Agriculture in Palestine

   Reviewing the statistics in any agricultural report on Palestine will show apocalyptic predictions for this sector. With systematic Israeli restrictions on access to agricultural lands and water resources and a lack of a vision by the Palestinian government on how to develop the sector, agriculture is contributing less and less to the national GDP. The sector employs a continuously shrinking share of the workforce that is leading to the replacement of agricultural land with industrial projects, effectively destroying one of the most important elements of Palestinian identity. Competition with Israeli produce is an obstacle to developing sustainable agriculture in Palestine. Every day, tons of Israeli products flood Palestinian markets and compete with local production. In many cases, farmers’ only recourse is to watch their produce rot in never ending controls at checkpoints, border checks, or in their farms. This leaves them uncertain about where and how to market their produce and hopeless in being able to compete with the influx of cheap Israeli produce.

   Additionally, the industrialization of agricultural land is a global phenomenon haunting small-scale farmers, and Palestine is no exception. The governmental policies to ‘foster’ and ‘develop’ the agricultural sector have primarily focused on making rich farmers richer and turning our most fertile land, like Marj Ibn Amer (Jenin district), into multinational industrial zones, where the producers and landowners have been turned into cheap labour working in polluting consumer-driven factories.[1]

   Rain-fed agriculture – locally referred to as “Baʿali” - has been the dominant type of farming in Palestine. With only a small percentage of cultivated land being irrigated, rain-fed agriculture has been the backbone of Palestinian agricultural activities. It has, throughout the decades, helped root Palestinian farmers in their land, and preserved ancient knowledge, crop varieties, produce’s distinct quality, and taste of our beloved baladi products. This approach to agriculture has rested on the concept of baʿali, which refers to the Canaanite God of Rain Baʿal. It has been described as a resilient agroecological system that has helped farmers adapt to restrictive socio-economic conditions, coupled with dire political conditions.[2] However, rain-fed agriculture also remains the dominant type of agriculture due to historical heavy restrictions on water use, through Israeli occupation’s denial of Palestinians’ right to water from the rich groundwater aquifers. These restrictions have been a long-standing policy by Israel, which has held hegemonic control over water resources in the occupied Palestinian territory since 1967. Israel today extracts 85% of the annual yield of groundwater aquifers in the West Bank, leaving a mere 15% of the water to Palestinians for water for both domestic and agricultural purposes, far below the rising demand of a growing population. The average Israeli consumption of water is at least 4 times more than the Palestinian water consumption[3], while some settlements in the West Bank consume, on a per capita basis, 21 times more water than nearby Palestinian villages (the case of Ro’i settlement and Al Hadidiya village).[4]

   Moreover, 63% of cultivable land is located in Area C, where it is fully under the control and administration of the Israeli army and where settlers are left in control over large parts of the land and water. The Jordan Valley, with more than 85% of its land designated as Area C, is the epitome of systematic dispossession and destruction of livelihood on a daily basis.[5] Once famed for being the “food-basket of Palestine”, its agricultural communities are now devastated and many Palestinians living there depend on work inside the illegal settlements or on selling their produce through Israeli agricultural companies and individuals, who export dates, vegetables and fruits.[6] This has created a forced cooperation by the Palestinian producers with the illegal settlement enterprise. This indeed causes an identity crisis for the producers who have lost all hopes to maintain their farming livelihood independently.

   The farmers of the Jordan Valley are stuck between a rock and a hard place, where they are unable to obtain the water needed to irrigate their crops and make their produce competitive in this unequal market, but where the alternative is to abandon their lands and work in the illegal settlements to secure their livelihood, which in many cases happens to be their own land confiscated by settler colonial expansion. Without proper water allocation, farmers are relying on the traditional rain-fed agriculture, which produces distinct flavours in the seasonal produce. It also requires sound local knowledge and expertise to prepare the land annually. However, with climatic changes resulting in fluctuations in rain, temperatures, and shifting seasons, rain-fed farming communities are becoming increasingly vulnerable and are on the brink of losing their livelihoods[7]. The occupation’s restrictions on the movement of goods and produce and the fragmentation of the West Bank have also cut off local markets from one other.[8] 

