Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Israeli-Arab farmer builds future hope
where politics permeates land and water

Laithi combines donated fields, heirloom seeds, traditional wisdom and farmer networking throughout Israel to build an agriculture that fits the place and the time to come.

By Yigal Deutscher
February 10, 2005



Just a beginning…
Palestinian stories needed

Editor’s Note: Yigal Deutscher set out to profile the best examples of agrarian, ecological, community-based and place-centered agriculture in Israel that he could find. Thanks to family, the organic community network and a willingness to follow even mysterious leads, he turned in a robust handful of compelling stories. This is the fourth story in a six-part series.

Yigal (who is Jewish) and I agreed from the get-go that he would avoid the fractious and murderous politics of Israel-Palestine as much as possible. He’s done that, but he’s also been true to the lives of the people he’s talked to. As this week’s story shows once again, contention over the land permeates life in the region on many levels. He took a risk to do this story, and was rewarded with just a glimpse into the lives of non-Jewish farmers in one area.

Palestinian farmers continue to suffer loss of their critical olive trees, ancient fields and homes from Israeli military activity, carried out in the name of security for Israel. They have suffered loss of water rights that cripples production in many areas. The tall concrete security wall designed to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks is still being expanded, increasing the difficulty and resentment of Palestinian farmers separated from access to their land and/or markets.

Yigal’s stories are a beginning to document the personal lives and struggles of farmers in the region. These agriculturists live within their political and religious context as do farmers everywhere: some farmers fully engaged in the strife around them, some affected despite their wishes not to be, some determined to rise above partisanship through courage to build community through sharing land, food and hope.

We welcome a similar series on Palestinian or Arab farmers in Palestine/Israel, done with equal determination to focus on farming first, but also reflecting the reality of being on the land in the midst of conflict.

Maybe…maybe the fragile steps of early February 2005 will create openings for farmers on both sides to farm more and worry less. – Greg Bowman, online editor




Where we are:
Arrasid micro-farms, Sachnin

This NGO started by Laithi is located in the Palestinian village of Sachnin in the El-Batuf valley of Northern Israel.

Editor's Note:

Yigal Deutscher had already spent the summer of 2003 training in sustainable agricultural and Jewish spirituality when he came to our website and noticed our standing challenge to:

Help us find farmers from many nations willing to tell their stories in small doses over time, as their lives unfold and their farms develop.

He set high goals, and he delivered in finding and profiling farmers who are making a difference. In this contested land with its millennia of occupations, ravages and civilizations, farming with ecological foundations faces harshness from the climate, political tension and a conventionally oriented food economy.

The journey begins in the southern deserts, leads us north through the West Bank and continues all the way up until we near the Lebanon/Syria borders. (Click here for complete series line-up.)

Where we have been:
Elaine Solowey at Kibbutz Ketura is a California native. Elaine Solowey is a scientist with a mission, evaluating plants from around the world in the harsh Arava desert. She wants to discover "small steps towards abundance" (her book title) for the coming years of harsher climates around the world.

"The well-being of the world depends on agricultural stability and health. No one seems to understand this."

Kibbutz Neot Smadar About 20 years ago, a group of unacquainted urbanites formed to explore issues of community: what is means and how is it formed. The place is an experiment to live out what they’ve agreed upon -- a healthy community based on self-sufficiency that includes organic orchards and farms, natural building, a flock of goats, and much more.

“[The organic farmer] made it all seem like a puzzle to us, the connections he was trying to make between plant and earth, plant and plant, human and earth. This was his lifework, a never ending one."

Moshav Itamar: Alon and Rachel Zimmerman at
This West Bank farming couple coaxes an agricultural existence from a no-man’s land between Arab-controlled Nablus (Shechem). and an Israeli army firing zone. Conflict forced changes in crops and marketing that led Alon to devise highly integrated, self-sufficient system of crops, fish, microclimates and livestock.

His fingers wrap around a silver goblet, full with dry red wine, reflecting the eyes of those peering in. A drop escapes and trickles over the side. Prayer sanctifies the wine, which sanctifies the moment.

Where we are going:
Beit Elisha at Kibbutz Harduf …is Israel's only Biodynamic farm, but one so large that it is also the country's largest supplier of organic produce, from veggies to cheeses. It is also a working agricultural kibbutz -- one of the last in Israel -- whose wholistic environment provides a healing medium for members with developmental disabilities.

"Everything needed to sustain and allow the continuation of creation is already here, given to us with the first light. All we have to do is harness it, gather a small, potent dose and apply." Gadi, farmer.

"Everything is politics in this land. When you eat, you eat politics. When you drink, you drink politics. You can't even breathe the air without suffocating on politics," Laithi bluntly tells me when we first meet. And I am already dreading to hear his words. But instead we watch silently.

