Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Everything written here is supported by sources I have referenced (check for yourself), as always, so do not treat this as an assault on either side and / or their respective religions. This post is through the lens of the tree, so treat it as such. Moreover, the entire topic is very interesting.

As Israel collides with Palestine, trees are – and always have – been caught up in the melee. Principally, olive and citrus groves, some of which may have been tended to for many centuries by the Palestinians (Temper, 2009), are bulldozed or otherwise uprooted, with little respect for their cultural and historical importance (Allen, 2008; Graham, 2002). As an example, in 1986, when the Israeli military seized Midya, over 3,300 olive trees were uprooted, and a further 2,000 olives were bulldozed in Qattana (Bardenstein, 1999). Some of the trees removed from Qattana were later re-planted within the Jewish sector of West Jerusalem (Lentin, 2000), though by that point the damage (in many an aspect) had certainly been done. Some Israeli residents did protest their planting (out of anger towards the state), by tying ribbons to the trees that contained messages such as “Take me back to Qattana!” (Bardenstein, 1999), whilst others, across the entire conflict, have chained themselves to the olive trees in order to stop the bulldozers from uprooting them (Sfard, 2009), supported Palestinian farmers by helping them harvest from their olive trees and, at times, defending them in the process (Stephan, 2003), provided replacement olive tree for those uprooted (usually by settlers), or helped to retain olive trees within occupied territories for their symbolic meaning of peace (Braverman, 2009) – “extending the olive branch“, per se.

AN olive grove being bulldozed. Source: The Independent.

Below the surface level of removing ‘enemy’ trees, the removal of olive trees has a very political undertone. Olive trees have been held in very high regard by Palestinians for generations (and are regarded by some as holy trees), where they were farmed and thus supported viable economies (Braverman, 2009; Cohen, 1993), and their removal (or ‘capture’, by where groves were encompassed into the territory of Israel) by Israeli forces therefore can also be interpreted as an attack on Palestinian culture and custom (Bardenstein, 1999; Bowman, 2007; Braverman, 2009; Kershner, 2005) – notably when such acts are supported by the Court (Sfard, 2009). In some cases, it may even be Jewish settlers who vandalise or cut down the olive trees (Kershner, 2005), and even when the Israeli army have allowed the Palestinians to harvest their olive crops. In such instances, the Israeli army will generally not intervene (Pigni, 2010).

Such a political (and, to a marked degree, religious) act may be most pertinently discerned when the olive groves (or individual trees) are captured or destroyed during harvesting season, which has indeed occurred in some instances (Batniji et al., 2009). Moreover, the fact that many olive groves have been uprooted (comprising of tens of thousands of individual olive trees – in Qafeen alone, 12,600 olives were uprooted for this reason) for the construction of the Separation Barrier in the West Bank was also a cause of huge upset, for the Palestinians; particularly when their uprooting was coupled with justifications including to construct watchtowers, roads, checkpoints, and other security fences (all of which further hamper daily life and privacy), in addition to the use of the groves for sheltering armed Palestinians (Braverman, 2009). For those groves not uprooted, the Separation Barrier may instead have isolated Palestinian farmers from their olive trees, for much of the year. In Qafeen, over 100,000 olive trees suffered this isolated fate.

Olive trees are removed to facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier. Source: Haaretz.

Whilst the capture and removal of Palestinian groves has been ongoing, Israel has also been afforesting barren regions of its territory – and for many decades. Spearheaded largely by the Jewish National Fund that was established in 1901 (and since 1961 has been Israel’s exclusive forestry agency), the afforestation program was, at its core, a religious, ecological, and territorial pursuit (Amir & Rechtman, 2006; Bardenstein, 1999; Braverman, 2009; De-Shalit, 1995; Ginsberg, 2000; Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2013), with pine species (including Pinus halepensis) being particular favourites (Osem et al., 2008; Weinstein-Evron & Galili, 1985). In recent decades, the emergence of numerous pests associated with the pine (such as Matsucoccus josephi) has however led to more diverse plantations, with other pine species (including Pinus brutia) and deciduous tree species being selected for use (Braverman, 2009).

