Palestinian farmers left reeling by foot-and-mouth outbreak

Livestock owners in occupied West Bank territory say they are underserved by the Palestinian Authority

Mohammed Basheer tours his farm in the village of Wadi Al-Faraa after major foot-and-mouth outbreak devastated West Bank flocks. AFP
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An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the West Bank early this year has killed thousands of livestock and pushed Palestinian farmers already living under occupation to the brink of bankruptcy.

Farmer Mohammed Basheer, who owns thousands of livestock near the city of Nablus, said he had to incinerate hundreds of dead lambs after the outbreak devastated livestock across the West Bank.

It underlines the unique challenges facing farmers in the occupied Palestinian territory, who complain that they are underserved by the Palestinian Authority and face constant threats from Jewish settlers.

“I got no help from the PA, not even a telephone call,” said Mr Basheer told AFP, referring to what he described as inaction from the Palestinian agriculture ministry.

Palestinian farmers blamed the authority for halting a vaccination programme that had proved essential in protecting livestock against an endemic disease.

And with animals absent from large stretches of grazing land, farmers fear land grabs by Jewish settlers who have repeatedly set up illegal outposts on West Bank land they claim is unused.

The Palestinian Authority “should protect us because we protect the land”, Mr Basheer said. “The farms protect the land … If you remove the farmers, Israel takes the land.”

New foot-and-mouth strain

A new strain of FMD, which causes potentially lethal fevers and blisters in young animals, was detected in livestock last November in Jordan.

It soon spread across the West Bank, a territory occupied by Israel since 1967, and heavily reliant on agriculture.

But the Palestinian Authority's agriculture ministry has not carried out a regular vaccination drive since 2019.

A ministry official told AFP that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of goats and sheep in the West Bank are vaccinated against the disease in a normal year.

That figure dropped to 20 per cent in 2020 and 2021, the official said.

The ministry blamed the coronavirus pandemic, saying FMD vaccines were harder to source as vaccine makers worldwide pivoted operations to meet demand for Covid-19 jabs.

The ministry also said Israel had obstructed the Palestinian Authority from procuring sufficient supply.

The Israeli defence ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, better known as Cogat, told AFP that the allegation was false.

“There has been no formal request from the Palestinian Authority for the import of such vaccines,” Cogat said.

“Nonetheless, considering the health requirement that has arisen, the State of Israel has transferred vaccine doses that were in its possession to the Palestinian Authority.”

The Palestinian ministry has officially confirmed about 2,000 animal deaths as a result of the FMD strain this year.

However, farmers and the agriculture ministry official said livestock deaths were probably far higher than the acknowledged toll.

Mr Basheer said FMD losses had cost him $150,000 and accused Israel of hoarding vaccines.

“Our occupiers had continuous vaccines for all farmers but we haven't had anything in three years,” he said. “They have destroyed the farmers.”

More than 475,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank in communities widely regarded as illegal under international law.

Israel's governing coalition has continued to approve new settler homes across the territory while acting sporadically against new outposts.

With no new cases detected since April, Palestinian Authority officials say the FMD outbreak is now under control.

Abbas Milhem, executive director of the Palestinian farmer's union, told AFP that by faltering on vaccinations, the authority had effectively given a boost to the settler movement.

“The real fight against occupation and annexation is in the land, but the farmers can't stand alone,” he said. “We need some accountability for this.”

Updated: June 06, 2022, 6:43 AM