In the distance, the air is oily, as if the ground underneath was made of burning coals. The El-Batuf valley spreads out like an old patchwork quilt, with different shades of rectangular greens, grays, and browns stitched together.

The national water carrier snakes through the valley. The cement-lined channel is sparkling blue, filled with the clean waters of the nearby Lake Kineret, on its way to the more arid southern reaches of the country. Parallel to this is the valley's rainwater catchment canal. It is a sprawling grey, muddy mess. Every winter, the valley is flooded with rainwater, destroying the fields. The canal was dug to harness such potential, to turn it from destructive to creative. The waters still flood the valley. The water in the canal is polluted with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, sometimes even animal carcasses.

"If we try to use the water of the national carrier we will be arrested. The Ministry of Agriculture has offered to irrigate the fields with treated wastewater but that would put us in competition with saline conditions. We are like a thirsty camel in the desert, unable to drink the waters we are carrying."

And he begins to tell me of the past, a past he never experienced but one that nevertheless fills his head. It is the history of Sachnin, his home community in northern Israel. Just like the patchwork fields, it is a story of many different people, finding a voice in his own. Continuously, he begins sentences with “we”, invoking his participation in a collective memory not bound by time.

"We used to live in homes built of stone and clay. Grandparents, uncles and aunts and children would live together, an extended unit, alongside the chickens and goats. There were no proper bathrooms. Olive, fig, and almond trees would crowd the space outside.

From May to September, during the harvest season, we would live in the valley, on our fields, in tents covered by animal hair. At other times, the men would leave on donkeys early in the morning, guided by moonlight. There was no proper irrigation; wells were dug and buckets were filled. Everyone farmed for the community, a few crops to his or her liking.

The harvest would be shared through a trade and barter system. There were no moneys in the community. No one would be in need; everything was common to the communal public, even to those that had nothing to trade."

"I would walk to school barefoot until I was 14," Laithi's uncle tells me over a cup of black coffee. He points to his shoes, as dark as the liquid. "Now I have many pairs of shoes but not such friendly neighbors." The streets are paved, or at least were at one point. They are filled with potholes and cracks. Shops and restaurants line the streets. The fruit trees are gone, the earth is hidden, and apartment buildings compete for space. Many of the buildings have never been finished, left blanketed by a grey cement exterior. "The owners are waiting to save enough money so they can cover their homes with a stone finishing," Laithi tells me. But isn't that what they used in the first place, before there were shoes, bathrooms, and money?

"This needs to work for everyone's sake, for a return to dignity. This is our fight for independence and it begins with food security."
Farming has been altered dramatically, alongside everything else. At one point, the communal lands numbered over 25,000 acres. Now, it has been reduced to almost 2,500 acres. In the early 1900's, land was practically worthless. Two goats would get you a quarter of an acre. Handshake agreements and the cultivation of an ownerless wild were relied upon to establish borers between family plots. The mapping of the land, the shift to official written and signed documents, began with the Turks and became the norm when the State of Israel was established. Registration of ownership meant being available to the army and responsible for taxes, payments that none of the members of the community could afford. The land was lost to them and slowly awarded to others.

There was a fascination with these others, the people of the western worlds that were settling all around. "They seemed possessors of wisdom and knowledge; we began to see ourselves as primitive and foolish," Laithi says. The English began to build roads, teasing the Arabs forward with their syringes of modernity, with offerings of jobs in oil refineries and construction projects. The Kibbutz and Moshav communities were, on the same dimensions of land, producing more than the Arab farmers, living a more comfortable life. They had machinery, irrigation and chemicals. "And we craved the entire package," Laithi remembers.

Farming as a lifestyle swiftly evolved into commercial agriculture. Once the market economy rooted itself in the region, the valley was crowded with tomatoes, sugar beets, and tobacco, all grown for Israeli food distributors. Traditional methods were replaced by chemicals, animals replaced by machine. “With a cow, we could cultivate maybe a half an acre a day. After the tractor came, we were able to work up to 25 acres,” Laithi’s uncle, one of the supporter’s of Sachnin’s agricultural machines and chemicals, justifies. Production rose. Labor was not so overwhelming anymore; people left to cities for proper low-wage jobs in construction.

Farming became the grace of the foolish peasant.

The valley looks different now. Tractors make their way through the grid formations like electrons in a computer chip. Rusty water tanks stand on each field like forgotten war relics. The harvest season tents are still there but are made of vinyl, with satellite dishes set up outside. Patches of long, yellow holoparasitic plants stretch themselves from the soil and wrap around the bases of fruit trees and vegetables. The ground has been saturated with chemicals. Empty plastic pesticide bottles litter the roads.