In essence, a core reason for this afforestation is because Israel, in the ages gone by, was considered to be covered with forests (even up to the 11th century A.D., in places), though it is suggested that when the Jewish people were in exile those who occupied Israel (from around 722 B.C. – 1948 A.D.) destroyed many of these forests (due to arson, harvesting for fuel, overgrazing, sabotage, and warfare) and thus, upon the return of the Jewish people to Israel, in order to bring Israel back to its former character, forests were (and still are) planted upon the barren slopes (Stemple, 1998; Tal, 2012; Tal, 2013). Braverman (2009) states that the Jewish National Fund has planted over 200,000,000 trees across more than 225,000 acres of claimed land, since its inception. However, according to the Old Testament, in the book of Joshua, even Jewish peoples have been responsible for some of this historic clearance in their Promised Land (Tal, 2013), and for this reason the Jewish National Fund is seeking to restore Israel’s forests of ten thousand years ago – soon after the last glacial ice age. In fact, a great deal of planting, each year, is undertaken in the leading up to – and on the day of – Tu B’shvat (Bardstein, 1999; Zerubavel, 2000).

israel afforestation time contrast
Hiran Forest in 1998 (left) and 2008 (right). Source: KKL-JNF.

After the creation of the Jewish National Fund, though prior to its major afforestation practices towards the middle of the century, the British had, since 1918 (after they had seized southern Palestine), planted up many hundreds of thousands (if not many millions) of saplings (comprising of species including stone pine, tamarisk, terebinth, and oaks) on the hills of Israel (Tal, 2013), and before this (from 1860 onwards) the Turkish Ottoman Empire and settling German Templars had done much the same (Ginsberg, 2006; Liphschitz & Biger, 2004).

In this afforestation project, such planted areas are also oft designated as forest reserves and thereby protected by Israeli law, which Braverman (2009) dubs as “lawfare” against the Palestinians, whose land may have been afforested following seizure. This planting up of forest on occupied lands, of which a sizeable portion was planted over destroyed Palestinian villages in the years after 1948 (an act of camouflage, and for some allegedly the camouflage of war crimes), also makes the land very difficult to reclaim, as the reclaimers must first remove all of the trees (after gaining the permission to clear the perhaps protected forest); in this sense, Palestinians may never be able to occupy such land again, be it for living within or for cultivation. In some cases, Braverman (2009) writes, Palestinians have even retaliated against this afforestation by firing rockets into the planted pine forests or burning the pine forests through arson, with a desire much aligned to Israel’s uprooting of the olive trees (in a sense, a ‘tree for a tree’). In this respect the tree, and specifically the pine, is a tool of war, and thus represents the enemy as a solider would (Boerner, 2011; Braverman, 2008).

On a more philosophical level, the fact that the Jewish National Fund would plant a tree for each newborn from Jerusalem in Jerusalem’s artificially-borne Peace Forest, dedicate the specific tree to the child, and provide the individual with a certificate (including a photo of the tree) that remarks on how it is hoped the tree and child grow together, outlines the innate affinity (or interchangeability) man has with trees (Braverman, 2009); as is detailed before this blog post on earlier ones associated with trees and religion.

Furthermore, the populist and globally crowd-funded nature of a fair portion of the tree planting, supported via financial gifts (complete with material rewards, such as memorial stones) and the use of the ‘Blue Box’ (located in households, schools, and offices), sewed into the fabric of the afforestation project a very emotionally evocative and inclusive aspect to both children and adults of the Jewish faith, even if the donator was geographically separated from Israel (Bar-Gal, 2003; Braverman, 2009; Zerubavel, 2000). Perhaps, this ability for a Jewish person to fund the planting of a tree may dampen their feeling of loss for not living within the Promised Land; in place of their presence, they can fund the planting of a tree, which can be considered a “proxy immigrant” (Braverman, 2009). At a tangent, the returning of the landscape to forest is also important on a cultural level, because the forests were incredibly important for the Jewish peoples’ ancestors; often would children be named after trees, and even Israel itself was sometimes compared to a tree (Zerubavel, 2000; Zerubavel, 2005).


