Marda, Occupied West Bank – The wall in the sitting room of Murad al-Khufash’s farmhouse is pulling away from the ceiling, exposing a jagged sliver of gray concrete. The three-centimetre gap is a small imperfection in an otherwise tidy living space.
Gesturing out the window, Khufash says, “They run their sewage into our fields.” He is pointing towards the Israeli settlement of Ariel, which spreads across a hilltop above the West Bank village of Marda.
Sewage from Ariel runs downhill and saturates the soil around the foundations of the house, he says, causing it to sink. “If you go around the house … all the walls have cracks.” His neighbours have the same problem.
Yigal Rosental is the director of municipal waste management at Ariel. He says there was once a problem with the sewage, but the pipes have been replaced. “Now there is no sewage going from Ariel,” Rosental says.
“In our market, we know where [the food] is coming from, who the farmer is … We know all his family, his life story, everything.” – Fareed Taamallah, community volunteer
Khufash, however, disagrees. “They are lying. That is not true.”
The Israelis also drilled a well at the western edge of the village, he says, causing the water level to drop dramatically at a spring that farmers have used for generations to irrigate their crops. “Now, you have to go down maybe 40 stairs to reach the water,” Khufash says.
Because of these difficulties, only a small number of people in Marda still cultivate their land. Those who do, for the most part, tend olive groves. In this traditionally agricultural village, as in much of the West Bank, almost no one still grows food to feed their families or sell in the market.
In addition to sewage and water scarcity, the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel paved the way for Israeli and settlement products to flood Palestinian markets with low-price and low-quality agricultural products.
Free trade agreements and international aid that have promoted chemically intensive, industrial-style agricultural practices to farmers have also contributed to the erosion of the traditional Palestinian food system, according to Aisha Mansour, who wrote a master’s thesis at Bethlehem University on the effects of international aid on Palestinian agriculture.
For Khufash and a small number of other Palestinians, developing alternatives to the current food system is a ripe opportunity to resist Israeli occupation, help the environment, and begin to build resilient communities in the face of difficult circumstances.
Farming as resistance
“If people start having their own food … [the Israelis] can make a curfew. They can shut down the whole country. I don’t care because I have everything around me,” Khufash says. “This is resistance to the occupation because I don’t need to buy your food. I don’t need anything from you.”
With this idea of self-sufficiency in mind, Khufash has turned about half an acre of land that he inherited from his father into a permaculture demonstration farm that he uses to feed his family and offer courses in alternative agriculture.
He grows a wide variety of crops using a method called “companion planting”. Every plant has multiple functions in the overall ecosystem of the farm, and he pairs plants together that are mutually beneficial.
For example, cauliflower has deep roots to extract nutrients from the soil, whereas potatoes have roots close to the surface. So, if you plant them together, they do not compete for nutrients. Cauliflower also has thick and wide leaves that give shade to the potatoes and protect them from frost, he explains.
Instead of chemical fertilisers or pesticides on his farm, Khufash uses compost and manure to enrich his soil. Plants are put into the ground to attract insects that are beneficial and repel other insects that would damage his crops. He also uses water catchment systems and natural design principles to irrigate his farm and reduce his reliance on Israeli-controlled water resources.
Connecting consumers and producers
Fareed Taamallah, a volunteer with a community organisation Sharaka, sees a disconnect between farmers such as Khufash – who are practicing sustainable or traditional agricultural methods – and Palestinian consumers.
To address this gap, Sharaka started a weekly summer farmers’ market in Ramallah, where 20 to 25 farmers producing food grown using traditional or sustainable methods come to sell directly to consumers.
“In our market, we know where [the food] is coming from, who the farmer is … We know all his family, his life story, everything,” Taamallah emphasises.
The direct relationship is important because, without help, Palestinian farmers producing this type of food will lose out to Israeli and international farmers selling cheap, industrialised crops on the Palestinian market, Taamallah says.
A big part of the problem, according to Fatima Saed – a volunteer at Bait al-Karama, a women’s collective in Nablus – is that many consumers have no idea that much of the produce they buy comes from Israeli settlements.
“We always felt unable, un-empowered to do anything because of the occupation. We need to change that mentality.” – Lina Ismail, environmental activist
Bait al-Karama is launching a project to document where vendors in the city source their produce, and to map seasonal Palestinian foods so that consumers will know what goods they should be looking for in the market, if they want to support local farmers.
“If consumers knew where their food came from … I think they would think twice before they bought,” Mansour says.
These projects, and others like them, are putting together the pieces of what a sustainable and local food system in the occupied Palestinian territories would look like, Saed says. “We complete each other.”
Yet in many ways, those struggling for a sustainable food system in the territories are fighting an uphill battle.
“Our agronomists believe that we cannot grow without chemicals,” says Saad Dagher, an agricultural engineer working on sustainable agriculture projects in the West Bank with the Arab Agronomists’ Association.
It is also largely unclear whether local and sustainable agriculture practices can support the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.
The question of sustainable agriculture is a simple one for Abu Samir, an elderly landowner in Beit Sahour. For the past six years, he has rented land that he used to farm to a permaculture project called Bustan Qaraaqa.
“I am seeing a different way,” he says. “But I don’t know if it is good or not yet. If I see it’s a good way, I will go with it. But if I don’t see anything change, I will go back to doing things the way I was before.”
Environmental activist Lina Ismail says it is important to explore local alternatives to the current system.
“We always felt unable, un-empowered to do anything because of the occupation. We need to change that mentality … We need to provide grassroots solutions, at least as much as we can, for the situation we are living in,” she says.
In the process, she adds, “you create a very strong community … a resilient community”.
Taamallah says the effort is certainly worthwhile. “What we are trying to do are very small things. But it’s better – much, much better – than just to stay looking and doing nothing.”