In Palestine, people are resisting a settler colonial project and a military occupation with heirloom seeds, wild plants and homegrown vegetables. We investigate the protest world of agro-resistance.
“I found parsley from Beit Natif in the market today.”
Islam, a third generation Palestinian refugee, says these words while making tea in her kitchen. We are in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine. Beit Natif is the name of the village her family is originally from. They became refugees on October 21st 1948, during an Israeli army campaign against the Palestinian villages southwest of Jerusalem that ended with the expulsion of the inhabitants of a dozen villages.
Beit Natif is only twenty kilometres away from the Aida Refugee Camp, but Islam has never been there. The village was destroyed and an Israeli city can be found next to where the houses once stood; its expansion is threatening the few remaining ruins.
“The parsley was too expensive. Can you believe I can’t afford the herbs that grow on my land?”
The idea for a project exploring agro-resistance in Palestine started with this conversation. A refugee woman, forbidden from going back to her family village, trying to connect with her lost ancestral land through the food that grows there, but unable to do so because she couldn’t afford a bunch of parsley.
The loss of land, the lost of identity
The dispossession of Palestinian land started in 1948, when 78% of historical Palestine became the state of Israel. The 22% left is referred to as ‘occupied Palestinian territories’, separated into the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip; all under full Israeli military occupation since 1967. Since then the land grab has continued unabated.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, illegal under international law, have fenced off or earmarked around 42% of Palestinian land. An estimated 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem today. Many farmers also have problems accessing their lands if they are located behind the Israeli Wall due to cumbersome and restrictive regime permits. In Gaza, the security ‘buffer zone’ imposed by Israel takes up 35% of agricultural land. The combined Israeli restrictions on agriculture costs the Palestinian economy $2.2 billion each year.
It’s not only the map that is being reshaped. Israeli occupation is also changing traditional agricultural practices: with land and water resources being taken by illegal settlements, the Israeli Wall and checkpoints, Palestinian farmers are pushed into monoculture and commercial seeds, with dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, to get greater productivity from less land.
“Today, it’s not just the military occupation that we live under in Palestine, but it’s also a greater political and economic system in the world that is causing us to be slaves to agri-business companies, to multinationals that want to dump their terrible food on us”, says Vivien Sansour when we meet at her Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem.
“Israeli agri-business has managed to sell the myth that agri-business all over the world is selling, that we need them and we need their seeds for more production. […] Now you are not a producer, you’re a consumer. And what better way to enslave someone than make them your consumer.”
Loss of agricultural land has led to unprecedented levels of food insecurity. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1.6 million Palestinians (31.5% of the population) are considered food insecure. At the same time, the Palestinian market is being flooded with Israeli products full of cheap vegetable oil and sugar, and this shift in the diet is seriously affecting the health of the population.
Access to water is a major challenge for Palestinian farmers. While the West Bank is sitting on a major aquifer, it is controlled by Israel. Palestinians are also denied access to the Jordan River and face harsh limitations in developing their own infrastructures due to the restrictive Israeli permits systems. In some areas, especially in area C (which is under full control of the Israeli authorities), 180 Palestinian communities are not even connected to the water network. They must therefore rely on private companies, the main one being the Israeli water company Mekorot, which sells water at greatly inflated prices compared to those charged to the Israeli settlers. The quantity of water provided to the Palestinian communities is even restricted at times. Israeli settlements use five times more water than West Bank Palestinians (who have just 73% of the minimum daily water requirement according to World Health Organisation guidance).
The Israeli occupying forces consider the West Bank as a convenient territory to dump its waste, damaging the ecosystem. Hazardous waste, most of which is produced in Israel, is processed in plants in the West Bank operated at far lower standards than the ones which apply in Israel and in contravention to international law and international conventions. Palestinian residents are completely excluded from the decision-making process.
The pollution is further entrenched by the various Israeli industries operating in the West Bank; for instance, the Jishori factories around the city of Tulkarem, known by Palestinians as ‘factories of death’. Roughly half of Israel’s environmental laws do not apply in the West Bank.
The building of the Israeli Wall has resulted in land grab, pollution and negative changes in the ecosystem and biodiversity. Over the decades of occupation, environmental issues have never been a priority for the occupation forces, resulting in a lack of infrastructure for adequately treating the wastewater in urban areas. It is disposed freely into streams while the existing treatment facilities are not working properly, resulting in pollution of the land and water. Israeli settlements are also a cause of pollution, with some releasing sewage into the surrounding lands or dumping garbage in open-air pirate dumping sites.
It’s not just people who lose out. Chickens are being raised in tiny cages because this is seen as a cheap and effective way to produce food for a growing number of people in an ever-shrinking territory. The Israeli colonial project, which starts with the land but pushes its colonising power beyond that, reaching the Palestinian table and even the taste buds, disconnects everybody, human and non-human, from the land, deeply affecting the Palestinian identity.
Some questions arose following that conversation with Islam about the parsley she was hoping to bring from her home village. What are the impacts of 21st century settler colonialism on the food culture and landscape of the colonised? How can people preserve their agricultural and culinary traditions when threatened by a five decades long military occupation, and by a neo-liberal agro-business model that joined forces to uproot the people from their land and erase their identity?
Planting the resistance
Baladi – Rooted Resistance is a series of stories of Palestinians resisting Israeli colonisation and occupation with seeds, wild foraged plants and homegrown vegetables. Palestinians who believe food politics and food sovereignty intersects with the struggle for self-determination and freedom. The Arabic word ‘Baladi’ is translated as ‘local’, but means more than just that. It comes from ‘balad’, ‘the country’, and represents the connection with the land where the food was grown.
The resistance is rooted because, for Palestinians, simply being there, being rooted to their own land, is already an act of resistance.
Some of the stories from the West Bank that we will highlight in this series of articles include a restaurant owner and farmer struggling to practice permaculture in an Israeli-controlled area where water is prohibitively expensive. And we interview Draguitsa Alafandi, living in the crowded Dheisheh Refugee Camp, who decided to grow as many vegetables as she can on her rooftop in order to increase food security and serve fresh food to her family. “It’s very therapeutic, just to look at the plants and see how they are growing. It’s also nice to have something to put on the table, even if it’s just a bit of mint in your salad. It’s very beautiful to have something that you were able to raise yourself, were able to plant it and watch it grow and take care of it”, Draguitsa tells us from her little oasis amongst the concrete and noise.
We will also talk about an initiative to save heirloom seeds at risk of extinction and steps being taken to help Palestinian farmers preserve biodiversity and regain their autonomy. “If people stop being able to produce their own food and become entirely dependent on other people then we really lose our sense of autonomy. It’s not just about being autonomous, it’s about being a community that values itself”, says Vivienne Sansour.