Two farms tell the story of agricultural apartheid facing Palestinians

Aseel Sharara & Jack Dodson

Mondoweiss  /   March 28, 2023

Palestinian farmers are systematically prevented from working their land as Israelis thrive from ecotourism on stolen land. Agriculture in Palestine shows the damage done by Israeli apartheid.

Samer Karaja and his colleagues built a well because it was the only way for them to get water for their farm. The Israeli apartheid wall loomed nearby, cutting off access to water and electricity in their area.

Despite working strenuously, they couldn’t finish. They are not allowed to bring proper equipment because the Israeli army won’t allow heavy machinery near the wall. They also can’t build a warehouse to store extra water they bring from offsite—and even if they could, buying so much water could become prohibitively expensive.

“With the current restrictions,” Karaja said, “farmers can’t rely on the land to provide sufficient food to meet their needs.”

In spite of that realization, Karaja and the three other young Palestinians that started Ard Alyaas farm opted to lean into their situation and grow crops that wouldn’t require much outside water.

In the first few years of operation they had to adapt quickly. Being in Saffa, which is in Area C of the West Bank, means they face extra restrictions around movement, building and use of land. Like all other Palestinian farmers across the region, they have had to navigate a near-impossible system of checkpoints, water issues, permitting problems and encroachment from nearby settlements.

About two-thirds of arable land in the West Bank is located in Area C, meaning much of the area’s agricultural sector is either taken over by settlement farms or subject to intense restrictions.

Israeli farms both in settlements and across historic Palestine, by contrast, benefit from massive subsidiesdiversion of resources, emphasis on expensive technology funded at times by western grantsexploitative labor and complete freedom of access to the domestic and international markets. This is all sold to the international community as a feat of innovation by the Israeli economy, fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s dream of “conquering the desert,” warning that otherwise the desert would conquer Israelis.

“Israeli farmers have access to all necessary resources, including advanced technology,” Karaja said.

Even in the face of systemic exploitation and lack of resources, Karaja said, he and his colleagues have found popularity and support from the community, which has given them the motivation to continue.

Ard Alyaas was started in 2017 in Saffa, west of Ramallah and just to the side of the massive settlement of Modi’in Ilit. All of them had other jobs, and because money was tight they launched the farm on land that was donated by Palestinians in Saffa. In 2018, according to Karaja, they tried to expand but realized they were too inexperienced and lacked the resources.

The next year, they revisited their strategy by increasing their team to twelve people and adjusting their planting strategy. This is when they ran into the problem with the well and decided to focus on wheat, peas, and beans, because all those crops could survive based on rainfall.

“We relied on the guidance of the older generation and farmers from the area,” Karaja said.

Alternate reality

About 60 miles southwest of Saffa and five miles from Gaza, an Israeli farm boasts a completely different situation: they are thriving financially, using expensive technology to achieve marvelous things. They tell visitors they have achieved the impossible, growing crops in the Naqab desert. The Salad Trail, run by agronomist Uri Alon, draws crowds of tourists, Israeli TV shows and foreign journalists to show off its innovative practices.

“Israel has turned this sand dune into a gold mine: a multimillion-dollar industry,” a promotional video producer exclaims to a production crew while profiling the farm. They are making a promotional video for the state about the farm’s technological capabilities and its financial success.

Featured in glowing Israeli media profiles dubbing it “the tastiest tourist attraction.” A Times of Israel blogger wrote in 2022 that the farm had been built for educational purposes, and as a result focuses primarily on tour groups.

“We expected to see how Israel’s famous agricultural technologies allow many crops to grow in the desert soil and also hydroponically or above ground,” TOI blogger Steve Kramer wrote. “We weren’t disappointed.”

More importantly, Kramer reported that a major source of visitors to the Salad Trail before the pandemic was Birthright.

“Its main audience had been the very successful Birthright experience,” Kramer wrote, “which would send multiple buses daily to the farm, where the young visitors to Israel could roam the fields, pick, touch, taste, and learn about the fruits and vegetables they eat.”

In a 2014 profile in Modern Farmer, Alon is written about as a visionary who managed to use experimentation to make his dream farm come to life.

“His strawberries, for example, grow out of coconut shells imported from India. It was the cheapest bedding for the berries,” reporter Molly Yeh wrote. “Alon grows Egyptian mint, Mexican chili, and carrots from New Zealand to create a truly international experience, while Israeli bumblebees are brought in by the boxful to aid in pollination.”

Tourism, which is one of the Salad Trail’s main purposes, is a major sector of the Israeli economy. According to Statista, 4.5 million people traveled to the region in 2019, while about 6% of all jobs in the country are connected in some way to tourism, according to the OECD. As ecotourism grows worldwide — Statista suggests the $181 billion industry could nearly double its size by 2027 — farm visits are increasingly popular.

“The Zionist ideology has always been supported by imperialists and capitalists,” Karaja told Mondoweiss when asked about Israeli farms. “Agriculture is one such aspect where this is evident. Although Israeli projects appear successful, they require large sums of money and substantial resources and technology to force a relationship between the settlers and the land.”

Systemic harassment

Five miles away from the Salad Trail, a buffer zone renders arable farming land useless for Palestinian agricultural needs. And that fact is pushing Gaza’s population to the edge of extreme hunger.

In Gaza, where blockaded farmers have to produce enough crops for the nearly 2 million people living there, a number of threats limit them. From herbicides that Israeli forces spray under the pretense of quelling terrorism to strict export rules and arbitrary regulations like forcing farmers to remove the tops of tomatoes by claiming they could be poisoned, Gazan farmers work in the most extreme circumstances.

