• Jezreel Valley, Menashe Forests, Israel. Photo: PikiWiki Israel free image collection project/Wikimedia Commons (, c. 1953. Public Domain.

  • Jewish National Fund trees planted in The Negev desert. Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons (, 2009; cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0. (

Deserts into forests: Dispossession in Palestine as another case of enclosure

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At a recent UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies event, UC San Diego Professor Gary Fields claimed tree planting, forestation and cartography were used as tools of land dispossession in Palestine.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, April 16, 2018 The territorial disagreement between Palestine and Israel seems perpetual in the context of a 24-hour news cycle, but the conflict is young in the grand scheme of world history, said Gary Fields, a professor of communications at the University of California, San Diego. Fields’s research focuses on geographical landscapes as representations of power; he has spent the last decade conducting fieldwork in the West Bank and Gaza.

On April 5, 2018, Fields spoke at an event cosponsored by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies and the department of anthropology’s Culture, Power, and Social Change (CPSC) group. He discussed his latest book, “Enclosure,” which applies a historical lens to today’s land conflict in Palestine.

The book describes three remarkably similar processes of dispossession around the world across history: the English enclosures that privatized common land in both the medieval and modern eras in the U.K., the dispossession of Native American land by colonial settlers in the United States and the enclosures of Palestinian land in the Southern Levant over the past century.

Fields uses dispossession as a means to examine the way groups with territorial ambitions use maps, property law and the landscape itself as instruments to move ownership of territory from one group of people to another. During his talk at UCLA, he detailed the history of tree planting, forestation and cartography as tools in redefining and controlling land in Palestine.

Planting physically and symbolically

Fields began by referencing the title of 16th-century English writer Richard Hakluyt’s work, “Discourse Concerning Western Planting,” a correspondence that urged Queen Elizabeth I to catch up to other European nations in global colonization. While the verb “planting” is often used today in the context of planting a garden, the speaker explained that in the 16th century “to plant” was widely understood to mean putting a settler or colonist into place.

Using this definition, Fields elaborated on how gardening and colonization were related. Fast-forwarding from the era of imperial colonization in the 1500s to the beginning of the 20th century, he then turned to the Zionist movement and its goal of establishing a Jewish national state the historic land of Israel. Specifically, he focused on the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which was established in the early 1900s with a mission to develop Palestinian land for use in a future Jewish state. Among its most prominent activities was planting trees in land it purchased in Palestine.

“[The JNF] focused on a couple of species of trees, above all the conifer,” noted Fields. According to him, there were two reasons for this: symbolic and material. The first was that the JNF thought conifers would stand in notable contrast to the region’s native olive trees. “Conifers [served] as a symbolic instrument to mark spaces that would be not Palestinian, but Jewish,” he said.

The second reason was that beyond visually altering the landscape and imbuing meaning and importance to the land, new conifer forests altered the ecosystem and served as physical placeholders in lieu of actual human settlers. “When the JNF purchased land, they didn’t actually have the colonists to settle it, so they had to have some way of preserving their land and keeping it out of the hands of Palestinians who might cultivate it and use aspects of Ottoman land law to claim it as their own,” explained the speaker.

Forestation, he concluded, was both a prelude and a partner in redeeming the land of Palestine.


UCSD professor Gary Fields spoke on his new book "Enclosure" at the

UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

Transforming demographics through cartography

Another tool used to redefine Palestinian land was the use of maps that attributed a false sense of emptiness to desired territory, thereby enabling the removal of people from it.

“What [Zionist leaders] had imagined and projected was something that was empty, something that did not have people on it, something that could be rightfully and justifiably taken because of its emptiness,” said Fields. When this turned out not to be true due to the presence of Palestinian Bedouin communities, those hoping to adopt the territory made it appear empty.

The speaker showed a map used by the JNF in its early fundraising efforts that represented most of the land in the then-potential state of Israel in white, implying that the land was empty. Fields then displayed a map commissioned by the British in 1947 that marked various Bedouin communities across the Negev desert region, indicating a discrepancy between the actual population of Palestinians in the area and the narrative of an empty landscape pushed by JPL leaders.

“The goal was to transform areas where there was a majority Palestinian population demographically, materially, symbolically and cartographically into something new,” said the speaker. Fields believed that this goal was ultimately achieved. Following the founding of Israel, he observed, many members of the Bedouin population were moved to townships built by the Israeli state in a compact region of the Negev.

“[An integral] step was to create a new legal apparatus of land ownership,” said Fields. Alteration of absentee property law allowed land left behind by Bedouin refugees to be redefined as a land reservoir owned by the state. Israeli leaders, continued the speaker, then transformed the demographics of the land by encouraging more settlement in state-owned areas, while simultaneously forcibly moving and compressing the Bedouin population to an even more profound degree.

“The last phase of this mission to change perception of the new state was to plant trees, expanding the tree-planting transformation process [that] had originated with the JNF,” said Fields, who credited the trees with adding beauty to the land and attracting human settlers. Planting conifers was no longer a prelude to a process of colonization, but became its vital conclusion.

At the end of his lecture, Fields reiterated his conception that dispossession in Palestine was part of a broader historical narrative: “I’m fairly certain that had Hakyult been able to witness today’s situation in Palestine,” related the speaker, “he would have nodded approvingly and said ‘That’s exactly what I was trying to describe in my ‘Discourse Concerning Western Planting.’”

Fields argued that the defeat of the Bedouin and transformation of the physical landscape in Palestine paralleled the fate of English peasant farmers and Native Americans, who, in his words “were pushed off of their land by a similar combination of imagination about a new landscape and the instruments of maps, laws and landscape architecture.” It was his hope, he said in closing, that analysis of past narratives of dispossession might better equip us to address future power struggles and cases of territorial seizure.