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, forests and warfare

As has been highlighted previously in this blog (the series on state forestry, for example), trees have been used to fund the gluttonous cogs of the war machine, across both time and space. Usually, this timber consumption has manifested from the progressive land acclamation and legislatory enforcement by the state, until large tracts of forest are state-owned; or private forests can be utilised by the state in times of political emergency. This post therefore focusses not on repeating what has previously been discussed, and instead investigates how the forests themselves have been used for the arts of war – as in, the forest as a site of battle, or for the preparation of one; not that the forest as a site of battle is to be desired, for any attacking force must expect the unexpected, and typical formations and approaches to warfare cannot be applied in the enclosed forest setting (Clayton, 2012). Of course, the prior blog posts I did on state forestry highlight how armed guerrillas in Indonesia and Zimbabwe used the forests for cover and ambush, though this aspect of forest use extends far beyond just these two examples.

Beginning somewhat close to home (for the author), it can be recognised how the New Forest, in the county of Hampshire, UK, was used by the British and American armies, during the Second World War (Leete, 2014). Because of its strategic location relative to the coast of continental Europe, residing along the south coast of England, and complete with nearby ports in Southampton and Poole, the New Forest was used as the first line of defence against any invading Germans coming over from France. For this reason, the forest was used by both the Intelligence Service, and also by thousands of troops who would constitute the defending force if enemy ground invasion did occur. Furthermore, the extensive forest cover provided camouflage for over 30,000 troops in the moths before D-Day (Operation Neptune) in 1944, and the surrounding heathlands acted as airfields and storage areas of military vehicles. In total, 20,000 acres of the New Forest were utilised by the resident forces, during the war, though much like how the forest suddenly filled with troops it also quickly emptied, and almost immediately after the D-Day landing at Normandy the New Forest once again became very sparsely populated.

Troops training near to Brockenhurst, in the New Forest. Source: The New Forest Guide.

The Second World War, beyond its association with the New Forest, was the site of actual battle. One example is that of the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which took place between the US and German forces through September 1944 to February 1945. Situated on the border of Germany and Belgium, the Germans occupied the forest because of its strategic importance to future offensives on the Rhine. Fearing that these German troops would eventually therefore support the front line, the US Army sought to take control of the forest to stall this pursuit. However, because the terrain was very uneven, the access routes through the forest to constituent villages were narrow and almost non-existent, the trees were very dense in many locations, and forest clearings sudden and sporadically occurring, support from tanks was not feasible, and navigating the forest was often challenging and certainly very risky. Subsequently, the US forces suffered losses of over 30,000 men (at times, entire units were lost), eclipsing those incurred by the Germans; in spite of their much larger size. Granted, the Germans also suffered huge losses (Rush, 2001). The forest was thus named ‘The Death Factory’, by the US troops (Whiting, 2000), and became the grave of many individuals from both sides of the conflict.

The 28th Infantry Division of the US Army journey through the intrepid forest on 2nd November 1944. Source: History Net.

Curiously, the close of the Second World War also saw forests treated almost as bounty or reparation; at least, in Germany. Following the defeat Germany suffered, the country was subsequently segmented into various zones: the south-west of Germany became the French Zone, whilst the southern and south-east segments were under control by the Americans, the northern and north-west overseen by the British, and the east and north-east by the Soviets. The purpose of this was to enable Germany to ‘repent’ its ‘sins’, and the occupiers – the Americans, British, French, and Soviets – could harvest the forests as they saw fit, as long as such harvests were not in excess of the reparation quotas detailed after the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945.

Unfortunately, as such quotas usually were far greater than the rate at which the remaining forests (many were in an alarming state of disrepair, commercially-speaking) of Germany could be replenished, the Soviet zone saw fourteen years’ worth of timber logged in just four years. Alongside the purging of these now Soviet-controlled forests, those foresters who were not drafted into the war effort by the German government at the time were forced to work as hard labourers in the forests, and the traditionally scientific method that was German forestry was quashed by the inexperienced Soviets. Similar unsustainable levels of forestry were undertaken in the other occupied areas of Germany, by the Allied governments (Nelson, 2005).

Beyond the Second World War, Clayton (2012) remarks that the forest has been the site of battle as early as 9 A.D. In this year, the forest of Teutoburg was to plague three Roman legions and their auxiliaries – who were ambushed by the allied local Germanic tribes after an uprising in the region – quite cataclysmically. In this case, the Roman legions were headed by the reportedly inexperienced commander Publius Quinctilius Varus, whilst the commander of the allied tribes was the Germanic nobleman known as Arminius, who had himself been trained by the Roman army and was in fact part of the Roman legions who were tasked to deal with the uprising of the local tribes, though quickly defected to lead the Germans into battle.