Allen, L. (2008) Getting by the occupation: How violence became normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada. Cultural Anthropology. 23 (3). p453-487.

Amir, S. & Rechtman, O. (2006) The development of forest policy in Israel in the 20th century: implications for the future. Forest Policy and Economics. 8 (1). p35-51.

Bar-Gal, Y. (2003) Propaganda and Zionist Education: The Jewish National Fund, 1924-1947. USA: University of Rochester Press.

Bardenstein, C. (1999) Trees, forests, and the shaping of Palestinian and Israeli collective memory. In Bal, M., Crewe, J., & Spitzer, L. (eds.) Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. USA: University Press of New England.

Batniji, R., Rabaia, Y., Nguyen–Gillham, V., Giacaman, R., Sarraj, E., Punamaki, R., Saab, H., & Boyce, W. (2009) Health as human security in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Lancet. 373 (9669). p1133-1143.

Boerner, R. (2011) Trees as soldiers in a landscape war. Landscape Ecology. 26 (6). p893-894.

Bowman, G. (2007) Israel’s wall and the logic of encystation: Sovereign exception or wild sovereignty?. Focaal. 50 (1). p127-135.

Braverman, I. (2008) “The Tree Is the Enemy Soldier”: A Sociolegal Making of War Landscapes in the Occupied West Bank. Law & Society Review. 42 (3). p449-482.

Braverman, I. (2009) Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, S. (1993) The politics of planting: Israeli-Palestinian competition for control of land in the Jerusalem periphery. USA: University of Chicago Press.

De‐Shalit, A. (1995) From the political to the objective: the dialectics of Zionism and the environment. Environmental Politics. 4 (1). p70-87.

Ginsberg, P. (2000) Afforestation in Israel: a source of social goods and services. Journal of Forestry. 98 (3). p32-36.

Ginsberg, P. (2006) Restoring biodiversity to pine afforestations in Israel. Journal for Nature Conservation. 14 (3). p207-216.

Graham, S. (2002) Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian–Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode. 34 (4). p642-649.

Kershner, I. (2005) Barrier: the seam of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lentin, R. (2000) Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Reoccupying the Territories of Silence. USA: Berghahn Books.

Liphschitz, N. & Biger, G. (2004) Green Dress for a Country – Afforestation in Eretz Israel: The first hundred years 1850-1950. Israel: KKL.

Osem, Y., Ginsberg, P., Tauber, I., Atzmon, N., & Perevolotsky, A. (2008) Sustainable management of Mediterranean planted coniferous forests: an Israeli definition. Journal of Forestry. 106 (1). p38-46.

Pigni, A. (2010) A first-person account of using mindfulness as a therapeutic tool in the Palestinian Territories. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 19 (2). p152-156.

Sfard, M. (2009) The Price of Internal Legal Opposition to Human Rights Abuses. Journal of Human Rights Practice. 1 (1). p37-50.

Stemple, J. (1998) Viewpoint: a brief review of afforestation efforts in Israel. Rangelands. 20 (2). p15-18.

Stephan, M. (2003) People power in the Holy Land: How popular nonviolent struggle can transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Journal of Public and International Affairs. 14 (Spring). p164-183.

Tal, A. (2012) Israel’s New Bible of Forestry and the Pursuit of Sustainable Dryland Afforestation. Geography Research Forum. 32 (1). p149-167.

Tal, A. (2013) All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present. USA: Yale University Press.

Temper, L. (2009) Creating facts on the ground: Agriculture in Israel and Palestine (1882-2000). Historia Agraria. 48 (1). p75-110.

Weinstein-Evron, M. & Galili, E. (1985) Prehistory and paleoenvironments of submerged sites along the Carmel coast of Israel. Paleorient. 11 (1). p37-52.

