“Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes... desolate and unlovely.”

– Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

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“But where were the inhabitants? This fertile [coastal] plain, which might support an immense population, is almost a solitude.... Day by day we were to learn afresh the lesson now forced upon us, that the denunciations of ancient prophecy have been fulfilled to the very letter – ‘the land is left void and desolate and without inhabitants.’”


– The Reverend Samuel Manning, Those Holy Fields (London, 1874)

Traveling through the coastal plain, commuters are frequently lulled into a dreamlike state by the monotony of their surroundings. Field after cultivated field, town after town topped with red terracotta roofs, and uncounted hills dense with the green of shrub and tree surround the commuter on all sides in a wash of color unseen and unheard-of in this land for the better part of two millennia.

In fact, Israel was the only country on the planet, says Omri Bone of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael–Jewish National Fund, to enter the 21st century with a net gain in forest growth. As activists the world over struggle to save the Amazon, turn back the tide of desertification in Africa and chain themselves to trees in the US, Israel is steadily planting acre after acre of foliage.

The JNF is a quasi-governmental agency established by the Zionist movement in 1901 and tasked with procuring land for Jewish settlement in Ottoman, and later British, Palestine.

For the past century it has seen a major part of its mandate as making the land bloom – a sign, according to the sages of the Talmud, that redemption for the exiled Jewish people is close at hand.

Cities such as Beersheba, known as the “capital” of the Negev desert, are surrounded by green belts and hills that once sat desolate and bare and which now show nary a millimeter of exposed soil from a distance. It is as if the process of aging has been reversed, as if a man on his deathbed were to sprout hair, regain the vigor of his limbs, stand up and roar defiance in the face of death itself.

ON THE occasion of Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, the holiday used as a baseline for calculations regarding the agricultural cycle in biblical law, The Jerusalem Post spoke with Bone, the JNF’s Northern Region Director, about the more than 240 million trees planted by his organization in the past century, Israelis’ views toward environmentalism and his green vision for Israel’s future.

Bone begins the interview by quoting from the American novelist Mark Twain’s famous travelogue The Innocents Abroad. Published in 1869, Twain’s memoirs of his world travels gave Americans a glimpse of an exotic world far different from their own.

“Twain describes the landscape of the Holy Land as among the ugliest that he has ever seen in his numerous trips around the world,” Bone says. In Twain’s recollection, he continued, “the landscape is completely denuded of any trees, and I think anyone that sees the forest cover, the landscape of Israel nowadays, can see the huge difference. This is one method I often use in my lectures to describe why Israel is one of the few countries in the world that have more forest cover today than a hundred years ago.”

What led to the Zionist movement’s emphasis on reforestation?

Well I think that you can find it in the vision of [Theodor] Herzl. When Herzl, the visionary of the Zionist movement, thought about how he envisioned the landscape of the Land of Israel, he envisioned a country that should be covered with green forest. Maybe it’s a reflection of the landscape he was familiar with from Europe.

I can say that another visionary, our first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, also had a vision that 1.2 million acres of forest should be planted. He said this a very short time after the establishment of Israel, in the early 1950s.

As you know, we have been able to accomplish only 20 percent of his vision. It’s probably not possible in such a small country with so many conflicting demands... to plant so many trees.

What region is the JNF focusing on now for its main forestry push?

I think that originally most of the country was, as I said, denuded of any trees and it was a challenge to try and establish forests everywhere, but in the early stages the majority of the efforts were conducted in the central and northern parts of the country where we have Mediterranean climate zones.

Later on the JNF started to deal with forestation in semi-arid areas such as in the northern Negev, and actually I think the JNF became a world leader in combating desertification through planting trees and using water harvesting techniques to establish plantations, even in areas like Beersheba where you have less than 8 inches of rain a year. The JNF even planted lemon groves south of Beersheba, in areas with only 2 inches of annual rainfall.

What techniques or technologies have been developed by the JNF as a result of your efforts at reforestation?

In the northern Negev, when there are occasional rainstorms, the upper soil layer, which is not capable of absorbing any more water, [is very rapidly washed away]. Most of the rainwater disappears to the streams and the sea as overflow. The JNF developed systems where we construct some culverts and ditches that collect the water and with this all the runoff remains on-site and contributes to the capability of trees and shrubs to develop. This way... we create an environment for the Negev residents where they can enjoy green landscapes, and this is also the best way to reduce soil loss in the northern Negev desert.

Do you work to export these techniques to roll back the sand to countries faced with the prospect of desertification?

Of course. As you know, some 30% of the world’s terrestrial area consists of semi-arid and desert zones. Therefore the problem I just described in the northern Negev is affecting many countries and areas globally. Therefore the knowledge that we have acquired here in Israel with regard to semi-arid forestation and combating desertification is of great interest in many countries around the world.

The JNF disseminates this knowledge in many ways. We collaborate with the MASHAV program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct workshops and seminars here in Israel for representatives of many developing countries around the world to learn and experience our activity in the northern Negev.

We are partners in international organizations that deal with research regarding semi-arid areas as well. We are major partners in the International Arid Land Consortium centered in Arizona in the US. For the past 20 years this organization conducted many research programs in semi-arid zones, and they also conduct studies in many developing countries that suffer from desertification.

What percentage of Israel, including Judea and Samaria, is currently forested?

There are almost 250,000 acres of planted forests in Israel, so that means that 5% of the area of the country is covered, in addition to the 3% covered in woodlands, so altogether 8% is covered with forest.

But if we take into consideration only the Mediterranean climate zone, maybe 15% of all the area of Israel where forests are capable of growing are covered. This is a remarkable achievement.

What is the average forest cover for a country in the region?

In the Middle East, well, it differs very sharply from one country to another. All the southern Mediterranean countries such as Libya and Tunisia have almost no forests, but in the northern [Mediterranean] countries you can have as much as 20%-25% of the total land area covered with forests, but there you have no desert at all. More than 50% of Israel’s total land area is desert.

We are in a relatively good position with regard to forest cover, but we are in an excellent position with regard to accomplishment with our reforestation program.

What is the long-term goal for the country in the JNF’s eyes? What is your 20-year goal?

I think that the master plan for forests in Israel is to dedicate close to half a million acres, about 10% of the country’s area, to forests and woodlands, so we hope that in 20 years we will be able to complete and cover all the potential. As Israel is a densely populated country, I think it will be a growing challenge to resist threats... to the development or expansion of open areas. This will be a major challenge.

We hope that our forests will become a major resource for outdoor recreation activities for everyone and, as you know, JNF sites are all open to the public free of charge. We are opening new mountain bike trails as well as walking [paths] and other outdoor activities in our forests that will contribute to the well-being of all residents.

Do you believe that Israelis appreciate environmental issues?

Everything we do is aimed at educating the public to be more responsible regarding the environment. We developed what we call a community-based approach, where the communities that live next to our forests take part in their management and protection, and therefore I believe [that] in the future the public will play a growing role in forest protection and preservation in Israel.
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