Out of 23,000 residents in Sachnin, only 2% are still farmers. Over 70% of the town lives below the poverty line. "Organic farming is a luxury," they tell Laithi, full of misconceptions. "The farmer's job," they continue, "is to extract the maximum from minimum land and labor. To get the same amount of produce, of the same quality, you need more of both. These are things they don't have."

At weddings, guests bring bags and bags of figs and olives to share. "These are from the wild," Laithi hears them say, natural foods for a celebratory occasion. Their awareness ends there, however. They cannot afford organic produce, neither do they demand it. "I just have to make it seem sexy to them,” Laithi says. “There is no such thing as new agriculture; it is all just new words, a modern wrapping of the traditional."

Urgently seeking farming wisdom

He tells me he is devoted to collecting the past from its source, and I imagine him running franticly grabbing at fireflies. He approaches the old farmers, the individuals that might remember different times, when farming was about a relationship between land and human, without other artificial inputs and pressures. "I am documenting their words, sorting through a collection that will finally reveal itself as Palestinian Agriculture."

He began with his Grandfather. "I would sit at his feet, teased by words of a primitive wisdom. The man lived to 100 years; there were over 1,000 people at his funeral. They called him misaad, the lucky one. He married the prettiest woman in the town and had wealth. He even had blue eyes. One simple question from me would trigger an outpouring of stories that would fill my head."

He shares with me what he has found, snapshots of a different era. Of course, the animal wastes were used as fertilizer, medicinal plants bordered the beds. But there are more interesting nuggets of information.

  • Early in the morning, when the air was humid and dew was still sitting on the leaves, the farmers would sprinkle ground dust on the plants. They noticed that while many plants were attacked by insects, the ones by the road, covered in dust, would never be harmed…
  • The beehives were molded from mud so the animals would not have to exert so much energy in temperature control…
  • After the winter flooding of the valley, holes were dug close to the water-logged fields and would be filled by the workings of the tide. The water was pumped to smaller, simpler catchments by each farmer's plots and used throughout the season…
  • Lentil and tobacco leaves would be burned, smoked next to plants that were attacked by insects…
  • Diseased pumpkins would be treated with garlic. The vines would be carefully sliced, a clove of garlic inserted, and the wound bound in cloth…
  • Salt mounds would be left outside the farmer's door, one for each of the winter months. When the farmer found a month’s mound melted by humidity, he would know the rains were soon to come and the planting season would begin.

Carrying forward

The NGO begun by Laithi is called Arrasid, or Bearing Witness. Farmers in the region donated 10 acres, some of the land in the valley, some in the mountains. The goal is to establish proper microfarms on each plot, where the old methods of farming will be fully incorporated. It will be a place for devout followers of modernity to come and breathe in a time that no longer is, to touch and feel as their curiosity or doubts demand.

A seed bank has been started. Many plots in the valley are less than one acre and have not been farmed in years. The owners rationalize such a small spot as useless. The seed bank will give these families incentive to grow for themselves using free, readily available organic seed. The other possibility is to work for the NGO, growing seed for a salary. The Sachnin Municipality has also given Arrasid access to almost 3 acres of fields to grow crops and seeds. The site connected to one of the local secondary schools has been used for agricultural programming in the past and will now continue to do so, although now in an organic way. Laithi estimates, through past school years, that over 1500 students will participate in the program.

"We need to start small. People will be watching us closely, expecting an embarrassing failure."
For the most part though, educational capabilities aside, the actual farmers will be making the impact. What Arrasid offers them is community support and knowledge. It will be designed as a co-op, where the NGO provides advice and seeds, a guaranteed buyer and market, in exchange for an agreement to grow following certain regulations.

In addition, 1% of all profits must be returned to the local Arab community in need.

Laithi already has 50 farmers committed to working with him. A few months ago, he took them on a tour of the Arava desert, to see the sustainable farming practices used by Kibbutz Ketura and Neot Smadar. Seeds were exchanged, as well as advice.

For the traveling farmers, it was a portal into their grandparents' farming techniques. The group was amazed that the knowledge of their families rests with children of Westerners, that these farmers are able to blend this past with the modern present, to choose irrigation and certain machines while ignoring the chemicals and fertilizers. "Why did we ever neglect ourselves like this?" the younger Arab farmers began asking, convinced.

“We need to start small,” Laithi says. “People will be watching us closely, expecting an embarrassing failure. This is not personal, no need to claim a victory. But this needs to work for everyone's sake, for a return to dignity. This is our fight for independence and it begins with food security. Our blood and flesh is mixed with the soil. Even if we have our land, if we have evolved into creatures that don't interact with it, we have lost ourselves.”

“This valley will be the micro-region for an organic renaissance in the Arab communities…It’s just a matter of time,” Laithi adds after a moment of contemplation, almost as a prayer. But there is no self-pity in his voice. He speaks as if the future is now, as if his words have actually willed it into existence.