Economic Issues

Farming Palestine for Freedom


For Palestinians, agriculture is more than a source of income or an economic category in budgets and plans. It is tied to the people’s history, identity, and self-expression, and drives the struggle against Israel’s Separation Wall. In this brief, Lebanese activist, author, and agronomist Rami Zurayk joins Al-Shabaka Policy Advisors Samer Abdelnour and Alaa Tartir to tackle the almost spiritual significance of the land to the Palestinians and the deliberate Israeli efforts to break the link between farmers and their crops. They also discuss the Palestinian Authority’s terrible neglect of the agricultural sector and the destructiveness of some donor aid.1 The authors argue that farming is a productive, meaningful, and multi-dimensional form of popular resistance through which Palestinians can demonstrate – to themselves and the world – the urgent need to reclaim lands, livelihoods, and freedom.

The Culture of Land

The value of the land underlies much Palestinian poetry and literature, including the work of Tawfiq Zayyad, Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani. For example, in Mahmoud Darwish’s powerful words,

And on our eyelashes the grass of Galilee,

This land absorbs the skins of martyrs,

This land promises wheat and stars.

More recently, Suheir Hammad’s poem Land depicts the love of a farmer as a slow, nurturing, humanizing emotion that intimately connects soil to passion.

Staples such as olives, za’atar, figs and date palms are deeply rooted in the culture and history of the land. They provide nourishment during difficult times, require little in terms of water and maintenance, and are well adapted to the climate. The destruction of olive trees is particularly devastating. Oxfam’s 2010 report, The Road to Olive Farming, demonstrates the importance of olives to Palestinian identity, local markets, and economic and psychological wellbeing. Even after all the destruction by the Israeli state and Israeli settlers, the olive oil sector contributes $100 million to some of the poorest families, as Oxfam notes. MA’AN Development Center has documented the worth of the olive trees in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) in a new brief on ancient trees –between 100 and 1,000 years of age – that are uprooted and sold in Israel (50% illegally) for between $8,000 and $26,000. For farmers, olive trees are a sacred trust to be transferred across generations, and their loss is both economically and emotionally devastating.

The olive tree is also widely known as a symbol of Palestine and home, and many Palestinian women, particularly in exile, wear necklaces adorned with carefully carved replicas. Yet when Palestine is presented as an ideal outside of the ability to cultivate, Palestinians are in danger of losing the knowledge of how to nurture, live from, and share the land with future generations. For a people dispossessed, it is imperative to cultivate and regenerate relationships with the land.

The Israeli occupation forces know this only too well. In addition to outright land confiscation and annexation, home demolition, and destruction of water cisterns and systems, staples like za’atar have been politicized commodities since the 1970s. For example, Israeli occupation forces have confiscated za’atar plants at checkpoints, supposedly to “protect” the ecological health of wild za’atar.2 Similarly, the Palestinian citizens of Israel have been forbidden from collecting thyme in the wild as was traditionally done, as the Israeli authorities declared it a “protected plant.”

In besieged Gaza, Israel has at various times prevented cardamom, cumin, cattle, goats, donkeys, and dozens of other items from passing through its blockade. In the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, Israeli occupation forces went to great length to capture cows during the 1st Intifada so as to prevent local milk production (the West Bank is to this day highly dependent on Israeli milk). Such actions are just examples of Israel’s control and devastation of Palestinian food culture and capability as part of the attempt to definitively break the tie to Palestine. As Henry Kissinger allegedly said, “control food and you control the people”.