   Gaza was in antiquity an important trading place and port city for the incense trade. Today, amidst the horror of an ongoing blockade and closure, reoccurring wars, assaults, and suffocating restrictions, it has been evident that the occupation not only aims to cause havoc to the civilian population, their buildings and infrastructure, but also to destroy linkages they have to their land, traditional crops and water sources. Livelihoods that depend on natural resources have been systematically weakened and destroyed. This destruction has been used as a tool by the occupation to turn the working Palestinian population into a dependent group. Since the 1995 Oslo II Accords, Israel has set a ’security perimeter’, known infamously as the Access Restricted Area (ARA), which extends along the borders and is entrenched at least 300 meters from the green line. After the second intifada, the Israeli military gradually extended the ARA to reach up to 1500 meters into the land of the Gaza Strip. The restrictions in Gaza are stripping Palestinians of 35% of the total agricultural area of the Gaza Strip, which also happens to be the most fertile agricultural lands  there. Many farmers have been fired at and killed in this no man’s land, many more have been injured and threatened, and crops uprooted and destroyed.[9] Farmers in Gaza who have been struggling for decades to protect and farm their land in this infamous “buffer zone” are among the most vulnerable, alongside fishermen who face a constant threat to their lives when they go out into the small fishing zone, restricted by the Israeli naval blockade.

   In the 1950s and 60s, Gaza used to be famous for its citrus production and export, which employed around 30-40% of Gazan work force.[10]After 1967, the Palestinian agriculture in Gaza started transforming towards the production of strawberries and flowers, due to the encouragement of the Israeli military government in order meet the demands of Israeli and international markets.[11].  During the second intifada, Israeli occupation forces destroyed more than one million trees, most of which were citrus trees, as they restricted farmers from growing low-lying crops especially in the access-restricted areas, coupled with aid projects that pushed for such agricultural production.[12]Sadly, nowcitrus is imported from Egypt and Israel.

   The agricultural sector in Palestine does indeed receive funds from international aid agencies, which aim to develop the standards of production in order to access global markets and get Palestine into the global economy. This comes, however, at the expense of local producers, who are now fixated on the idea of meeting international standards to sell their produce in faraway places, only to come home to cheap, low quality staple food. The western markets therefore benefit from high value cash crops, while in Palestine, we are abandoning local, environmentally-friendly farming practices and local varieties to meet international demand.[13] This destroys local livelihoods, increases competition among producers, and weakens small farmers.

   However, agriculture in the Palestinian context is traditionally much more than a mere source of income that the farmers aim to capitalize on and expand. It is also an attachment to the ancestral land and represents a sense of belonging that is part and parcel of the Palestinian identity. Sumoud (steadfastness) is a term that was coined to explain the rootedness of Palestinians to their land and extends further than the notions of modern nationhood and statehood. This sentiment identifies Palestinians as caretakers of the land, to the extent that their dignity and honour are tarnished if their land is taken away, especially if this is done unlawfully. 

   For Palestinian farmers, maintaining the land is therefore an obligation and an oath they take to solidify their identity. No wonder then that core tactics and policies of the occupation aim to strip this element from Palestinian livelihoods. Palestinians are therefore custodians of the olive groves, fruit orchards, wheat fields, and terraced hills. If we alter our viewpoint about ownership, we will see that in supporting a farmer staying on his/her land, we are actually solidifying our legacy on this land and indirectly shifting economic activities towards supporting local, community-led activities rather than profit-seeking and exploitive individuals and corporate entities. 

   It is now more urgent than ever to gear our efforts towards achieving food sovereignty in Palestine. Luckily, this is now resurfacing throughout Palestine, with new farms adopting clean farming methods, and initiatives calling for the preservation of traditional agricultural knowledge, and baladi seeds. Additionally, some initiatives are working to re-establish and the direct relationship between buyers and farmers, through adopting different means, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets .Other initiatives seek to create a peasants’ and active citizens’ movement calling for Food Sovereignty and adopting agroecological practices .We are extremely excited to introduce a number of them in this edition.

[12]Abdelnour, Tartir and Zurayk (2012) Farming Palestine for Freedom