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 factious 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,
Arrasid micro-farms, Sachnin
This NGO started by Laithi is located in the Palestinian
village of Sachnin in the El-Batuf valley of Northern
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:
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.
here for complete series line-up.)
Where we have been:
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."
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."
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
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.
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?
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.
||"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."
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
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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.
||"We need to start small. People will
be watching us closely, expecting an embarrassing failure."
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
“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.