The conservation regime in Palestine-Israel
“Nature management is much more central to the settler colonial project than is commonly recognised. It’s used as a way to advance Jewish settlement and control the movement of non-Jews,” said STIAS fellow Irus Braverman in the second public lecture of 2023. “The deep ecological foundation of settler colonialism and, vice versa, the deep colonial foundation of ecological thought are key to understanding Israel’s ‘settler ecologies’. Such settler ecologies perpetuate violence to all forms of life, both non-human and human, highlighting that instances of violence across the more-than-human spectrum are both interdependent and co-produced.”
Braverman is Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Her main interests lie in the interdisciplinary study of law, geography, and anthropology. Writing within this nexus, Braverman conducted ethnographic research on illegal houses, trees, checkpoints, public toilets, zoos and corals. Born in Jerusalem, Braverman acquired a law degree (LLB) and a Master’s in Criminology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She served as a public state prosecutor and as an environmental lawyer, both in Palestine-Israel, and was also trained as a mediator and worked as a community organiser for environmental-justice issues and as a political activist. Braverman acquired her doctoral degree in law from the University of Toronto. For much of her academic career, Braverman has advocated a move away from anthropocentric approaches in law. She brings posthumanist sensitivities to her ethnographic examinations of conservation politics in various settings. Braverman’s recent research explores the intersection of law and the life sciences. She is involved in multiple transdisciplinary conversations and forums with conservation biologists, veterinarians and geneticists. She is the author of six monographs, including Planted Flags: Trees, Land, and Law in Israel/Palestine; Zooland: The Institution of Captivity; and Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink. She is also editor of seven edited collections, including The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography, Laws of the Sea: Interdisciplinary Currents, and More-than-One Health: Humans, Animals, and the Environment Post-Covid.
In her lecture, Braverman drew on over a decade of ethnographic work in Palestine-Israel, which resulted in a forthcoming book with the University of Minnesota Press. The work is based on participant observations and roughly 70 in-depth interviews, mainly with officials from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA).
Braverman explained that her work examines two interrelated strategies or technologies for settlement and dispossession. The first technology is territorial and relatively static and occurs through the designation of parks and reserves and their protection as such; the second is biopolitical and versatile and occurs through the protection of certain animal and plant bodies alongside the restrictions and even extermination of other organisms that are deemed problematic for the settler mission. “This second strategy often exceeds the boundaries of the protected territories.”
“These two forms of dispossession — through sovereign power and biopolitics — lean on and support one another to form what I refer to as ‘settler ecologies’,” she continued. “This dual-protection scheme lies at the heart of the extensive, yet overlooked, conservation regime in Palestine-Israel.”
“This project has not been easy,” she continued. “I am deeply committed to nature conservation and very much aware of the fraught moment in which we live. Conservation is important, especially in the current polarised political climate and with the strong capitalist interests at play. My intention with this project is to bolster, and certainly not to jeopardise, the important efforts of conservationists to protect wildlife and their habitats in this region and beyond.”
“The arguments I make here are by no means personal. These officials are highly motivated and extremely dedicated to wildlife protection; many of them are also against the Israeli occupation. The problem is usually not personal, it is structural.”
Describing the territorial reach of Israel’s conservation regime as remarkable, she explained: “There are 530 reserves and parks. To put that into perspective – in South Africa, which is 55 times larger, there are roughly 20.”
In 2020, then Israeli right-wing Defense Minister and later Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared seven new nature reserves and expanded 12 others. Approximately 40 percent of these are located on lands privately owned by Palestinians. “Bennett announced during the designation ceremony, and I am quoting: ‘We will continue to develop the Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria’. This single, very explicit, statement encapsulates the intimate relationship between the conservation of natural habitats and the takeover of land for Jewish settlement,” she said.
“I am not arguing here that all of Israel’s reserves and parks were designated with the single goal of dispossessing Palestinians and promoting Jewish settlement. What I am saying is that the element of dispossession has been central to this project and has largely been disregarded in the literature, especially when it comes to nature conservation within the Green Line, i.e. in Israel of the 1948 borders.”
She also pointed out that Israel is not the only country that has used nature reserves and parks for the dispossession of local, native and Indigenous populations. “Indigenous peoples were systematically eliminated by the state from national parks in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and from European colonies in Africa and Latin America.”
