Agriculture in Beit Ommar

8 September 2012

Palestinian citizens are currently struggling to withstand a severe economic crisis which is gripping the country. Excessive taxation on sales, as well as unfairly imposed conditions in favour of Israeli imports, mean that many Palestinian producers are struggling to survive. Low customs duties or import tariffs, the responsibility for which lies with Israel under the Paris Protocol (Oslo 1), contribute to the flooding of the market with foreign products, with the effect of significantly reducing the competitiveness of Palestinian goods.

Agriculture, which is a crucial sector in many villages such as Beit Ommar, is one industry which is massively threatened, not just by the broader economic climate, but by policies of the Israeli occupation which directly target it. Cheap imported produce, as well as that produced in the illegal settlements, is able to undercut the prices of local farmers significantly. There are a number of reasons for this: Firstly, the Israeli government subsidises agriculture, with additional incentives for farming in the settlements in occupied Palestinian land. The fact that almost all water resources in the occupied territories are under Israeli control, and deliberately located in Area C, means that the supply of water to Israeli farmers is abundant and cheap, whilst the Palestinians are forced to pay a much higher price for a restricted supply; often insufficient to properly irrigate crops. Palestinian farmers also struggle to afford the essential supplies, such as pesticides and fertilisers, which are required for a profitable harvest. These chemicals are extremely expensive in Palestine, and a proliferation of more affordable, but often ineffective, imitations has occurred, leaving farmers with an impossible dilemma; leaving their crops vulnerable to pests and disease, or stretching the profitability of their land to breaking point. The high cost of chemicals and labour affect the sale price, which makes buying Israeli better value for consumers, many of whom face their own financial struggles.

Israel also protect their farmers from poor harvests, with compensation offered to support them in the event of a poor yield. Palestinians and their families have no such protection, and a bad year can be utterly ruinous to some farmers, who may be forced to leave their land.

The restrictions, increasingly harsh since 1993, which prevent freedom of movement for Palestinians, have the added effect of severely inhibiting the distribution of agricultural products. As all borders and ports are under Israeli control, exports are minimal, causing massive overabundance of certain products in the areas where they are produced. Checkpoints and roadblocks make transporting produce, even within the West Bank, a difficult task.
Beit Ommar, for example, is a producer of large quantities of plums and grapes, none of which can be sold on any market outside the local ones. Supply far outstrips demand, causing prices to crash to as little at 10% of that which they may once have commanded, leaving the income of the farmers badly depleted.

In order to counter this problem, farmers have been forced to take a number of extra measures. Firstly, roadside produce stalls are now an everyday sight, with landowners looking to bolster their incomes with direct sales. Some grape growers, however, have even resorted to selling their crop to winemakers, in direct contravention of the Islamic faith which most Palestinians follow. Such an action may be deeply distasteful to many Palestinians, but the restrictions placed on their produce mean that they simply cannot find buyers for the quantities of fruit they produce. It is a choice between selling to a buyer they do not agree with, or simply allowing months of effort and investment to rot on the tree. For most farmers, whose profit is sparse to begin with, the latter is simply not an option.

The activities of the Israeli Occupation Forces also severely hinder agriculture. The massive amounts of farmland in ‘Area C’ give them and excuse for hundreds of demolitions of wells, greenhouses and other buildings essential to farmers. These constructions do not pose a security risk to Israel, yet they are routinely demolished, bringing financial hardship and condemning many farmers to extremely inhospitable growing conditions.

Local fruit being destroyed by occupation forces.

The near impossibility of obtaining Israeli permission to construct means that many structures are built ‘illegally’ and subsequently demolished, leaving farmers out of pocket. Without the construction of additional wells, however, there is simply not enough water for crops to survive.

The failure of the Israelis to protect workers from settler violence not only condemns some farmers to expensive vandalism and crop destruction, not an uncommon occurrence, but also leaves them vulnerable to vicious attacks upon themselves and their families. The destruction of trees and vines is an everyday reality for some palestinian farmers, but it is not uncommon for the violence to result in serious injuries, or even deaths. Yousef Ikhlayl, a seventeen year old boy from Beit Ommar, was shot in the head and killed by settlers whilst tending his family’s crops in January last year, with other attacks and harassment commonly taking place before and since, but with the perpetrators never brought to justice.

According to the UN, Palestine has the capacity for sustainable agriculture at four times the current level. However, with the punishing water restrictions still in place, and a lack of political will to improve the situation, the continued expansion of illegal settlements, facilitated by forcing the rightful owners to abandon their land, continues; the rights of the Palestinians, forgotten.