Near sunrise I’m awakened by the sounds of village life in Palestine: a goat bleating, the chug of a farm tractor passing the open window, and the eerie shriek of an Israeli war-jet.
In smoothly hilled farm country, al Jalama is five kilometres north of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
My host Nasser Abufarha was born here in 1964, and experienced first-hand the crushing impact of military rule on farming. It’s the primary livelihood for many in this broad valley, still known as the breadbasket of Palestine. His family used to grow citrus fruits and guava, but after the Israelis took control of the aquifers – Palestinians are forbidden to drill new wells – the fruit groves died. For awhile the family grew melons, which are less thirsty, until these too withered.
“Now most farming here has switched to greenhouses, to conserve water,” says Nasser, “but even that is difficult as it gets drier. This is a totally different village from when I grew up. We used to farm in the open air, surrounded by citrus trees and lots of birds. Now we farm in plastic houses.”
But still they farm too as they’ve done for centuries, in the ancient silver olive groves that ramble over the dry hills. In 2003, the third year of the second intifada, Palestinians were under siege and extremely isolated. Olive oil prices had fallen so low, many farmers were losing interest in the annual harvest. Why do all that work, they said, when you can’t even cover your cost of production?
Nasser and a few friends organized a round of meetings with Palestinian farmers and people who operated oil presses. At the same time, they investigated what Nasser calls “the nuts and bolts” of international fair trade. From this inquiry emerged, within a year, the Palestine Fair Trade Association, the PFTA, a union of local farmer cooperatives, pressers and traders.
In the tiny village of ‘Anin I talked with two farmers, cousins, both of them weathered and strongly built. Nasser translated.
Mahmoud Issa and Awad Milhim used to sell their olive oil to local merchants or Israeli brokers, and were thankful if they could break even on their costs. Has this changed? The cousins exchange a look and a smile. “There is no comparison,” says Mahmoud, emphatically. “Now we can support our families, and our kids may even be able to go to college.”
I ask how the occupation affects their work. By way of response they take me out to see their land, downhill from the village, more than half of it now cut off by the wall – a white slash through the landscape, wavering in the heat. To reach their olive and almond groves on the other side, they need permits from the military authorities. If a farmer is lucky enough to get one, never a sure thing, it may allow him only one hour on the other side. Whether they can plough, prune, maintain and harvest the trees depends entirely on the whim of the soldiers.
Olive groves throughout Palestine are also subject to attack by both settlers and the army. Since the occupation began in 1967, it’s estimated that at least a million trees have been destroyed, and the wall has already destroyed or made inaccessible twice as many. Even in a land so richly endowed with olives, the loss is catastrophic.
Before we move on, I have one more question for the farmers: Despite all the obstacles, what keeps you going? Without hesitation Mahmoud replies, “To support my family I have to work my land. This is what I do.” Awad nods agreement.
In Nasser Abufarha’s living room, formal photos of his grandfather and his parents keep watch. The grandfather wears a keffiyeh, a practical head-covering for Palestinian men long before Yasser Arafat turned it into a symbol of struggle. In 1948, when Jewish soldiers occupied al Jalama, Nasser’s father led a small band of local men to retake the village. Their success was fleeting, but it has not been forgotten.