Under siege: Palestinian women and youths find solace in agricultural co-operatives

A new generation of Palestinians say working their land is a form of resistance to Israeli occupation

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The rolling hills around Saffa resemble a paradise – terraced olive groves stretch out far and wide, flower meadows bloom under the gentle spring sun.

Yet only a few metres from the small village north of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, is a far from idyllic sight – the separation barrier with Israel.

The separation fence doesn’t seem particularly menacing and no Israeli soldiers are in view. But Palestinian farmers in Saffa say that since the Gaza war broke out in October last year, it has become impossible to stay in the area for more than an hour, making it harder for them to farm the land bordering the wall.

Israeli soldiers "come and shoot at us", Adham, a young Palestinian farmer and resident of Saffa, told The National.

Working on the land is rooted in resistance to the occupation: if we remain steadfast, the occupation finds it much harder to take it from us
Adham, Palestinian farmer and resident of Saffa

Against this challenging backdrop, Palestinians have founded agriculture co-operatives across the West Bank to grow and sell organic crops in greenhouses, away from the separation wall and the military.

For the farmers, insisting on harvesting their land, even in greenhouses, has become an act of resistance. Half of Saffa’s land lies beyond the wall, annexed by six Israeli settlements. The rest is in Area C, which encompasses 60 per cent of the West Bank under direct Israeli dominion. Only 20 per cent of the town’s territory remains under Palestinian control.

Adham told The National that harvesting near the wall was still possible before October 7, but the risk has become too high since.

Resistance through farming

"We are not allowed to build anything here, so we had to dig an illegal well with our own hands – but now, because of the soldiers, we can no longer stay long enough to irrigate the plants,” Adham said while walking towards a field close to the wall.

He and his friends, who founded a co-operative harvesting organic produce, now rely on land they acquired closer to the village. There, rows of vegetables including cauliflowers and cucumbers grow in greenhouses before being sold.

"We grow everything organically and follow a Korean method of agroecological cultivation," said Samer, another member of the co-op, showing the creativity of their farming techniques.

The members of the Ard Alyaas group make their own compost, mixed with water and manure, then use it as a natural fertiliser. The heirloom seedlings come from a seed nursery run by Samer's sister Sihem. It allows her to make money for her family while her husband is detained in an Israeli jail.

“Working on the land is rooted in resistance to the occupation: if we remain steadfast, the occupation finds it much harder to take it from us”, Adham said.

Since Hamas’s deadly attack on southern Israel, there have been intensifying settler attacks and army raids in the West Bank. In eight months, more than 500 Palestinians have been killed, almost 9,000 detained and hundreds of villages attacked, Palestinian state media reported.

Much like Sihem, Adham and Samer, hundreds of young, newly graduated Palestinians have returned to the land, creating co-operatives all over the West Bank.

Abdelaziz Al Salehi, a Palestinian researcher, says the movement is rooted in tradition. “On the one hand, it is part of the iqtisad al-sumod [economy of steadfastness], a way for people to reconnect to their fellahin [peasant] roots, and an alternative, non-capitalist form of national production,” he said.

“On the other, it is a trend for NGOs and for the Palestinian Authority to attract money from donors – and avoiding finding real solutions for Palestine’s flailing economy.”

In recent years, President Mahmoud Abbas has been widely criticised by Palestinians. “One main problem is the neoliberal policies it implements. As an example, the PA subsidises big agroindustrial companies but leaves small farmers on their own – and even adds technocratic hurdles for them,” Mr Al Salehi said.

But the vast majority of fruit and vegetables in the West Bank are imported from Israel, which floods Palestinian markets with cheaper and more competitive produce, a one-sided business model that deprives Palestinian farmers of resources.

Despite the challenges, more than 700 co-ops have sprung up – including 200 agricultural groups – and employ more than 40,000 people.

Youth unemployment is one reason behind the agriculture trend. In the West Bank, a third of young Palestinians are unable to find jobs, including two thirds to female graduates. “Many started considering farming as a chance, after their parent’s generation had forsaken it for office jobs,” Mr Al Salehi said.

Protection of Palestinian land

The Covid crisis made co-ops more attractive as many people, particularly women, discovered they could grow their own food. This was the case of Fida’, a women’s initiative in Deir Al Sudan, a village north-west of Ramallah. On a clear spring afternoon, The National visited its land just outside the village of 2,000 people.

“We started just after Covid, because some of us had started growing our gardens and decided to join forces, make our living and support each other,” said one of the co-op members.

The beginnings were not easy, as starting from scratch is expensive. But in only a year they were able to make enough to cover their expenses.

Perhaps the hardest obstacle to overcome for this women-only venture was social pressure.

At first, the men of the village told them to go home, that they would harvest the land for them. But now they have accepted the project and come to help the women when needed.

The co-op grows mainly vine leaves and grapes, as they are in high demand and can generate some revenue. They use only organic fertilisers and pesticides, arguing that the taste and quality of organic vegetables is far superior – and that they don’t poison themselves and their families.

The name Fida’ means “sacrifice” and refers to the Fedayeen, Palestine’s freedom fighters. “Our land is under occupation so, of course, our muqawama [resistance] shows when we protect the land we are farming," one of the women said.

Updated: May 22, 2024, 4:48 AM