Palestinian farmers lose land for failed economic zones

Industrial zones are stripping farmers of their food sovereignty and increasing Palestinian dependen

Some 50 percent of Palestinian households are suffering from food insecurity. [Reuters]

Israel’s continued brutal crackdown on Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and occupied and besieged Gaza Strip leaves little doubt that “peace talks” are dead for the foreseeable future. Yet, the Palestinian economy remains captive to the Israeli market, a captivity institutionalised by the Paris Economic Protocol, which was signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in 1994.

The economics of West Bank occupation

A case in point is the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) renewed push to establish “industrial zones” on Palestinian land in the West Bank with the support of international sponsors. The PA has been promoting these zones as national projects. But they are making Palestinians even more subservient to Israel, because they rely on the occupier’s goodwill for access, movement, and the transfer of tax revenues. Furthermore, reports warn that these zones will bring benefits for Israeli companies, particularly those based in illegal Jewish settlements, while threatening to put Palestinian companies out of business all together. 

One sector in particular – the agricultural sector – has become especially vulnerable to these developments. The PA is purchasing hundreds of acres of land belonging to small-scale farmers at compulsory low prices in order to build these zones. In April 2014, the PA served papers to those farmers refusing to sell, forcing them to accept compensation for their lands. Consequently, lands like those located in Marj Ben Amer, historically the breadbasket of Palestine, are being lost to industrial zones, while farmers’ livelihoods, way of life, and ancient and diverse heritage are coming to an abrupt end for what the PA claims as the “public good.”

Removing farmers from their land and putting them to work in specified areas will inevitably initiate the transfer of populations and the forced urbanisation of rural communities in the longer term. This will have far reaching detrimental consequences for Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, as well as likely environmental damage from producing industrial waste in both agricultural and inhabited areas. With no means left to sustain themselves, Palestinians would lose one of the most valuable elements of resistance that they have against Israel’s settler colonial project.

Farmers in Jenin and Jericho, where two large industrial zones are being constructed, are in urgent need of support in order to withstand these challenges. Like many farmers around the world, they are the victims of a top-down neoliberal development approach that attempts to dispossess farmers of their land and seeds in service of banks, multinational corporations, and agribusiness giants. International stakeholders have been imposing this model on the Palestinians for over 20 years, and the PA has become a willing facilitator in its implementation.

Today, this model is carried out under the banner of United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s Palestine Economic Initiative (PEI), which pegs agriculture as one of eight sectors for development, mainly through the establishment of industrial zones. But the PEI relies on billions of dollars in aid and international investment – which, to date, is yet to be seen – and promises bogus returns, including an increase in Palestine’s GDP by as much as 50 percent over three years, a cut in unemployment, and an increase in wages. In the context of a brutal military occupation whose primary aim is to colonise the land and appropriate the resources that are integral to the growth that this model guarantees, the PEI not only makes no sense, it undercuts the very foundations of Palestinian survival and resistance.

Systematic attempts to weaken the Palestinian agricultural sector are not new. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionist leaders undertook an aggressive project to “modernise” farmers through the introduction of new seeds and methods that decreased their independence and emphasised quantity over quality. At the same time Palestinian farmers were being manipulated and used for experiments that cost them many of their native seeds as well as large shares of their productive lands.

Since 1967, with an increasingly captive economy, Israeli manufacturers have been flooding the Palestinian agricultural sector with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. Likewise, Israel has advocated for a system of mono cropping that has left farmers vulnerable to middlemen who dictate prices and crop varieties. It has also pushed the agricultural sector towards planting labour-intensive crops such as strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes, which are produced in chemically heavy greenhouses using cheap labour.

Foreign campaigners protect Palestinian olive farmers

Alongside these neoliberal policies have been the policies of the Israeli occupation carried out by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. The confiscation of Palestinian land, the uprooting and burning of their olive trees, the poisoning of their livestock, and the contamination of their cultivated fields and wells, among other heinous crimes, have significantly accelerated the devastation of Palestinians’ agricultural capacity. To give one example, 80,000 Palestinian families rely on the annual olive harvest for their livelihood. Since 1967, Israel has destroyed over 800,000 olive trees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). In one month alone, during the 2013 olive harvest, Israeli settlers burnt and uprooted 1,905 trees.

The PA and international donors, meanwhile, have done nothing to counteract such blatant attacks on the Palestinian agricultural sector. In fact, they have long neglected and even sabotaged it. Since 1994, the funds allocated to this sector have never exceeded one percent of the PA’s total annual budget; between 1994 and 2000, agriculture accounted for only 1.4 percent of total international aid – today, this number is down to 0.7 percent; and by 2012, agriculture made up just 5.9 percent of the OPT’s GDP, falling from 13.3 percent in 1994.

The protection and empowerment of Palestinian farmers is therefore urgent. With 50 percent of Palestinian households suffering from food insecurity, organised and sustained community efforts are needed to reinvest in local agriculture, primarily aiming to reconnect consumers directly to their producers. Farmers represent a last frontier for freedom and a major pillar for creating an alternative development model based on an economy of resistance and steadfastness. PA leaders and their international partners should be pressured to reverse their policies before it’s too late. 

Vivien Sansour is a guest author for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. She is an independent writer, producer, and photographer from Beit Jala, the occupied West Bank.  She is currently a doctoral candidate for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. 

Alaa Tartir is the program director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. He is also a PhD candidate and researcher in international development studies and political economy at the Department of International Development, at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).