Zerubavel, Y. (2000) The Forests as a National Icon: Literature, Politics, and the Archeology of Memory. In Elon, A., Hyman, N., & Waskow, A. (eds.) Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology. USA: The Jewish Publication Society.

Zerubavel, Y. (2005) The forest as a national icon: literature, politics, and the archaeology of memory. Israel Studies. 1 (1). p60-99.

Trees in the conflict of Israel and Palestine

Trees and religion: Hinduism

See Part IV of this series on trees and religions here.

Hinduism, which also arose from the ancient Vedic religion, also placed marked value upon trees (and plants, in general). With regards to the philosophical outlook on plant life, in contrast with Buddhism, there is a clearer and prevailing view of plants being taken into moral consideration. Granted, it must be stressed, prior to further explanation, that Hinduism itself has at least six different offshoots that have distinct differences between one another, and therefore it is the core texts that are generally referred to (Hall, 2011). This clearer view on plant life is because Hinduism generally considers all beings as being connected via Brahman, and as a consequence plants possess consciousness and are therefore sentient (Framarin, 2014b), and trees are even self aware according to the Yogavasistha (Hall, 2011). Consequently, plants are part of the cycle of death and rebirth, known as samsara. Whether this is sentience in the human sense, or simply because plants are alive, is however questioned by in another text by Framarin (2014a). However, one can observe how trees, in particular, were considered to be able to experience happiness and sorrow, as detailed in the ancient Puranas (Dwivedi, 1990).

Regardless of exact outlook, the fact that Hinduism recognises plants as at least living beings has implications towards their attitude towards plants, which is one of non-violence. Despite this, in the case of whether a plant must be sacrificed to save a human, it is considered that humans have greater moral standing, by virtue of their heightened sentience and their mobility (Hall, 2011). This outlook may however only be more recent, as more historic Hindu texts suggest that all life is of equal sanctity and must be safeguarded (unless there is adequate justification to do otherwise), because only God has dominion over all life (Dwivedi, 1990). In light of the aforementioned, it is of little surprise that conservation issues are becoming more pertinent within Hindu cultures, and particularly within the middle-upper class societies that can afford to care (Tomalin, 2004).

The medicinal deity Dhanvantari is associated with the neem tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With specific reference to trees, it is not surprising that it is the religiously- and economically- important trees that are most actively associated with the religion and culture. To begin, it is however necessary to recognise that Hindus consider all trees to have a tree deity, which can be worshipped and provided with offerings including water and sacred threads. These tree deities do lead trees to adopt a position of significant religious importance (Dwivedi, 1990), though nonetheless, some trees will hold particularly acute religious importance; and notably those that have direct associations with principal deities. For example, Shitala (the goddess of poxes) is considered to reside within a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) – perhaps because neem has been used to treat an array of poxes and other illnesses for many centuries (Edwardes, 1922; Norten & Pütz, 2000) – and as a result the neem tree is considered sacred (Hall, 2011). The medicinal god Dhanvantari also has associations with the tree. In fact, the neem may even be of divine origin, as the Hindu demigod Garuda was thought to have spilled a few drops of the elixir of immortality onto the tree, on his way to Heaven with the elixir (Puri, 1999). Neem leaves may also be used to ward off evil spirits, immediately after childbirth (Edwardes, 1922).

Leaves of the neem tree are used for their medicinal value. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The goddess of fortune and prosperity, Lakshmi, is also found to reside within a tree – the sacred fig, or pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Hall, 2011). In fact, the three principal gods in Hinduism, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, all have associations with the pipal, and is subsequently worshipped every Saturday during the fifth Hindu month of Shraavana (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999; Edwardes, 1922), and perhaps even every morning throughout the year (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991). The gular (Ficus racemosa) also has associations to all three of these gods: the roots Brahma, the bark Vishnu, and the branches Shiva (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). Vishu is also associated with the banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and sometimes wholly portrayed as the gular (Ficus racemosa) (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991), whilst Shiva has associations with the bel (Aegle marmelos), where leaves are used to worship Shiva, in order to gain redemption from a sinful act (Jagetia et al., 2005; Niroula & Singh, 2015), and also maulsari (Mimusops elengi).

Rudra, who pre-dated Shiva and was a storm god, and who is now seen as perhaps interchangeable with Shiva, is also linked with the rudraksha tree (Elaeocarpus ganitrus). For this reason, those who worship Shiva will often adorn themselves with rosaries made with seeds of the rudraksha tree, during meditation (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Garg et al., 2013; Naresh et al., 2013). Temples dedicated to Shiva will also be surrounded by five species of sacred tree, as detailed in the Puranas: the amala (Phyllanthus emblica), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), bel (Aegle marmelos), neem (Azadirachta indica), and pipal (Ficus religiosa) (Haberman, 2013). The avatar Dattatreya, who is considered to comprise all three gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishu, is associated with the gular (Ficus racemosa), and this is not surprising as all three deities, individually, have links with this tree (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991).

A Hindu woman worshipping the pipal (peepal) tree. Source: Hindutva.

Krishna, another important Hindu deity, has many associations with the kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), and was, for example, understood to have greatly enjoyed its presence (Haberman, 2013). It is also a tree that Krisha grew up around, and into where he climbed after stealing the clothes of some very beautiful cowherd girls (Krishna & Amirthalingam, 2009). The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) was also said to have been linked to Krishna, by virtue of the fact it was the tree that was said to have saved his life during the world flood (Altman, 2000). Such aforementioned trees may also themselves be worshipped, for the god(s) that they represent (as the gods, according to the Puranas, could adopt the form of a tree), and this would be the case in particular when in rural and forested areas of India. In these instances, the trees may even have been caged, so to protect them from damage (Haberman, 2013).

Persisting with the religious aspects of trees within Hinduism, one can also observe how the planting of trees – particularly groves – is a highly important act worthy of marked religious merit (Coward, 2003; Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013). At times, these groves may be planted in patterns that accord to the cosmic alignment of the stars, planets, and the Zodiac, as understood in Hinduism; as may temple forests, which frequent the Indian landscape serve multiple spiritual and religious purposes (Chandrakanth & Romm, 1991; Chandrakanth et al., 1990). These groves may also be more simple plantations, as is the case in eastern Kumaun, where the deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) has been abundantly planted beyond its natural range (Guha, 2000). Established groves within forests, such those of mangrove (Rhiziophora spp.) in Bangladesh, are also a site for prayer once per year, for Hindus of the lower castes (Khan et al., 2008). Where these sacred groves have been assumed from pre-dating cultures, unlike with Christianity, and to a slightly lesser degree Islam, their spiritual importance is conserved and the groves remain as places of worship (Ormsby & Bhagwat, 2010).

Trees may also be formally married to one another, in some instances. In fact, the creation of groves and the marriage of the trees within the groves to one another (some years later) is considered a particularly important custom within the Hindu religion, and cases of individual mango trees (Mangifera indica) being married to individual tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) are documented (Edwardes, 1922). Neem (Azadirachta indica) and pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees may also be planted so close together that they essentially grow ‘as one’. This ‘marriage’ of the two tree species is considered to represent the bonding of male (pipal) and female (neem), and if the unified trees are circumambulated after bath in the morning then they are said to cure sterility (Chandrakanth et al., 1990; Haberman, 2013). In some cases, these marriage ceremonies are incredibly grand (and thus expensive), such as when a neem and pipal tree were married in the Indian town of Palakkad – the neem was four years younger than the pipal, and was adorned with traditional wedding items. In this case, a Hindu priest was employed to undertake the ceremony, whilst an astrologer was employed to select the correct (appropriate) date (Haberman, 2013).

A pipal and neem tree that have been married to one another. Source: In India.

