Palestinian tobacco is the West Bank’s ‘new cash crop’

With unemployment on the rise, teenagers and families have taken to the fields to cultivate tobacco to make ends meet, foreign correspondent Kate Shuttleworth reports.

Palestinian field worker Rama, 19, smokes as he works collecting tobacco leaves in the fields of Zabouba village, near Jenin. He works for the Atatreh family who produce cigarettes. Heidi Levine for The National
Powered by automated translation

ZABOUBA, WEST BANK // Mohanned Mohammed, 16, is in the driver’s seat of a rusty red tractor, holding a cigarette in one hand and the steering wheel with the other. He puffs on the cigarette and smiles as he steers between rows of what the locals in this Palestinian town call “settlements” of tobacco.

Mohannad left school this year and in July was hired by the Atatreh family for 2,000 shekels (Dh1,875) a month to work in the tobacco fields. He gets up at 4.30am each day and works until the sun rises then returns to the fields later in the evenings. He smokes like a chimney.

After the second intifada in 2000 and the construction of the separation wall with Israel, jobs became scarce as many Palestinians could not work inside Israel. Tobacco became the new cash crop in the Jenin basin as farmers replanted their land with tobacco, which is largely unregulated and farmers have been able to avoid paying tax.

In 2012, just 295.4 hectares of land were used to grow tobacco; now it is estimated to be about 2,023.4 out of 3,734 hectares, according to the local governorate.

While tobacco is cheaper, easier to grow and requires less water than most other crops, the move towards tobacco farming has drastically reduced the production of food crops in what was once the breadbasket of the West Bank.

Palestinians are now importing more produce to sell at the local markets and prices have risen. The rise of tobacco cultivation has also caused serious damage to the agricultural ecosystem, and led to an increase in the production of illegal cigarettes.

In Zabouba, which sits in the northernmost tip of the West Bank, surrounded on two sides by the Israeli separation barrier, nearly 60 per cent of the town’s 3,000 residents work in unregulated tobacco-cultivation. Previously, farmers sold to tobacco processing companies legally, but they found they could make more producing their own cigarettes.

In 2010, only 0.5 hectares of land surrounding the town was planted with tobacco. Today, it’s 40 hectares. The area still has some almond trees, sesame plants and olive trees but the majority have been replaced by tobacco while watermelon and wheat production has stopped completely.

The Atatreh family has fields of tobacco outside the town, but they live in the centre of Zabouba. They are hard at work during a heatwave, turning their tobacco harvest into dried leaves ready for smoking.

Golden brown piles of dried tobacco litter the ground and every entrance way to the family home. Leaves hang on washing lines to dry alongside laundry. Everyone has some form of tobacco in their hands, whether its an undried leaf, dried leaves being rolled for homemade cigarettes or a manufactured cigarette being smoked.

The family refused to tell The National how many hectares of tobacco crop they own as they did not want the authorities to be alerted and to possibly face taxes. Having always owned land, the Atatrehs have grown tobacco in small amounts since the 1980s. Now, it is all they grow.

In the middle of the chaos, Hussein Atatreh, 82, sits in the shade on a white plastic chair outside the house. He squints with one eye as he rolls his own filterless cigarette.

In seemingly good health, the family patriarch and grandfather of over 60 children declares that he only smokes 25 cigarettes a day, which, he says, is modest by local standards. Many people smoke more than 30 cigarettes a day.

“In 2000, when Israel constructed the separation wall, many people in Jenin became jobless and they started seeking ways to generate income. They returned to the fields,” Mr Atatreh says. There was a gradual switch to tobacco and more and more people flocked to the fields as the economic situation worsened. Even children.

“Tobacco doesn’t need a lot of care — if you leave it, it grows,” Mr Atatreh adds. “It is our main source of jobs and opportunities.”

The whole family, more than 30 of them, was hard at work when The National visited. Up to 50 are often involved in the process: while the women sort the tobacco leaves and hang them out to dry, the men cut the dried tobacco, either to sell to cigarette companies or to make into homemade cigarettes. The latter — which are known as "Al Arabi" cigarettes — are sold to local Palestinians in plastic ziplock bags of 20 for four shekels (Dh3.80).

The tobacco is sold to cigarette companies for 23 shekels a kilogram. They make more income rolling and selling their own cigarettes than selling the tobacco to middle men who sell it to cigarette companies.

Even young children help out. Three of them, all under six, were enthusiastically pushing leaves onto metal spikes, preparing them for hanging out to dry. The business supports every generation of the family, helping many of the older grandchildren to pay their university fees with money they earn while working over the summer break.

While the West Bank’s illegal tobacco industry has helped Palestinians fend off high unemployment and poverty, these benefits have come at the expense of vegetable and fruit production — as well as the environment. With farmers no longer employing crop rotation methods, the soil in the Jenin basin is now severely depleted.

Mamoun Daraghmeh, head of the agriculture faculty at the Arab American University of Jenin, said that tobacco crops were essentially killing the soil because farmers are no longer using crop rotation methods.

“The soil is the biggest loser in tobacco cultivation,” he said. “Latest research showed phosphorous levels in the soil were four times higher than they should be with tobacco cultivated land” as the land quality has been depleted by the growing of tobacco plants and fertiliser use.

“This is a very serious problem and we should stop and do a proper study of the economic factors here and try to reduce the size of this disaster on both the Palestinian agricultural and economic systems,” he added. Mr Daraghmeh suggested the Palestinian Authority should consider ways to support local businesses so they can have sustainable incomes.

So far, the West Bank’s illegal tobacco industry has escaped government regulation but the PA have started to take notice.

The ministry of agriculture has called for a political strategy to reintroduce the growing of other equally profitable but more high maintenance and costly crops, and to promote and market them. In particular, the ministry wants to prevent highly fertile land being used for tobacco farming.

In addition to this, the ministry has voiced the need to regulate the tobacco industry, in particular the production of Al Arabi cigarettes. The PA considers these cigarettes to be illegal because they evade taxes.

A 2014 study by Alpha International for Research, Polling and Informatics found that nearly 40 per cent of cigarettes in the West Bank had been sold illegally in the past five years. They also found that of those illegally sold, none of them met sanitation standards or were labelled with health warnings.

And, with an estimated 45 million packs of illegal cigarettes sold annually, according to the study, the PA treasury was losing up to US$150 million (Dh550 million) in evaded tax each year.

Moves by the PA to curb the production of Al Arabi cigarettes are likely to prove unpopular, however.

Smoking is on the rise in both the West Bank and Gaza, with Palestinians in the two territories spending more than $500 million a year on cigarettes.

But with unemployment high and wages low, the price of imported packs of cigarettes is too much for some. While imported cigarettes range from $5.50 —$7 per pack, 20 Al Arabi cigarettes sell for as little as $1.50.

Hussein Atatreh says the imported cigarettes are too expensive for the whole family to smoke.

“Each person would be spending more than 700 shekels a month,” he said. “The [cigarettes made from tobacco] grown around Jenin are cheap and the demand has increased.”