Under the order of Varus, who was persuaded by Arminius (who at this point in the saga was still in the Roman army and appointed as an officer), the Roman legions headed into the forest to attempt to quell the uprising; at which point Arminius defected, and gathered up to 50,000 Germans to fight against approximately 7,000 Roman troops and their horses (including the three legions of eighty men each). In this forest, the now-defected Arminius used the terrain (including steep slopes, fallen trees, and dense forest cover) to confuse and disorientate the armour-clad Roman legions and support troops, who at first became surrounded and then were torn apart by the nimble Germanic warriors equipped with lightweight weapons (such as darts) and, for close combat, broadswords and spears. Most Roman troops were killed within the forest, in the small units that fled in all directions after Varus (who committed suicide) declared a retreat, though some unfortunate individuals were enslaved and / or tortured by the Germans. Ultimately, this situation manifested because the Roman troops were geared for close combat in the open setting, and the clever use of the forest by Arminius and his warriors led to what can only be considered a Roman tragedy – a tragedy that would not have occurred, and in fact likely have been reversed, if the battle was undertaken in the open (Clayton, 2012; Murdoch, 2006).

Varus is defeated within the forest of Teutoburg, as is depicted through this illustration. Source: Heritage History.

The use of trees during conflict has also given rise to their use for hanging and other forms of execution (Stone, 2008). Certainly a macabre aspect of how warfare – and on a broader scale acts of genocide – ties man to the arboreal world, it is nonetheless an important point to consider, as it highlights how the tree, as a tool, has uses that extend beyond those aforementioned. In the genocide that plagued Cambodia from 1975-1979, for instance, the Khmer Rouge, who were followers of the community party led by Pol Pot, are said to have thrown children against trees until they died – because trees were cheaper than bullets. In these cases, Tyner (2009) remarks, the children were executed because their parents were considered enemies of the state. Lynching in the US, between 1889 to 1930, constitutes another form of warfare; albeit more a form of societal warfare, which can occur even during peacetime. During this period, an estimated 3,724 individuals were lynched, and before usually being hung from a tree and displayed for all to see the pursued individual was tortured, humiliated, dragged, and sometimes burned in front of potentially many thousands of onlookers (Dutton, 2007). In the UK, trees have also been the site of hangings; for example, for the execution of ‘rebels’ – whatever this loose term was deemed to define at the time by the ruling powers (Barnes & Williamson, 2011).

Running concurrently to the very human dynamics of wars and forests, exist more ecologically-based aspects worthy of consideration in this section. Principally, and notably over the past decades, one can identify the desire to safeguard forest biodiversity during times of war, by incorporating forest conservation into military projects (Machlis & Hanson, 2008). As ascertained prior to this point, the demands placed upon the forest in such a period unrest is possibly incredibly great, and particularly when the forest is being harvested for its timber, is being cleared to flush out a hiding enemy or to remove a hiding place, or the war is taking place largely within the forest (Reuveny et al., 2010). In recent years, tropical forests over South America and Africa have been the site of armed conflicts between the state and drug cartels, rebels, or otherwise, and McNeely (2003) astutely observes that such forests and their ecosystems can therefore be considered victims of war. Where these forests are considered hotspots for biodiversity, the impact is certainly markedly more severe and concerning for the scientific community (Hanson et al., 2009).

However, war is not always bad for forests. Where armed conflicts drive the general populace away, if the forests are not being actively utilised for resource to fuel the conflict, then they can undoubtedly benefit from the sudden drop in human pressures. Of course, the displaced populace is not purged from existence, and therefore where refugee camps associated with the conflict are constructed within – or adjacent to – forests, there can be a huge spike in deforestation. A pertinent example of such a phenomenon is when the Rwandan civil war displaced large numbers of people, who settled in the Democratic Republic of Congo in refugee camps and caused over 300km² of deforestation to nearby forests (Machlis & Hanson, 2008).


Barnes, G. & Williamson, T. (2011) Ancient Trees in the Landscape: Norfolk’s arboreal heritage. UK: Windgather Press.

Clayton, A. (2012) Warfare in Woods and Forests. USA: Indiana University Press.

Hanson, T., Brooks, T., da Fonseca, G., Hoffmann, M., Lamoreux, J., Machlis, G., Mittermeier, C., Mittermeier, R., & Pilgrim, J. (2009) Warfare in biodiversity hotspots. Conservation Biology. 23 (3). p578-587.

Leete, J. (2014) The New Forest at War: Revised and Updated. UK: Sabrestorm.

Machlis, G. & Hanson, T. (2008) Warfare ecology. BioScience. 58 (8). p33-40.

Murdoch, A. (2006) Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest. UK: Sutton Publishing.

Nelson, A. (2005) Cold War Ecology: Forests, Farms, & People in the East German Landscape, 1945-1989. USA: Yale University Press.

Reuveny, R., Mihalache-O’Keef, A., & Li, Q. (2010) The effect of warfare on the environmentThe effect of warfare on the environment. Journal of Peace Research. 47 (6). p749-761.

Rush, R. (2001) Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment. USA: University Press of Kansas.

Stone, D. (2008) The Historiography of Genocide. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tyner, J. (2009) War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count. USA: The Guilford Press.

Whiting, C. (2000) Battle of Hürtgen Forest. UK: Spellmount.

Trees, forests and warfare