A variety of tree species have also historically been worshipped by individual tribes of the Hindu religion, across India. Specific tribes will attribute a specific group of tree species to their ancestry, including the banyan (Ficus benghalensis), kadam (Neolamarckia cadamba), mango (Mangifera indica), and shami (Prosopis cineraria), and the marriage of individual tribe members to those of different tribes can only occur if the two tribes do not share ancestral tree species (Edwardes, 1922). The trees sacred to the tribes will also usually not be cut down or damaged, and instead revered and protected.

The theme of trees and marriage in fact extends even further, when it can occur between a man (or woman) and a particular tree (of the opposite gender) (Haberman, 2013). This is usually a practice that occurs after an individual has been married twice already, as a third marriage is seen as inauspicious (and is also illegal in the Punjab). Therefore, instead of marrying a human for the third time, a Punjabi individual is married to a babel tree (Vachellia nilotica), and afterwards married to another human (for the fourth marriage). In the city of Chennai, a similar custom can be observed, and instead an individual is married to a serut tree (Streblus asper), that is then unfortunately felled, paving the way for a fourth marriage (Edwardes, 1922; Haberman, 2013).

Hindu brides may also, prior to marriage, assuming they were born under “inauspicious planets”, be married to a tree (which rids her of any ill-omens that may harm her husband), and then to the groom. Conversely, if a groom is found to have been born under very well-aligned planets, the marriage between him and his bride is sometimes compared to the bride marrying a fig tree (Ficus religiosa). The general idea behind why this marriage between a woman and a tree occurs may be, again according to Edwardes (1922), to “avert the curse of widowhood”, because the tree (groom) is always alive (hopefully!). It may also be to pass-off any bad luck onto the tree, which is, of course, not necessarily that good for the tree! On a more philosophical level, it also keeps alive man’s kinship with nature, which is important within Hinduism (Haberman, 2013). Hindu women, each year, will also fast and worship both the goddess Savitri and the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis), in order to ensure their husband and sons have long and married lives (Wadley, 1980).

This pipal tree was married to a woman, and has been suitably ‘dressed’ for the occasion. Source: Homegrown.

On a more cultural level, numerous traditions can be observed with regards to the consumption or utilisation of certain trees, in accordance with particular calendar months. For example, in West Bengal, certain Hindu tribes do not consume fruits of the genus Zizyphus until after January’s full moon, nor do they eat mango (Mangifera indica) until after the Baruni ceremony in late March, or the fruits of the drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera) until after the Charak festival in April. Other tribes refrain from harvesting the sal (Shorea robusta) until after the Salui festival in March to April, and the fruits of the karam (Haldina cordifolia) until after the Karam festival in August to September (Deb & Malhotra, 2001). It is most likely that these harvesting limitations are due to economic reasons, so that the trees are not adversely impacted prior to the time in which they provide the most value. Within other Hindu rituals and customs, there is also the overt declaration that trees that have been struck by lightning, display dieback in the periphery of the crown, contain many bird nests, or grow upon a sacred site, are unfit for use in the timber trade to make bedsteads, as they are wholly certain to bring ill health – and possibly death – to an individual (Edwardes, 1922).

On a symbolic level, within the Bhagavad Gita, which is a Hindu text, the upside-down tree mentioned by Krishna also has importance within the religion (Arapura, 1975). This tree’s roots are up in the skies, whilst its foliage is down upon the earth, and this is said to symbolise man’s origins (or roots) from divinity and consciousness (de Cleene & Lejeune, 1999). The suspended roots displays these origins of man, whilst the branches upon the earth detail the workings of the mind, which is vastly complex in composition and function. The leaves, which are attached to the branches, symbolise emotions and thoughts that man will experience, and their temporary nature, as these leaves are eventually shed and re-grown. However, these leaves also need the water and nutrients from the roots, which connects man back to divinity and consciousness (the roots in the sky – the spiritual world), from where the mind should be based and build from, in spite of the temptation to base conscious existence upon emotion and the material world (the leaves) (Prabhupada, 1989).


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Trees and religion: Hinduism