As a result of this, according to a 2017 UN report, Palestinian farmers in Gaza have been unable to access about 35% of the agricultural land due to the imposition of the buffer zone enforced by Israel, while many others have lost their land due to confiscation, settlement expansion, or military operations. As a result, the UNCTAD report estimates that the agricultural sector in Gaza has lost about 46% of its value since 2000, and that about 68% of the population in Gaza is food insecure. 

While the problems are different for Palestinians in different areas, the dynamic is similar: extreme restrictions make the work incredibly difficult. For Karaja, one of the biggest challenges is just moving things in and out of the farm.

“Transportation of resources is challenging due to the numerous checkpoints and settlement streets within the Palestinian land,” he said. “Often, it takes an hour to travel to a destination that is only ten minutes away. Farmers many times rely on resources from the north, but political instability often results in the closure of checkpoints and streets, leading to delays.”

The patchwork roads and permit regime system employed by the Israeli government and military can make it at times fully impossible to move within the West Bank, especially if you’re going to or from Area C. But roads aren’t the only hurdle facing farmers.

In the West Bank, water is controlled by the Joint Water Commission, which is run by the PA and Israel, meaning any water decisions need to be approved by Israel. The JWC, for example, prohibits Palestinians from accessing surface water, and as a result much of their water comes from aquifers. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers — 600,000 people — use six times more water than 3 million Palestinians combined, according to a 2013 Al-Haq report. A lot of that goes to settlement farms, which export across the region and internationally.

Meanwhile, Palestinians make up much of the workforce on Israeli settlement farms in the West Bank, and according to the Israeli labor NGO Kav LaOved, earn only ILS 80-100 per day, compared to the minimum wage of ILS 233 for Israeli citizens. They also don’t receive benefits of any kind, including social benefits, paid leave, sick leave or workers’ compensation if they are hurt on the job.

On top of that, an HRW investigation in 2015 found that settlements were employing hundreds of children, who were working from as early as 5:30 in the morning, for eight hours each day, six or seven days each week. They found children as young as 10 working part-time. They blamed Israeli authorities for failing to uphold court rulings that would have set the legal working age higher.

That’s to say nothing of the routine — but increasing — settler and military violence targeting Palestinian villages, with a particular focus on destroying crops.

Even farmers inside the Green Line with Israeli citizenship face routine harassment. Jisr al-Zarqa, for example, is a Palestinian village on the coast, cut off on all sides by Israeli mansions, highways, and a kibbutz. According to Palestinian advocacy organization Mossawa Center, 80 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Some of the land that’s been taken away from them for the highway project was land they used to farm. In 2016, the Israeli government announced it would expand the town by rebuilding the stretch of highway alongside the city. Seven years later, that process has yet to begin.

And for long-term practitioners of agriculture in Palestine’s deserts, the Bedouins, their history highlights a more sustainable relationship with the land. While the state has routinely failed to recognize Bedouin communities in the Naqab, they’ve also seen more and more of their land taken up by massive technology and electricity centers, as well as massive farms. This displacement effort by the state has been referred to by Bedouins as an effort to earn money off the desert.

Bedouins, meanwhile, have been farming the land for generations by allowing their animals to graze and focusing on practices that revitalize the land. Even this, however, has been coopted by the Jewish National Fund in marketing materials, which celebrated them for “sustainability” in their cultural practices. The JNF is one of the major financiers of displacement facing Bedouin communities in the Naqab.

Indigenous practices are healthier

According to Karaja, the culture of Palestinian farms like Ard Alyaas and others that focus on low-impact, local vegetables is very different from Israeli “innovative” farming, which is built to introduce seeds that are not from the environment, grow crops in unusual locations, and introduce technology — all with the purpose of making money.

Importantly, scientists have given credence to indigenous approaches to agriculture. A 2019 study published in the journal Nature Sustainability looked at the history of agriculture in Hawaii and found “the large role indigenous agriculture can play in producing food, while supporting biodiversity and indigenous well-being in Hawaii under intense land use and climate changes.”

On top of noting that the indigenous agricultural practices could have been strong enough to sustain the entire population of Hawaii today, the researchers even noted that food was an important political aspect of community.

“For indigenous communities around the world, the restoration of indigenous food systems goes far beyond food security, providing opportunities for strengthening identity, social ties, knowledge transmission and well-being, inseparable from indigenous food,” Dr. Natalie Kurashima, lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily at the time. “All of these characteristics, evident in the growing number of aina revitalization efforts [“’āina” means the “land” and its produce in Hawaiian tradition] going on across Hawaii, can improve social resilience to climate change.”

Back on the farms

At the Salad Trail, at the end of a day exploring greenhouses, eating tomatoes, exploring the intersection of technology and farming and more, there’s a final experience to be had. They call this section of the day, “pitot on the saj,” which refers to making pita in a Bedouin oven and serving it with za’atar and olive oil.

Years after their visit, Birthright visitors have recalled this on social media, ignoring its Bedouin roots and celebrating “Israeli inventions” created at the Salad Trail.

For Karaja and his colleagues, the end of a work day looks different. It means taking stock of the impact occupation and apartheid had on their work, and then making adjustments with insight from local farmers.

“We have a different relationship with the land,” Karaja said, “and we believe that our land can always provide if we give it life after again. It is our responsibility to bring life back to the land and to protect our relationship with it.”

Aseel Sharara is a freelance data analyst and researcher with a passion for data-driven journalism

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker who was based in Palestine from 2018-2022