“Once the state of Israel designates land for nature protection, this land is typically subject to numerous restrictions. In those cases where the land is privately owned, the owners are often prohibited from cultivating or, in some instances, even from accessing their private lands. At the same time, Israeli law does not usually grant these owners compensation rights.”
Braverman also explained the scholarship she engaged with for this project. “This scholarship includes the emergent literature on settler colonialism in Palestine and elsewhere, critical animal studies, environmental history and political ecology.”
“The scholarship on settler colonialism asserts, in a nutshell, that settler societies aim to dispossess and replace their native inhabitants, thereby allowing the settlers to view themselves as the ‘new native’ and legitimising their territorial claims. Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe highlighted two central elements of settler colonialism: territoriality and elimination. He also emphasised that settler colonialism is a structure, not an event. For him, the logic of elimination, or genocide, is what distinguishes settler colonialism from more classical forms of colonialism, which are premised, instead, on exploitation.”
“My project challenges this rigid distinction by showing that elimination and exploitation actually go hand-in-hand. Still, the settler colonial framework is very helpful for my project: it illuminates and explains the importance of territoriality, the end goal of the native’s elimination, and, finally, it situates this project within a broader context, which promotes alliances between Palestinians and other Indigenous struggles.”
“Using this framework also reveals the deep interconnections between 1948-Israel and the occupied territories of 1967. Much of the international criticism of Israel centres on the West Bank and Gaza. But my study is not limited to the territories occupied in 1967. What I claim here, instead, is that Israel’s settler ecologies operate on both sides of the Green Line and that one unitary settler colonial regime governs both spaces. This has also been the stance of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem, who all recently defined the Israeli regime on both sides of the Green Line, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, as apartheid.”
Animals and plants
Braverman also explained that alongside this territorial strategy, Israel’s conservation regime promotes the protection of wild fauna and flora. “This is a less visible form of dispossession than the more typical land appropriation.”
“Since its early days, the Zionist state promoted a strong affinity with wild animals—and especially with animals that could be traced back to the bible. At the same time, the Palestinians have come to be associated with what Israel has configured over the years as ‘problem’ species—black goats, camels, olives, hybrid goldfinches and feral dogs.”
“Precisely because they are typically not perceived as soldiers in human wars, when flora and fauna are deployed for ecological warfare, their alignment on one side or the other becomes that much more powerful. In fact, ecological warfare is not recognised as a conflict at all, but seems part of the natural order of things.”
“The fallow deer, gazelles, wild asses and griffon vultures—are recruited by the state of Israel to fight on the Israeli side in an ecological warfare—against the goats camels, and hybrid goldfinches—who are aligned with the Palestinians.
“Even plants are recruited for this ecological warfare. Some are uprooted, like the olive tree, while others, such as the akkoub and zaatar, which are edible herbs and are used widely in the Palestinian cuisine, are protected by the settler state, effectively restricting their foraging by the Palestinians.”
“Underlying these animosities are other, deeper contentions: the domestic is juxtaposed with the wild, culture with nature, and, finally, the native and Indigenous are juxtaposed with the settler state. These juxtapositions lean on each other, reinforcing and therefore legitimising the power, and the seeming naturalness, of the juxtaposed mindset that is so characteristic of settler ecologies.”
Vultures and the Military
To illustrate her point about juxtapositions, animosities, and ecological warfare, Braverman weaved together stories about fallow deer, wild asses, camels, goats, goldfinches and vultures – all of which are covered in detail in the book.
She kicked off with the story of the Persian fallow deer – “the rarest species in the world, which was considered extinct in the 1940s.” Four deer were delivered to Israel on the last El Al flight to leave Iran before the 1978 revolution. Although the four all turned out to be female, two males were sourced from a zoo and the deer is still being protected and reintroduced today.
“The wild ass was also originally sourced from Iran and currently stands at 300 — and counting. This programme is considered a huge success. But the story becomes more complicated when the camel enters the picture,” Braverman explained. “In 2017, INPA pressed criminal charges against the Bedouin Salman Sadan, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. His crime? He allowed his camels to graze in the Negev Mountain Nature Reserve, which is one of the central habitats of the reintroduced wild asses; he was also charged for allowing his camels to drink the precious water intended for the asses. The attempt by Israel’s nature officials to keep the camels out of nature reserves is founded upon the idea that conservation is about protecting nature from all humans and their respective animals, what is also called the ’people versus parks’ approach in conservation. Such a notion of pristine wilderness devoid of humans has figured strongly in the colonial mindset of many early national park advocates that saw humans and nature as separate. In practice, this meant that local and Indigenous communities had to be displaced to make way for this wilderness.”
