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JNF CEO challenges Meretz over Bedouin petition

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The CEO of the Jewish National Fund Tuesday shot back at the signatories of an open letter accusing his organization of marginalizing Bedouins in Israel, to the point of challenging one of the organizations on his board.

On the eve of the JNF’s annual conference, which convened this week in Atlanta, 35 human rights groups and individuals signed a petition calling on the organization that has historically been involved in acquiring and then greening the land of Israel to back off on some of its projects that have of late displaced Bedouin communities – especially those who live in villages that are not recognized by Israel’s government.

The petition, addressed to the JNF’s president, Ronald Lauder, and CEO, Russell Robinson called for the JNF “to end its complicity in the discriminatory policy of the Government of Israel and the Israel Land Administration (ILA) of destroying Bedouin villages in the Negev and dispossessing Israel’s Bedouin community of their land. This policy betrays Israel’s commitment to the values of equality and justice enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, to which the state is obligated by the international conventions it has signed.”

It was signed by among others, Meretz USA – the American fund raising branch of the liberal Israeli political party — and Shatil, an arm of the New Israel Fund.

Robinson, however, shot down the petition, which called for the JNF to stop forestation activities in areas of existing Bedouin villages, fund projects for Israel’s Bedouin citizens and communities at higher levels and to join human rights organizations workgin to allow Bedouins to live on their traditional lands.

“They are demeaning our work in a place like Hura, where we are helping 10,000 Behdouins and have a catchment area of another 10,000,” he said, “Or our work in Ramah Rachach, where we are helping another 80,000.”

“I challenge them to match half a dollar to a dollar to what we have invested in helping the Bedouin population,” he continued. “Or, OK don’t donate. How about they help us raise money for the projects we have. We have a $3 million campaign to raise money for sustainable farming [for Bedouins] on 100 acres in Hura. Quit writing petitions and start raising money.”

The letter accompanied a petition of American Jews that now has nearly 4,000 signatories, calling on the JNF to stop projects that displace Bedouins who live in unrecognized villages.

Robinson suggested that their petition is short-sighted.

Illegal Bedouin villages “cover 60 percent of the Negev,” he said. “If you want to become a legal village, This is what you have to do: Put in sewage systems, build infrastructure, electricity put that down on 60 percent of the footprint of the Negev, and then you have an environmental crisis."

He saved special criticism for Meretz, the American progressive Zionist group affiliated with the liberal Israeli political party which sits on the board of Keren Kayemet, L’Ysrael, the JNF’s Israeli-presence.

“Meretz is a member of KKL. This shows they have leadership in the JNF, and if not, they should resign from the board of the JNF,” he said. 

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