By: Fareed Taamallah*
Throughout the years of occupation, Palestinian land has been the main target of Israeli policies, aiming at confiscating as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible living on it.
Since 1967, Israel has built 143 settlements in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, housing about 585,000 Israeli Jewish settlers, in addition to 97 outposts – settlements built without official authorization. Settlements were built on confiscated Palestinian land, given to new settlers who not only occupy the land but also attack local farmers and their farms, torch, cut down and uproot trees and in many cases steal the harvest. Since 1967, around 2.5 million Palestinian trees, one-third of which are olive trees, are believed to have been uprooted by the Israeli army and Jewish settlers.
At the same time, in 2003, Israel built the segregation wall on Palestinian land which extends along 773 km, isolates around 710,881 dunums of land and which constitutes 12.7% of the West Bank. The Palestinians communities have been prevented access to 28 Palestinian ground water wells and 27 water springs whose extraction rate reaches 22 million m3/year and constitutes more than 34% of the Palestinian share in the Western Aquifer as stated within the Oslo interim agreement 1993.
For the Palestinians, not only is land a source of food, but it also stands for resistance, freedom and sovereignty, while farmers are considered land defenders, freedom fighters and food security guards.
The Israeli policies throughout the years of occupation, have aimed at forcing the Palestinian farmers to abandon their land and become workers in the Israeli construction sector, thus putting the Palestinian food security at risk.
Nowadays, the Palestinian farmers who remain to farm are struggling not only to produce food but also to protect their farms and their land from being confiscated by the Israeli army and settlers.
Olive trees are a major agricultural crop in the Palestinian territories and are seen by Palestinians as a symbol of nationality and attachment to land. Olive trees carry more than an economic significance in the lives of Palestinians. Since the olive tree is draught-resistant and grows in poor soil conditions, it represents Palestinian resistance and resilience. The fact that olive trees have lived and have born fruits for thousands of years is parallel to the Palestinian history and continuity on the land. Palestinians are proud of their olive trees and they take care of them with care and appreciation.
Moreover, olive trees are seen as a major component of traditional Palestinian farming life with several generations of families gathering together to harvest the olives starting in mid-October. The olive harvest used to be a joyful time for Palestinian families, celebrating the crop and their ties to the land. Yet for many years now, olive harvest has been taking place under the shadow of Israeli harsh policies such as land grabbing, restrictions on access to the plots, settler attacks on harvesters and vandalization of trees.
Some settlements were built in close proximity to olive groves, or even replaced them, so farmers have no access to the trees. In some cases, the Israeli military prohibits farmers from accessing their lots allowing access to their land for a limited number of days only twice a year. This is during the harvest and the plowing seasons. Due to this policy, farmers are unable to tend to the trees properly resulting in the trees yielding poorer crops and farmers incurring in financial losses forcing some to find other ways to make a living.
The Olive tree is universally regarded as the symbol of peace, but has become the object of violence. Such heartbreaking reality has led the famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, to say, “If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears …”.
In today’s environment of neoliberal economic policies, rapid urbanization, and excessive dumping of cheap imported products (mainly from Israel) onto the Palestinian market, small scale Palestinian producers are finding it difficult to market their produce at fair and reasonable prices.
As a response to the challenges facing farmers, a grass root initiative was established in Ramallah in 2011, called “Sharaka” (Arabic for partnership). Sharaka, of which I am a co-founder, is a volunteer-run effort focusing on ensuring a food sovereign Palestine and on preserving the traditional Palestinian agricultural heritage. It connects Palestinian consumers directly to the farmers to support the small scale Palestinian farmers who continue to tend to the land as our ancestors have done for generations.
Many activities are carried out by Sharaka every year, including organizing voluntary working days with small scale farmers, a summer local farmers’ market, home delivery of fresh produce directly from the farms. Sharaka contributes to raising awareness within the Palestinian community on the importance of ethical consumption of local and seasonal products and encourages purchasing directly from local, small scale, Palestinian farmers. Sharaka’s vision is to inspire a national movement supporting the return to environmentally-friendly, organic farming, food production and preservation methods, to move towards food sovereignty.
Sharaka encourages farmers to cultivate abandoned plots of land, plant more trees and maintain local Palestinian seeds and trees by organizing events to exchange local seeds and promote local food and recipes.
Sharaka’s slogan is “Farming is resistance” which means that we are all required to support our farmers who are the real freedom fighters against occupation and capitalism.
Grassroots initiatives like “Sharaka” is a response towards confronting local and global challenges like the monopoly of big Capital companies, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and land grabbing. It is fundamental to preserve local seeds and to maintain good, fair and clean food by empowering small scale farmers around the world who are the green producers, while in Palestine in addition to that they are the real fighters against occupation to maintain food security.
The Arabic proverb says “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. I would add that “it is much better to empower one farmer than to curse the occupation.”
*Fareed Taamallah is a Palestinian journalist who lives in Ramallah. He is a political and environmental activist and a farmer.