“The idea that conservation is about protecting nature from all humans and their associated animals supports Israel’s position that conservation is apolitical and egalitarian (it doesn’t matter if the camel is owned by Sadan or by Abraham, the father of Judaism, they wouldn’t let the camel in),” continued Braverman. “The discriminatory nature of these practices can only be understood when considering the broader human-nonhuman affiliations at play here: while the wild asses are affiliated with the settler Zionist state, most of the camels in the Naqab are owned by non-Jewish Bedouin-Palestinians.”
Another illuminating animal story highlighted by Braverman was about the griffon vulture project – one of Israel’s most ambitious and major conservation projects to date. “There are two main reasons for this centrality,” she explained. “The incredible physical features of the griffon vultures, and their prominence in the Bible. Add to this the dramatic decline in the vulture’s numbers due to electrocution, inadvertent poisoning and habitat loss, and you have all of the ingredients for a powerful conservation story.”
She shared with the audience that thousands of vultures filled the skies in this region going back to the prior century. But during the 1980s, these numbers shrunk to 70 breeding pairs, a drop of 95 percent. In the 1990s, INPA designed a captive-breeding programme for the vultures with the idea of coaxing them into producing more eggs in the wild and then rearing those chicks in captivity.
There are now 220 vultures in Palestine-Israel, making the project a huge success story. About 80 percent of the birds are monitored by GPS, alerting the rangers in real time when they are in danger. If this happens, the rangers quickly rush to the scene and are there within minutes.
“Israeli nature officials like to say that the love of birds has no flags or politics or borders and that as a result of this, bird conservation could also bridge borders to make peace,” said Braverman. “Israel’s vulture conservation project certainly has no borders in the sense that it exceeds the sovereign space of Israeli territory into northern Africa and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slogan ‘birds know no borders’ was interpreted by Israel’s neighbouring countries as being a green pretext for Zionist imperial control. These countries have therefore not always seen Israel’s intensive management of birds too favourably. In 2011, Saudi Arabia ‘detained’ an Israeli vulture for spying. The vulture was carrying a GPS transmitter with the inscription ‘Tel Aviv University’, which prompted rumours that she was a Mossad agent. In 2016, another griffon vulture was detained in Lebanon. Dolphins were also suspect. INPA officials dismissed all of these claims as ludicrous Arab fantasies.”
According to Braverman, accusations about spying missions aside, birds have been central to Israel’s military in several ways. In fact, Israel’s military – and its air force in particular – have over the years developed a totemic relationship with birds. It started by accident: after Israel withdrew from the massive region of Sinai, where it was training in both land and air, its space for training had shrunk considerably. In the following three decades, the Israeli Air Force lost 11 fighter jets as a result of bird collisions. The risk was especially enhanced because the training now needed to take place in the birds’ massive migration route between Europe, Africa and Asia.
Concerned about the massive losses in pilots and jets, the army approached an Israeli ornithologist to map the birds’ migration routes. Soon, the ‘take care we share the air’ project developed into a model for air forces around the world.
While the army’s initial study on birds emerged out of the pragmatic need to separate the sky, it would soon evolve into a much deeper engagement, as can be seen from posters produced by the Israel air force, which portray military aircrafts alongside the birds they are named after.
“Children and soldiers both participate in educational acts of knowing and protecting the land and its wildlife. This, then, is not only an environmental enterprise, nor is it solely about the land or even the animals and plants who dwell on it; it is, additionally, about the instrumentalisation of nature for advancing the Zionist mission — a way to strengthen the ties between the state, its land and creatures, and the Jewish children who will eventually become soldiers and finally ’serve’ both the state and its nature. As for the ’others’ in this region — mainly the Palestinians — they are typically barred from similarly serving the state and its nature and are therefore not exposed to, nor allowed to participate in, this intimate encounter,” explained Braverman.
She wrapped up her presentation by emphasising the central thesis of her project: that nature conservation, and the protection of territory and of lively bodies in particular, are deployed by the settler state to dispossess local and Indigenous communities, while at the same time naturalising the settler as the new native. The fallow deer, gazelles, wild asses and griffon vultures—are all recruited by the state of Israel to fight on the Israeli side in an ecological warfare against the goats, camels, and hybrid goldfinches—who are aligned with the Palestinians.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer