Palestinian farmers thirsty for exports

A lack of water because of Israeli restrictions and a system of checkpoints make it harder for farmers to prosper.

    Palestinian farmers thirsty for exports
    Agriculture accounts for less than 5 percent of Palestinian GDP [Nakheel Palestine/Al Jazeera]

    Jordan Valley, West Bank - Agriculture has long formed a pillar of Palestinian society, bringing in much-needed income and creating a bond between man and land.

    Today, this sector is suffering, both because of the Israeli occupation and alleged negligence by the Palestinian Authority. This is the bleak picture that Zuhair Manasrah draws on as he speaks of the date company he runs.

    Located in the Jordan Valley, known as the breadbasket of the Palestinian territories, Nakheel Palestine (Arabic for "Palm trees of Palestine") is the largest company to grow, package and export dates all under one roof.

    "There are many obstacles to farming here, Israeli restrictions to land and water being some of the main ones," said the 69-year-old Manasrah. But his love for the land ultimately brought him into agriculture after a long political career, which included serving as governor of Jenin and Bethlehem.

    Just beyond the walls of his plant, one can see what he is talking about. All around, rows of settlement houses stipple the higher elevations. For Palestinians here, water is hard to come by, and permits to dig wells are hardly ever given by Israeli authorities. But the precious liquid is copiously available for Israeli settlers nearby.

    "The provision of water in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas of jurisdiction is under their responsibility ... if the distribution is somehow lacking, the questions regarding that should be addressed to the PA."

    - Israeli government spokesperson

    According to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, "44 million square metres of water a year is allocated to fewer than 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area. This amount is almost one-third the amount of water accessible to the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank."

    This unequal water distribution has allowed settlements to thrive while reducing the amount of Palestinian land cultivated, thus leading to a decline in the competitiveness of crops.

    Israeli response

    Ilana Stein, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs' deputy spokesperson, said B'Tselem's findings are partial and incorrect.

    "The provision of water in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas of jurisdiction is under their responsibility; they decide on these issues so if the distribution is somehow lacking the questions regarding that should be addressed to the PA," Stein said.

    "Some of these matters could have been resolved if the PA would have accepted desalinated water from Israel, or invested in their own desalination programs. [Moreover] water to the Israeli residents in the West Bank comes from Israel and has nothing to do with the Palestinian quotas of water."

    Manasrah first began his date-farming venture after he retired from politics and went back to his village of Bani Na'im near the southern West Bank city of Hebron, to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a farmer. There, he grew olive, almond and grape trees.

    His work ultimately led him to Jericho, where he found the idea of raising date trees lucrative. "I quickly discovered that marketing and selling dates was the key to success, especially since a sealing and packaging plant was something that we lacked in the area," he said.

    He started off with 5,500 trees, built a plant unmatched in size and equipment, and the export business took off. But Manasrah eventually hit a financial wall and with no liquidity in tow, he resorted to Palestinian banks for loans. After he was turned down, he merged with another date-producing company that led to the birth of Nakheel Palestine.

    According to Manasrah, Palestinian financial companies, aware of this political landscape, are loath to invest in the agro-business sector, while international donors are fearful of pouring in money because most agricultural land, including his date farms, are located in Area C. Under complete Israeli control, Area C constitutes some 60 percent of the entire West Bank, and contains the largest network of water supplies and arable land.

    Israeli blockade limits Gaza farm exports

    Agricultural decline

    Today agriculture only contributes 4.6 percent of the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product (GDP), down from some 13 percent in 1994, just after the Oslo Accords were signed.

    In a report released in March, the World Bank said the share of exports in the Palestinian economy has also been in steady decline since 1994, dropping to 7 percent of GDP in 2011.

    A system of checkpoints and movement restrictions have led to a contraction in the agriculture sector, which is something that Manasrah echoed as he described the state of the industry.

    "Restrictions on movement of people and goods directly impact our date production, while exports tend to be more expensive because Israel controls all entry and exit points from the West Bank," he said.

    A back-to-back system - one where goods are unloaded at Israeli checkpoints, then loaded onto other trucks on the other side - increase costs and decrease profitability, making Israeli dates more competitive. Sometimes farmers are even forced to resort to Israeli companies because they cannot access Israeli ports.

    The Israeli government spokesperson said it is not checkpoints that hurt the Palestinian economy but the "violence" in the West Bank. "Having said that, the number of checkpoints has decreased dramatically in the [p]ast years and movement across the West Bank [has become] much easier," the spokesperson said. "Most of the checkpoints are [at] the entrance to Israel and this does not interfere with the day-to-day life of Palestinians."

    Manasrah attributes some of the difficulties in agriculture to the PA's priorities. "The PA is aware of the conceptual importance of investing in agriculture, but not in practical terms," he said. "That's apparent by the little it has allocated to the agriculture sector."

    Less than 1 percent of the PA budget is earmarked for agriculture, and Manasrah stressed that not much is done in way of introducing Palestinian dates to the world market.

    "As we marketed our goods abroad, we noticed that many people did not know there's such a thing as Palestinian dates," he added, noting there is a lack of infrastructure and service centres to cater to the needs of the agro-business sector.

    'No border control'

    The PA has acknowledged that there is much to do to help farmers, and lamented the "denied potential" of the agriculture sector.

    "It's not a matter of whether it's our priority, it's a matter of being prevented from implementing policies that support agriculture," said Nour Odeh, the Palestinian government spokeswoman. "Part of the problem is that we have no control over borders, and the majority of arable land is in Area C."

    In a report submitted to a forum of donors dubbed the AHLC (Ad-hoc Liaison Committee), the PA estimates that the additional potential for agricultural production in Area C alone could reach $2.25bn annually. The report includes a Palestinian action plan focusing on projects to develop this area and shows that agriculture is part of the government's newest set of priorities.

    Nakheel Palestine today owns more than 20,000 trees and employes some 100 people. During harvest, these numbers can double depending on the season and production. There are plans to double those tree figures and triple production to 3 tonnes of dates per hour. This means injecting $4.6m of investment into the company.

    It's unclear whether this target will be met in light of the hurdles described by Manasrah. "The Palestinian farmer has to harvest the land, find the necessary water sources, buy the machines and market the goods. This is a heavy burden for any investor," he said.

    Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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