As Jews celebrate Tu Beshvat, the arboreal New Year, Arabs in Israel unite in a war against trees. Rabbis have ruled that this conflict is an existential threat to Israel, similar to the battle of the Maccabees, and takes precedence even over the Sabbath.
Violent riots against Jewish National Fund
Al-Jarmaq, a Palestinian media network, called for Palestinians to join the Bedouin in the Negev in their violent riots against Jewish National Fund (JNF) tree planting on Sunday night as the holiday of Tu Beshvat began. Protests were held in Jaffa and Haifa. On Monday, as Tu Beshvat ended, protests were planned for Nazareth and Ar’ava. On Tuesday, more protests are planned for Lod and Sakhnin.
The protests, which have been going on for several weeks, quickly devolved into violence and demonstrators threw stones at police, who responded with anti-riot rubber bullets, shock grenades, and a water cannon. Arab media reported that Israeli police have arrested over 100 rioters to date, though Israeli sources claim that number is significantly lower.
Hamas expressed support for the Bedouin, claiming a ramming attack on Tuesday evening that wounded an IDF soldier was motivated by the tree planting.
“The demolitions and violation in the Negev and the mounting crimes by the occupations and settlers will be met by more such heroic operations,” Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou said in a statement.
The Islamic Jihad, which has been categorized as a terrorist organization by many countries, came out in support of the riots, calling them an “intifada.”
The Negev Bedouin, numbering approximately 200,000, claim that the forestation project is an attempt to remove them from the land. The Israeli courts have ruled that the land is publicly owned but the Bedouin claim that they have lived on the land for an unspecified amount of time and therefore own the land.
Common political agendas
The Bedouin are historically nomadic, wandering between Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula, and therefore cannot be defined as Palestinian which inaccurately refers to the geographic region of Israel. Historically, the Arab Palestinians and the Arab Bedouin have not had good relations. This has changed in recent years as they unite in common political agendas against the Israeli government.
The growing partisan nature of the protests has threatened Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government as Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party and the bloc of Arab parties has stated that they will not vote with the coalition unless Bennett accedes to their demands. The coalition has a slim majority of 61 seats. If one seat leaves the coalition, it will dissolve.
This kind of control and power
Naomi Kahn, director of Regavim’s international division, told JNS that her group warned of the danger of bringing an anti-Zionist party into the coalition. Ra’am’s charter calls Zionism “a racist, occupying project”. Kahn warned that by bringing Ra’am into the coalition, Bennett was “giving people power who really are working at cross purposes and who support a completely different vision for this country and this part of the world.”
“It’s never been done before that an Israeli government has given an Arab party and an Islamist party this kind of control and this kind of power and made it the kingmaker and the swing vote,” she said.
Tree planting is a national imperative. The JNF began planting in 1901 has planted about 240 million trees on some 227,000 acres. Tu Beshvat is normally the height of the JNF’s calendar.
A new bill introduced on Monday by Blue and White MK Alon Tal sets establish in law the status of the JNF as the ‘national forester’ — a mandate given to it by the state in 1961. Tree planting and forestry in Israel is still regulated by the 1926 “Forests Ordinance” from the British Mandate.
This Hebrew year is the Shemittah (Sabbatical) and it is technically forbidden to plant trees. The JNF will not be holding its customary tree-planting ceremonies this year in deference to the Biblical precept. But the tree-planting project that the Bedouin find objectionable will continue. Rabbi Dov Lior and other prominent rabbinic authorities have given permission for the planting to be carried out as it is of dire importance “for the struggle for the Land of Israel, and called on all Knesset members to come to the Negev to make the desert bloom.”
It should be noted that planting trees during the Shemitta is tantamount to violating the Sabbath. If the Orthodox MKs take part in the planting, it is an admission that there is a Torah imperative to plant trees to save the land that is on the level of saving lives.
Hasmoneans vs Greek Seleucids
Rabbi Hillel Weiss, the spokesman for the Sanhedrin emphasized this aspect of the planting of trees.
“When the Hasmoneans began fighting the Greek Seleucids, they refrained from fighting on the Sabbath. When it became clear that this would not succeed, the rabbis ruled that it was necessary, what is called in Torah law pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Planting trees is an existential war right now.”
The rabbi noted that according to the Bible, trees played an essential role in war.
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. Deuteronomy 20:19-20
“The tactic of ripping up trees as an act of war was used,” Rabbi Weiss said, citing the Book of Kings:
You shall conquer every fortified town and every splendid city; you shall fell every good tree and stop up all wells of water; and every fertile field you shall ruin with stones.” II Kings 3:19
“The covenant between Abraham and God is the opposite of the Bedouin. In the covenant, there is no difference between Negev and Galilee,’ Rabbi Weiss said. “This is our homeland. We plant trees as a part of the eternal covenant because future generations of Jews will be here. The Temple is the expression of this, the focus for tithing the bounty of the land and bringing the first fruits. The Torah teaches us how to live in the land, how to plant and how to harvest. Uprooting trees is trying to prevent the Third Temple and the final redemption.”
For this holy purpose, the Sanhedrin plants trees every year to be used in the Third Temple.
“The Jews have a historic claim to the land but more important is our Biblical claim. The Bedouin are proud of their nomadic past. Supporting their claim is anti-history but more importantly, it is a direct war against the Bible. It is clear that a war against the Jewish people will also be expressed as a war against the land. Because it is, at its core, a war against the covenant, against God since it was He who gave the land to the Jews.”
It is tragically ironic that while the government is vacillating over the issue of illegal Bedouin construction, the government is preparing to destroy the yeshiva in Homesh on Thursday. Yehuda Dimentman, who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist 30 days ago learned at the yeshiva. The Israeli government destroyed the Homesh settlement as part of the disengagement plan. The site has been the scene of clashes between Jews and police in recent weeks.