Realities threatening the agricultural sector and Palestinian food sovereignty
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Realities threatening the agricultural sector and Palestinian food sovereignty

Since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1995, several projects have been launched to build the institutional framework of the Palestinian economy, so as to provide the economic basis of an independent Palestinian state. Fourteen years later, a Palestinian state with the ’67 borders has become a mirage; the economy in the West Bank is completely strangled by the apartheid infrastructure imposed by Israel, while Gaza lies in ruins as a result of over 18 months of siege and bombardments. Yet it seems that neither the international institutions promoting these projects, nor the Palestinian National Authority (PA) tasked to implement them, have drawn any conclusions from these facts.

At the Paris conference in December 2007, the PA proposed the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP), a national development plan for the coming four years. The PRDP is based on the same old, failed slogans of state-building, “rebuilding the Palestinian national institutions” and “developing the Palestinian public and private sectors”. Though completely out of touch with the reality in Palestine, the plan has received widespread international donor approval, as it repeats the assumptions of US-led diplomacy and the World Bank paradigms of fiscal austerity, unrestricted foreign investments and export oriented growth. The PA has seemingly lost the aspiration to be an effective government of a real state, instead merely managing a donor-dependent budget where every expenditure and policy is tightly monitored by international commissions.

The PA’s prospects for state-building and sovereignty already seem dim, and yet the picture looks even worse if one looks at the budget allocation. One would expect that any economic development for a besieged and de-developed country, traditionally made up of farming communities, would feature the agricultural sector centrally in its plans. Before the 1967 war, the agricultural sector represented 31% of the GDP in the West Bank and Gaza. However, 42 years of occupation have reduced it to only 7% of the Palestinian economy(1). Yet its role in guaranteeing food sovereignty and basic economic independence make it a key tool for state building. Sadly, the current PA budget based on the PRDP allocates some 60% for security(2) and only 3.1% for the agricultural sector(3). Even the $200 million that are allocated to Palestinian agriculture over the next four years are dedicated to projects which lack an understanding of the realities on the ground. At best, they are unsustainable and unrealistic; at worst, they help to perpetuate the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

The most important of the realities conveniently ignored by these projects is the occupation itself, and the restrictions that it has forced upon the agricultural sector. Through the Apartheid Wall, the settlements, the military closed zones and the proclamation of “natural reserves,” Israel denies Palestinian access to almost 50% of the West Bank, including the most fertile lands and most important water reserves. Over 1.5 million trees have been uprooted since 2000(4), and harvesting is a continuous hazard for Palestinian farmers, who face random settler attacks, as well as frequent denials of permits to access their own lands. Checkpoints and entry restrictions make it difficult for workers to reach their agricultural workplaces, especially in the Jordan Valley. Finally, agricultural produce faces long transport and extenuating waiting hours at the checkpoints, often resulting in produce rotting in the sun. These systematically implemented restrictions present an unending war against Palestinian farmers and food sovereignty. Under these conditions, the proposed agro-business projects that demand a large amount of workers and an enhanced ability to transport products are either doomed to fail, or will further exacerbate Palestinian dependency on Israeli permit systems.

Far from challenging these occupation practices, the PRDP projects simply ignore or even integrate the occupation policies and settlement infrastructure. The Japan-funded agro project, for example, does not deal with the challenges posed to Palestinian farmers by the settlements, their theft of land and water and their environmental hazards. The fact that the settlements continue to expand as part of the Israeli colonial project is conveniently ignored. The JICA project in the Jordan Valley, for which Japan has pledged $100 million to build an agro-industrial area, ostensibly with the aim of developing the Palestinian export of vegetables and fruits, even mentions settlement business as an important partner – instead of an obstacle to overcome – in the process of investment and development in Palestine. In its feasibility study(5), JICA considers ‘Israeli migrant firms’ as models and potential partners for Palestinian agro-business. In fact, these businesses are not ‘migrant firms’ – a phrase which implies that they are Israeli companies operating with permission on Palestinian territory under Palestinian law; rather, they are illegal operations which work with and in the settlements, pay taxes to the Israeli government, receive financial support from the Israeli government, and are one of the Occupation’s primary instruments in maintaining control of the Jordan Valley. Nevertheless, the document recommends integrating these businesses as part of a package of economic regeneration. Their central role would be to provide packing houses and export facilities, as Palestinians would be dependent on their services to pass Israeli controls that make it virtually impossible for Palestinian produce to be exported without their patronage.

A further indication of the state of complete denial by the proponents of the PRDP, and the JICA project in particular, is the fact that the project talks about farming huge tracts of land without discussing ways to ensure irrigation for such large-scale projects. Since 1967, Israel has confiscated all of the water resources in this area, refused to give the PA its legal share of the Jordan River water, and prohibited Palestinian farmers from digging new wells in the area. The PA has no other choice, therefore, but to buy water from the Israeli water company, Mekorot, which controls all of the water resources in the Jordan Valley. Even this solution, however, faces obstacles related to the water problems from which the region suffers. Indeed, the year 2007 had the lowest water levels of the past 35 years(6). The rainwater in 2007 was insufficient to replenish the aquifers, thus forcing Israel to reduce the water usage by freezing some large agricultural projects. Israeli authorities also refused to specify the amount of water that Mekorot would provide to the PA, as was the standard procedure in the past, thus causing drinking water problems in the PA-controlled areas(7). Considering this reality, it is unclear how JICA plans to develop a large agricultural project in the Jordan Valley, without even knowing the amount of water they would receive for the project. The water shortage is made worse by the high price of water, which has destroyed any income that Palestinian farmers can earn by selling their produce(8). These considerations on the basic assumptions of the project make its implementation appear more than doubtful. All the rhetoric of pioneering peace and development through these projects seems to be nothing more than a media bubble used as a tool to gain political support from the Palestinian population through empty promises.

In fact, these projects for the Jordan Valley have already been discussed by Theodor Herzl in his Zionist dreams to ‘make the desert bloom.’ Far from supporting the interests of Palestinian farming communities and safeguarding their livelihoods, these large-scale agro-business projects serve to perpetuate this colonial idea, and to further the ideology of the World Bank.

The small-scale Palestinian farmers have cultivated the Jordan Valley for generations, and have developed extensive cattle grazing instead of intensive agro-businesses. The pastoral economy requires significantly less water on more of the open lands of the Jordan Valley that Israel wants to annex. Rather than allowing these farmers to develop their own businesses, JICA envisages that they will work as labourers in large-scale agro-industry, which will presumably be owned either by settlers or by wealthy Palestinian elites. Instead of enhancing the living conditions of the Palestinian farming and Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, they are systematically ethnically cleansed from their lands and deprived of the possibilities of survival(9).

Another reality that has been ignored in the talks about the agricultural sector is the impact of environmental degradation on Palestinian agricultural lands. The Israeli settlements – and particularly the eight industrial settlements – are the largest destroyers of the Palestinian environment, due to the sewage water and solid waste they discharge into Palestinian farmland. Thus, in addition to confiscating the Palestinian agricultural land itself, for the needs of settlement expansion and its related infrastructure, the settlements also create significant levels of air, land and water pollution in Palestinian areas.

Israeli settlements produce about 40 million cubic metres of sewage water yearly(10). Only 10% of this is recycled, while the rest is dumped in various Palestinian areas in the West Bank. For instance, 30,000 cubic metres of sewage water is dumped each day in Wadi al Nar from East Jerusalem settlements(11). Furthermore, the settlements also pollute the environment by discharging solid waste, or by burying it in Palestinian areas. According to official Israeli statistics, 3% of the state’s 1,000 tons of solid waste per day is dropped illegally in West Bank areas(12). Also, settlements illegally deposit their solid waste in dump areas on Palestinian land. One of the largest dump areas is close to Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. It is estimated to cover 3,000 dunums, and it is specifically used by East Jerusalem settlements(13).

Another factor that damages the Palestinian environment is the chemical waste – including toxins such as aluminium, zinc, mercury, cadmium, and other poisonous chemical liquids and gases – that is produced by Israeli factories in the settlements. This waste is discharged, buried or burned in Palestinian areas, causing increased disease rates, especially cancer, in the areas near these factories. For instance, south of Tulkarem city, there are excessively high rates of skin, blood and respiratory diseases that have been attributed to the nearby Israeli Geshuri chemical factory.

All of these figures together show the extent of the environmental threat that faces the Palestinian areas, the pollution of Palestinian aquifers, and desertification of Palestinian land. However, the Palestinian and donor studies ignore this important factor that adversely affects the Palestinian agricultural sector.

National development plans and large agricultural projects need to take into consideration not only the feasibility and effect on the farmers, but also their impact on Palestinian food security and sovereignty. Both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have huge gaps in their food security, in terms of fresh and manufactured food products. Gaza imports around $594 million per year of basic food needs, such as seeds for crops, beans, sugar, etc(14). West Bank markets, meanwhile, depend on importing produce from Israel, or from Israeli ports. In total, the PA areas are forced to import between $400-450 million of food products per year, in an effort to fill part of the gap in the food basket.(15)

The theory of economic development heralding an independent Palestinian state becomes void if this development is based on imports and exports through Israel, rather than on allowing the state to provide for the basic food needs of its people. In fact, PRDP projects, the JICA project and other PRDP initiatives are based on enhancing export oriented production instead of satisfying the needs of the population within the West Bank and Gaza. While the little remaining lands are to be used for export crops, the imports of food products will grow, causing food prices to rise. Palestinian consumers will be directly exposed to food crisis and the global speculations over food prices. At the end of the day, this export oriented agriculture will not help in ending the budget deficit that the PRDP attempts to level.

In fact, the only two net results of these projects are, firstly, to disempower the small scale farmers and compound their hardships caused by the occupation with economic incentives to leave their lands to be labourers in the agro-business; and secondly, to leave Palestinian economy even more at the mercy of Israel’s complete control over all Palestinian borders, land and resources. In sum, Israel remains the primary body that is able to shape the development – or better, de-development – of the Palestinian economy.

This is why we argue strongly for the PA to change its agriculture and water policies, in order to protect the Palestinian farmers, and to stop gambling with people’s rights. This must be done with the aim of creating a truly developed agricultural sector, and of ensuring food sovereignty for the Palestinian people. The current refusal of the PA and international donors to even publicly discuss their projects, let alone to modify them according to the needs and demands of the people, puts upon Palestinians the responsibility to organize themselves in a widespread, grassroots national movement in pursuit of their political and economic sovereignty. International supporters and justice seekers are tasked to demystify their governments ‘support’ to Palestinians as a de facto backing of the status quo, the occupation and unsustainable development. The only true support for Palestinian rights is the condemning of Israeli crimes and occupation via the development of an effective boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

1- Middle East news paper number 10411, 31-05-2007
2- The donor commitment to finance the Palestinian security sector for one third of the budget is based on the understanding that all the military trainings are controlled by US and EU military and intelligence and recruits are taught that their aim is never to fight Israel. This security sector is becoming a formidable subsector of Israeli intelligence and military and a tool for internal political repression.
3- See PRDP
4- Palestinian Berea of statistics , 2006 ,
5- “Some of Israeli migrant firms making successful business are to be surveyed to analyze primal factors of the likely promising products. Such factors may be ascribed to three points; production, distribution and market. Perhaps successful migrant business might be supported by external/internal conditions lessening constrains. For instance, innovation of production technology, economy of scale in delivery, and market stability in Israel or European countries are to be contemplated.” (Emphasis added) (JICA p.8-9)
6- Alquds news paper, interview with Azam Tubaila (Undersecretary of the Ministry of Agriculture), 07-04-2008
7- Ibid.
8- Ibid.
9- Note on jahalin
10- Palestinian ministry of Environment, Israeli violations against the Palestinian environment, July 2000
11- Other cases include the Hebron area, where sewage from settlements is dumped in valleys to the northeast of the city, and in the valley of Al Samin. Also, settlements in Nablus and Qalqilya discharge their sewage water in the valleys of Qana, Habla and Zawarta. The same thing happens in Jenin, in the valley of Al Maqta. See: Palestinian ministry of Environment, Israeli violations against the Palestinian environment, July 2000.
12- Alquds news paper, Page 9, 24-09-2008
13- Other case s include a large dump area is in the village of Jayyous, north of Qalqilya city. The dump is located on 12 dunums of village land, and it is used specifically by the settlements of Qarne Shomeron, Kedumim, Zufim and Ma’ale Shomeron. The third major dump area is reserved for Ariel settlement in Salfit. Finally, the most recent dump area will be built for Kedumim settlement, northeast of Nablus city, and it is expected to hold 10,000 tons of solid waste each month. See: Palestinian ministry of Environment, Israeli violations against the Palestinian environment, July 2000
14- The Peres Center for Peace, The Untapped potential, Dec 2006
15- The Peres Center for Peace, The Untapped potential, Dec 2006