Middle East Eye / February 18, 2022
Water scarcity has forced villagers in the West Bank’s Furush Beit Dajan to abandon their once-famous lemon trees and pin hopes on tomato production.
Standing on his land, contemplating the fate of its once-fruitful lemon trees, Thabet Muhammad Abdul Kareem is anxiously wondering whether they will continue to wither away.
The Palestinian farmer and his family have relied on their land as a primary source of income for almost 50 years, just like the other residents of Furush Beit Dajan, an agrarian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Lying just east of the city of Nablus in the middle of the Jordan Valley, the Palestinian village covers 14,000 dunams (around 3,500 acres) of land, most of which has been confiscated by occupying Israeli authorities.
The village is also encircled by the Hamra military checkpoint and the Israeli settlements of Hamra and Mekhora.
Palestinian residents are prohibited from planting on 11,000 dunams of that land, leaving them a meagre 3,000 dunams categorized under the Oslo Accords as Area C, meaning that the villagers are forbidden from erecting any structures there – not even water tanks.
Ninety-eight percent of Furush Beit Dajan’s residents work in agriculture and rely on crops and livestock as their primary source of income.
Its privileged position – behind the Nablus mountain range where the eastern basin lies – means there is plentiful water flowing underground.
The village is known for its fertile lands and lemon trees, village council head Azem Hajj Muhammad told Middle East Eye, but due to the Israeli military’s digging of artesian aquifers over their land, the water in the village’s underground wells started to deplete, and with it the village’s lemon production plummeted.
With less land and a reduced water supply, the locals adapted to the change by shifting to greenhouses and vertical farming. But they’re reminded constantly of the available natural resources just under their feet.
“Furush Beit Dajan is standing on a groundwater well, and we hear the sound of water moving through Israeli water pipes, but we cannot use it,” Muhammad said.
According to the council leader, Israeli authorities would harass villagers who try to dig wells or use the water pipes. Several farmers have been arrested and handed heavy fines when found guilty of trying to access water.
On top of it all, water tanks are banned in the village. On 16 July 2021, Israeli authorities demolished one of Muhammad’s tanks, containing 500 cubic metres of water, despite an order from the Israeli high court that halted the demolition.
“Israel is practicing racial discrimination against us. Five-hundred metres away from us, the settlement of Hamra enjoys its swimming pools and unrestricted water access and all the infrastructure it needs,” he told MEE.
Dreams built on water
Thabet Muhammad Abdul Kareem is 72-years old now. He is a father of nine and grandfather to 13. All of them rely on their land, comprising six dunams planted predominantly with old lemon trees.
Last year, his family felt quietly optimistic when they became one of the beneficiaries of a project from the Palestinian agriculture ministry to erect tanks for collecting water. Soon afterwards, Abdul Kareem added 100 more lemon trees to his lot, on which he had hung all his hopes.
However, in a devastating blow, as soon as the construction of the water tank completed on 15 November 2021, the Israeli authorities ordered its demolition.
“We suffer from constant droughts during the summer months, and I have to buy water in order to maintain my trees, and I needed this tank to store all the water I bought,” Abdul Kareem told MEE, pointing out that lemon trees need to be watered every two days and consume large amounts of water, which require a tank of that size.
After the water tank’s installation, the Israeli civil administration then trespassed on his land, took photos and even hung up a military order on the tank stipulating that it needed to be taken down within 96 hours.
“We went to the Israeli courts… and we tried to appeal the order. On 28 January we received a final rejection from the court ordering its destruction,” he told MEE.
A few months later, on 8 February, the Israeli authorities raided Abdul Kareem’s lands and demolished the tank, which held 250,000 litres of precious water.
“These military orders are unjust. They didn’t give us the opportunity to obtain a permit or to appeal the demolition order,” he said. “The occupation’s policy against us is clear, they want to expel us from our land.”
“This is the first time that we’ve received aid from the Palestinian Authority, and I was happy to be given the opportunity of building a water tank and placed all my hopes on it. But all these hopes were scattered to the wind.”
Abdul Kareem has a collection of old papers dating back to 1920 proving his family’s ownership of the land. He carries these papers with him wherever he goes, and shows them to human rights workers and journalists. He said, though, that the Israeli courts do not recognize the legitimacy of these documents.
“This is our land, the land of our forefathers. Those who demolished the tank are foreigners and invaders. I will build another tank in its place, and if they uproot our trees we will plant new ones… we will not leave our lands.”
New crops and contaminations
With its lemon production in decline, Furush Beit Dajan now focuses on growing tomatoes in greenhouses, diversifying its crops and replacing its citrus production. The village now supplies 60 percent of the Palestinian market’s need for tomatoes.
Burhan Abu Jaysh, 32, inspects his tomato plants in one of the greenhouses on his land by meticulously examining each branch one by one.
Abu Jaysh told MEE: “Tomatoes are very delicate, and we take care of them like we do a child. We inspect them daily, we pick them, and we treat them with the necessary sprays.”
The water scarcity forced his family to switch from lemon planting to vegetable farming, especially in tomatoes. They also had to change their farming practice and focus on working during winter using rainwater, and halting it completely during the hot summer months due to a lack of water.
According to Abu Jaysh, some farmers started to use contaminated water as freshwater is unavailable, which has damaged the land and weakened its production.
“After a few years, we will be unable to plant many crops in our village due to the effects of contaminated water,” he said.
Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist