The challenges to food sovereignty in the West Bank are political

Palestinians attend a farmers market in the Ramallah (Wajed Nobani - APA Images)

Reem Abd Ulhamid

Mondoweiss  /  October 29, 2022

For Palestinian farmers, protecting the land is more important than cultivating it when it is always under threat of colonial confiscation.

“We go back to the land as a refuge whenever there is a crisis. It’s natural, because it’s clear that the land is our mother,” said Farid Tamallah, an environmental activist and founder of Souq al-Fallahin, a local market connecting farmers directly to the consumer public in the West Bank. “After two years of a global pandemic, the question of food security has returned to the forefront, driving young farmers back to agriculture.” 

Tamallah, a farmer himself and the founder of Sharaka 2011 (a community-based association organizing Souq al-Fallahin), clarifies that the pandemic exacerbated the already harsh conditions that have threatened the mere survival of the Palestinian agricultural sector.

“It is very important to support Palestinian peasants in their ability to survive,” he said. “And it’s not only for their food security — surviving means adopting an entire lifestyle where Palestinian farmers become defenders of the land. That is when protecting the land becomes as important as cultivating it.”

In recent years, Palestinian environmental activists have been calling on farmers to adhere to agro-ecological principles, defining them as a social movement advocating for a set of practices that address the ecological, socio-cultural, economic, and political factors that shape food systems, from production to consumption. 

According to many of these activists, the principles of agroecology could help in the particularly dire political context in Palestine, which has been characterized by restrictive socio-economic conditions. In addition to climate changes — fluctuations in temperatures, rain, and shifting seasons — Palestinian farmers are at constant risk of Israeli colonial land confiscation, in addition to restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian farmers, and the danger posed by colonial settlers in destroying Palestinians crops. 

“The idea of the Souq al-Fallahin farmers’ market, which is held once a week, is to counter the Israeli restrictions on the movement of produce and the fragmentation of the West Bank,” Tamallah explained. “It does this by providing small-scale farmers with a market to sell their otherwise wasted produce.” 

The market, located in the governorates of Ramallah and Al-Bireh, puts out around 20 tables for small-scale farmers to advertise their produce. The farmers come from mostly from rural areas located in Area C, under the full control of the Israeli army. In addition to serving as a common selling point within Area A (the area of administrative Palestinian control), the market also functions as a common space where farmers may interact and share personal experiences about their struggle, as well as strategies of resilience and steadfastness through agro-ecological farming practices. 

‘With every seed we plant, we achieve more autonomy’ 

The Palestinian agricultural sector suffers from a severe lack of sources. Area C is home to 63% of agricultural lands in the West Bank, and falls under exclusive Israeli civil and security control. Water scarcity is also a severe problem in those areas, as Israel controls 85% of Palestinian water sources, and farmers are prohibited from utilizing those wells. 

Economic adversities have been aggravated by the recent price hike in agricultural products, which has turned many farmers away from agriculture to pursue better-paying jobs in illegal Israeli settlements, often as industrial and construction workers. Agriculture, therefore, has witnessed a drop in its contribution to the GDP of the Palestinian economy, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS). The rate of employment in the agricultural, fishing, and forestry sector dropped from 45 percent in 2003 to 6.7 in 2021. 

According to Tamallah, the shrinking of the agricultural workforce has effectively decimated the sector. 

“The picture isn’t all bleak, though,” he rushes to add. “There are exceptional and inspiring initiatives that give one hope. And we also have a rich historical experience inherited from our ancestors, who were also peasants.”

The practices adopted in agro-ecological farming approaches are in line with traditional Palestinian agricultural methods, Tamallah contends, arguing that those historical practices also happen to be both environmentally friendly and harmonious with the Palestinian environment. For instance, non-irrigated or “ba’li” crops that rely on seasonal rainfall — their names derived from the Canaanite God Baʿal, a storm God associated with fertility dating back to 1500-1300 BCE — are more appropriate to the semi-arid climate of most of the West Bank.

Vivien Sansour is an anthropologist and founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, which preserves 47 different varieties of Palestinian heirloom seeds.

These are traditional seeds that are not genetically modified and are drought-resistant. They are not only good for the health of agriculture in a global perspective, but are also necessary for Palestinian farmers in their current circumstances. Sansour believes that “with every seed we plant, we achieve more autonomy.” To Sansour, Palestinian farmers rely heavily on commercial seeds that need to be purchased every planting season ,whereas traditional seeds can be stored and replanted. Additionally, farmers may spare expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

The hegemony of Israeli produce in West Bank markets 

“I was on the brink of giving up on agriculture. It is tiring, strenuous, and financially useless work,” explained Odai Asfour, a teacher and farmer from Sinjil, a village located just north of Ramallah. “But we keep at it.” 

Along with his wife, Odai grows seasonal plants on his 5 dunams (0.5 hectares) of agricultural land that he inherited from his great grandparents.  

“My wife and I grow cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, kale, and watermelon, if the crop survives changing weather and scorching rising temperatures,” says Asfour. “But these crops are still at a great risk of being destroyed.” 

Asfour, like many farmers in the West Bank, has been exposed to several Israeli settler attacks, who are often accompanied by an Israeli army escort.

“We lost almost half of our tomato produce just last month,” he says, “because Israeli soldiers decided to walk all over our newly planted tomatoes just after my wife and I finished planting them. And there were three other similar incidents throughout the year.” 

PCBS has documented an increase in the number of settler attacks against Palestinian farmers in the West Bank in 2021, recording around 1 600 violations against Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. These include uprooting, destroying and burning 19,000 trees and plants. 

Asfour found out about Souq al-Fallahin after asking around and searching the internet for two years ago. Before that he used to sell his crops by displaying them on the main street connecting Nablus and Ramallah. 

“Then the Israeli army prohibited us from selling, for security reasons,” Asfour said. Although his participation in the market facilitated access to consumers once a week, there remain a number of fundamental challenges, namely the high production cost and the unfair competition with cheaper Israeli produce. 

The hegemony of Israeli produce in different markets across the West Bank is perhaps the greatest barriers to Palestinian farmers. “They import second-class products that are harmful to our health,” Asfour says. “At least our produce is free of all of these chemicals.” 

Asfour’s claims are supported by scientific research. In early 2020, the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) conducted a series of laboratory tests on eight samples of tomatoes and bell peppers from the northern, central, and southern parts of the West Bank. The results revealed that around 72% of vegetables sold to Palestinian consumers in all three locations contained high levels of agricultural pesticide remnants, violating the advocated standards for produce quality (called the Codex Alimentarius) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (the FOA).

“There is no official party that seems to take interest in the deteriorating situation of farmers,” Asfour says. He then poses a final question: “But what about how it harms our health?”

Reem Abd Ulhamid has a BA in communication and media studies from Birzeit University and an MA in global communications from the American University of Paris