In a video released on June 10, 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu filled a water glass, took a sip, and made an “unprecedented offer to Iran.” In the 137-second video, Netanyahu stated that Israel, bypassing Iran’s “cruel and tyrannical regime,” would offer the Iranian people a revolutionary water recycling technology that would save Iranians from the brink of “environmental catastrophe.” The video, which is in English with Farsi and Arabic subtitles, was released in conjunction with the launch of the “Fanavri Ab Project,” whose mission is to save “countless Iranian lives.” The project’s website, which is in Persian, lays out information on water saving and recycling technologies to be used by Iran’s citizens, all while glorifying Israel’s benevolence and supposed humanitarianism.
With this project, Israel is attempting to convince the international community that it is a better shepherd of the Iranian people than the Iranian government itself. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, the “Fanavri Ab Project” is, however, yet another example of how Israel uses nature as a weapon against its enemies. While the project’s benefits for Iranians remain to be seen, the Fanvari Ab project’s goal, implications, and methods are steeped in a long-standing Israeli strategy of using nature and technology to further its political and military interests.
Blooming the Desert: Beautifying Ethnic Cleansing
Weaponizing nature is engrained in Israel’s foundational myths and current occupation practices in Palestine. During the British Mandate, Zionist pioneers mobilized mostly European Jews to move to Palestine with the myth of “blooming the desert.” As part of this strategy, Zionist authorities misrepresented Palestine as barren, and Arabs as incapable of realizing its potential. Upon arrival to Palestine, these immigrants founded and supported kibbutzim and moshavim. These agricultural communes, made up of Jewish settlers, aimed to cultivate the land while creating a social, economic, and visual contrast to indigenous Palestinian farmland, gradually erasing the agricultural legacy of Arab communities from the Palestinian landscape.
After the Nakba in 1948, the myth of “blooming the desert” was adopted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an Israeli body responsible for maintaining and expanding forests in Israel-Palestine. The JNF raised funds from all over the world to plant pine and cypress trees – species of European origin – in order to create the illusion of a European landscape that stood in opposition to the Palestinian landscape of macchia and olive trees. The JNF recruited settlers to plant these trees, creating forests where ethnically cleansed Arab villages once stood. Today, according to Zochrot, “46 KKL forests and parks [are] located on 89 Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel – 87 during the Nakba and two in the 1967 war.”
In the aftermath of the 1967 War and occupation of East Jerusalem, geographer Shaul Eprahim Cohen documented how Israel used forests to consolidate the occupation. The creation of forests was a deliberate strategy built on erasing Palestinian memory from the land and establishing a new Israeli identity in its place.
Umar al Ghubari’s account of “Canada Park” in the West Bank, only 17 miles west of Jerusalem, showcases how the JNF hit two birds with one stone, bolstering a narrative of Israeli ownership over Palestine and erasing the Palestinian people, at the same time. While the park is located on top of where Latrun villages used to be before 1967, the signs in the park make no mention of the area’s Palestinian history. While the surrounding landscape is mentioned, the account omits Palestinian villages, such as Beit Sira, Beit Liqya, Kharbatha, Beit Ur al-Fuka, Beit Ur al-Tahta, and Safa, – which are all visible from the park. In contrast, the signs emphasize other Israeli settlements, such as Modi’in, Kibbutz Shaalabim, and Mevo Horon. According to al Ghubari, Modi’in, itself, rises over the remains of Arab villages, such as al-Burj, Barfiliya, Kharuba, ‘Innaba and Kunayyisa, while Kibbutz Shaalabim was built where the Palestinian village of Salbit used to be.
Israel’s exploitation of nature provides cover for the ideology that governs these projects – the complete obliteration of Palestinian presence, identity, history and memory – in essence, the systemic denial of Palestinian existence, as well as return.
Water Wars: The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Concerns
Water, or the lack thereof, has also been a tool of Israeli repression in Palestine. According to scholar Jan Selby, the Oslo II Water Regime, established in 1995, solidified Israel’s control over water resources and infrastructures in the West Bank. Using the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee’s procedures and structure to its advantage, Israel has systematically deprived Palestinians in the West Bank of water.
In Gaza, the Israeli blockade limits Gazans’ access to clean water, and bars them from using the resources afforded by the Mediterranean coastline. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, Israeli limitations on Gazan fishermen have destroyed the fishing sector in Gaza, further stunting an already crippled economy. Israel has justified its invasion of the Golan Heights based not only on the area’s strategic importance, but also on its rich water supplies. In offering to help Iranians with the vital issue of water, while simultaneously depriving Palestinians of water under the Israeli occupation and stealing their water resources as well as those of Syrians in the Golan, Netanyahu underscores Israel’s hypocrisy, as well as the self-interested reasons for its so-called generosity to Iran.
The Fanavri Ab project also fits a classic trend in Israeli diplomacy, namely, the tendency to compare Israel with other countries as a way of self-glorification. Since Israel’s earliest days, its never-ending crisis of legitimacy has prompted the government to resort to cunning discursive strategies to cover its ignominious origins. While “blooming the desert” symbolized Israel’s supposed agricultural superiority, Israel has also painted itself as a leader in innovation in the Middle East, and a center for environmentalism and clean energy. These “tech-leadership” and “greenwashing” discourses promote Israel’s image as a place of development and liberal values, in contrast to its neighbors.
Against this backdrop, the “Fanavri Ab Project” reveals its true character as an insidious and hollow ploy by the Israeli government. The project reinforces a public relations campaign depicting Israel as a leader in environmental innovation in the region. By offering Iranians water and recycling technology for free, the project represents Israel as a benevolent and caring government, in contrast to the Islamic Republic, all while actively depriving millions of Palestinians of water. Given its long history of environmental oppression in Palestine, Israel’s claims to saving “countless lives” with the Fanavri Ab Project is, particularly jarring. Until Israel solves the water crisis it has created for Palestinians and ends its systematic oppression of that population, no one can take any of its so-called humanitarian gestures toward Iranians or anyone else seriously.