NAZARETH, ISRAEL // Half a million trees planted during the past 18 months on the ancestral lands of Bedouin tribes in Israel's Negev region were bought by a controversial Christian evangelical television channel that calls itself God-TV, US tax records show.
A sign posted a few kilometres north of Beersheba, the Negev's main city, announces plans to plant a total of a million trees over a large area of desert that has already been designated "God-TV Forest".
The Jewish National Fund, an international non-profit organisation in charge of forestation and developing Jewish settlements in Israel, received US$500,000 (Dh1.8m) from God-TV to plant some of the trees, according to the channel's filings to US tax authorities last year.
A coalition of Jewish and Bedouin human rights groups have denounced the project, accusing God-TV and the JNF of teaming up to force the Bedouin out of the area to make way for Jewish-only communities.
"The JNF, instead of promoting civic equality for all Israelis - the basis for trust and peaceful co-existence - is now supporting (and being supported by) an evangelical ministry that wishes to utilise Israel and the planting of trees to bring about the Second Coming of Christ," the coalition said in a statement.
"The Israel of the JNF, the Israel Land Administration and the Israeli Government is one where Bedouin Arabs are displaced and discriminated against so that forests funded by Jews and evangelical Christians and exclusively Jewish communities can be built, preventing Bedouin Israelis from ever returning to their land, forcing them to live in poverty and neglect."
No one from God-TV was available for comment, but in a video posted on its website, Rory Alec, the channel's co-founder, said he had begun fundraising for the forest after receiving "an instruction from God" a few years ago. He said God had told him: "Prepare the land for the return of my Son."
Standing next to the "God-TV Forest" sign, Mr Alec thanked thousands of viewers for making donations to "sow a seed for God", adding: "I tell you Jesus is coming back soon!"
Part of the forest has been planted on land claimed by the Aturi tribe, whose village, al-Araqib, is nearby.
Al-Araqib has been demolished seven times in recent months by the Israeli police as officials increase the pressure on the 350 inhabitants to move to Rahat, an under-funded, government-planned township nearby.
Earlier this year, Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, criticised the repeated attempts by Israeli authorities to eradicate the village and displace its residents.
"Tearing down an entire village and leaving its inhabitants homeless without exhausting all other options for settling long-standing land claims is outrageous," he said.
Human Rights Watch and other international human rights groups have criticised Israel for harsh measures taken against the people of al-Araqib and the other 90,000 Bedouin who live in Negev villages that the Israel refuses to recognise. They accuse the government of trying to pre-empt a court case moving through Israeli courts aimed at settling the Bedouin ownership claims.
God-TV's involvement in the dispute has prompted fresh concern.
Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, said the JNF, which has semi-governmental status in Israel, had set a "dangerous precedent" in accepting money from God-TV.
"The Israeli authorities are playing with fire," he said. "This dispute between the Israeli government and the Bedouin is a long one that until now focused on the question of land rights. But the involvement of extremist Christian groups like God-TV is likely to turn this into a religious confrontation, and that will be much harder to resolve."
The JNF declined to respond to questions from The National about its involvement with God-TV or the Negev forest.
Mr Gordon said it was particularly worrying that Mr Alec was using the language of Biblical prophecy in justifying his decision to finance the forest.
The channel, which has become one of the most popular global evangelical stations since its founding in Britain 15 years ago, claims an audience of up to a half-billion viewers, including 20 million in the United States.
Stephen Sizer, a British vicar and critic of Christian Zionist groups, described God-TV as part of an evangelical movement that believes Israel's establishment and expansion are bringing nearer the "end times" - or the moment when, according to Christians, Jesus will return for the second time.
He said the funding of Jewish immigration to Israel and the planting of trees is far from innocuous. Rather, he said, it is a way for Christian Zionist groups to support the Israeli right's hard-line policies aimed at dispossessing Palestinians of their land and replacing them with Jews, thus expediting Jesus's return.
Mr Sizer said there was increasing co-operation between Israeli institutions and Christian evangelical groups, which have begun basing their operations in Israel.
God-TV has proclaimed itself the only television channel to broadcast globally from Jerusalem, following its relocation there from the UK in 2007.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the Union of Reform Judaism in the US, has repeatedly called on Israel to sever contacts with Christian Zionist and evangelical groups, describing them as opposed to "territorial compromise under any and all circumstances".
However, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has sought out support from Christian evangelical groups such as Christians United for Israel (Cufi), according to Shalom Goldman, a professor at Atlanta's Emory University, who recently published a book on the Christian Zionist movement.
Haia Noach, the director of the Negev Coexistence Forum, which campaigns for Bedouin rights, said her organisation feared more of God-TV's trees would be planted on Bedouin lands in the coming weeks. A depot has recently been established close to al-Araqib to store four bulldozers.
"The villagers refuse to abandon al-Araqib, even though it has been destroyed seven times. But once a forest is planted there, there will be no chance to go back," she said.
She said she feared the goal was to build Jewish communities on Bedouin land. She cited the case of Givat Bar, which was secretly established by the government on part of al-Araqib's lands in 2003.
Repeated letters to the JNF for information about their forestation programme had gone unanswered, she said.
Awad Abu Freih, a community leader at al-Araqib, said the house demolitions and forest-planting were only the latest measures by the government to remove the villagers.
Repeated destruction of the al-Araqib's crops by spraying them with herbicides was ruled illegal by Israel's Supreme Court in 2004.
Efforts to move 90,000 Bedouin off their lands close to Beersheba have been intensifying since 2003, when the Israeli government announced plans to move them into a handful of townships.
The Bedouin have resisted, complaining that the official communities are little more than urban reservations that languish at the bottom of the country's social and economic tables.