicht. And he was slated to speak about “sustainable developments in forestation and large-scale water projects tools to adapt to the effects of climate change in Israel and the Middle East.”
The sheer inappropriateness of JNF officials being allowed to address “sustainable development in forestation” after literally raping the landscape and destroying 800,000 olive trees in Palestine (to give just one example) is mind-boggling. And “sustainable development” for whom? Not the indigenous Palestinian population definitely.
The history of how the JNF has engaged in historic and present-day land theft is well-documented. Independent Jewish Voices-Canada, who is currently working on a #StopJNFCanada campaign, stated it this way: “Established as the principle Zionist tool for controlling land in Palestine, the JNF was actively involved in Palestinian dispossession prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948: ‘…The only solution is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries. Not a single village or a single tribe must be let off.’ Yossef Weitz (Head of JNF Settlement Dept) 1940”.
Just in case anyone was not clear, Deputy Chairman Hernán Felman who was part of the delegation in Havana, eagerly spelt it out in the Jerusalem Post on July 8, 2019: “For more than 118 years, KKL-JNF has developed the land of Israel for a sustainable future, and supported Zionist and environmental education. Since its establishment, KKL-JNF led an unprecedented forest project, which transformed a desolate land into a blooming green country with more than 240 million trees.”
It might be difficult to find a statement that includes more of the quintessential Zionist talking points than this one, especially the tired old mantra of making the desolate land bloom. This article by Ramzy Baroud from earlier this year breaks down the lie of this Zionist “environmentalism”.
Cuba and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations; those were broken in 1973 and never resumed until now. However, two years ago, on the heels of the Obama administration’s overtures to Cuba, there was a significant push to re-establish such ties. Israel for the first time in November 2016, abstained on the UN General Assembly motion to end the economic blockade on Cuba. Cultural and economic delegations started to exchange visits in 2017, and in October 2017 Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev (well-known for her extremist views) was reported as traveling to Cuba, the first Israeli cabinet minister to do so since 1973. Along with Regev’s “private” trip, most of these exchanges fell into the category of being “the first of its kind” in four decades or longer. The late former Israeli general Rafael Eitan, who had private business interests in Cuba for over 20 years, was credited with helping to facilitate much of this new state-to-state Cuban-Israeli exchange.
The Canada Palestine Association sent a letter to Cuban officials with the following appeal in early 2018: “We beseech you, in the name of the Palestinian struggle, in the name of the unity of two steadfast peoples, to investigate these recent actions and take steps to ensure that such exchanges are not repeated and go no further. Please do not develop any ties with what the late and beloved Fidel Castro in 2014, when referencing Israel, called a ‘new, repugnant form of fascism’.”
However, with Trump in the White House, all of that collapsed – Israel went back to being the only other country in the world that voted for the U.S. blockade on Cuba and the nascent rapprochement was broken. Activists thought that along with Israel’s negative role in destabilizing Venezuela and the recent death of Rafael Eitan, it would be a long time before Israel could or would attempt a re-boot of its engagement with Cuba.
Clearly, that analysis was wrong. It is difficult (and even painful) to try and imagine what rationale led to this participation of the JNF in a climate conference in Havana, Cuba. For Palestinians, normalizing with the JNF is as dangerous (if not more) as re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and far supersedes the political significance of all of the previous 2017 cultural and business exchanges.
Many veteran Palestinian activists remember that famous photo of Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, raising their arms together in a pledge of unity, and the historic solidarity visit of Che Guevara to Gaza and its refugee camps in 1959. Those same activists believed strongly in internationalism as a core principle of their political work and worked on multiple campaigns over the years to support struggles in Latin America, from Chile to El Salvador to Cuba.
The trajectory that has brought us to what we have just witnessed, with this legitimization of the JNF with all its colonialist and racist policies, is inherently flawed and can only lead to disaster. For the sake of the long and deep-rooted history of friendship amongst the Palestinian and Cuban peoples, the Cuban government must first explain how this happened and hold accountable those who are responsible. Secondly, an official apology should be made to both the Cuban and the Palestinian people for this breach of trust and solidarity along with a pledge that such steps for normalization with settler colonialism and apartheid will not happen again.