Palestinian farming: land, access, water

Maybe because I grew up on a farm, the plight of the Palestinian farmer speaks to me.  When Iyad Burnat in Bilin tells me his father and grandfather used to take their sheep out across the hilltops to graze, I remember my own father’s stories of shepherding in his native Holland, where he took the sheep out all day walking out across the heather to find enough grass to graze.  Holland’s heather is more lush than the dry, rocky hills of the West Bank, so the Palestinian shepherd needs to take his sheep out for long distances and many days to find enough grass to feed them.

The Burnat family can no longer make their living from sheep herding, because Israeli settlers hace colonized the hilltops where the family’s sheep once grazed.  There is no longer enough area to feed many sheep.  Iyan took us out to the wall that separates their fields from the settlements.  We looked out across a steep gulley to a development where many multi-story buildings are being built.  These settlements have grown greatly since I visited four years ago, confiscating land that by rights belongs to the West Bank, bringing it under Israeli control.  Our eyes sweep out 180 degrees from our perch and I see that not much wild ground remains for sheep-grazing.

Next we walked a hundred meters over to the wall that is meant to protect the settlements from the villagers.  Bilin’s residents succeeded in the courts and through their popular resistance movement to get this wall moved closer to the settlements so that Bilin farmers could have access to their own farmland, but it has been a rare victory.  Even so, some of their farmland remains behind the wall.  In many spots across the West Bank, the wall has cut across farmer’s olive groves and vineyards, cutting off farmers from their own land.  They may apply for permits to pass through openings in the wall to work their land, openings which often are far away from their plots of land. In some cases these permits are issued only to the owner of the land.  Even if the owner is elderly, he alone can access the land, not his sons and grandsons.  Many olives, grapes, and other crops go unharvested.  To make matters worse a farmer can never be sure that the Israeli soldiers will give him access on any particuar day.  The soldier might tell him to go home and come back another day.

Not only is land confiscation and access to the remaining land a problem, obtaining water for irrigation is also a critical issue.  Iyad took us on a tour of villager’s vineyards and organic vegetable farms.  We saw cucumbers planted beneath grapevines to make the most efficent use of the land, and efficient drip irrigation systems were laid out across the beans, peppers, tomatoes, and more.  Yet we learned that not all the land can be planted at one time, because the farmers do not have access to enough water.  Their farmland sits atop the West Bank’s mountain aquifer.  Israel uses 80% of the water from this aquifer while the Palestinians receive only 20% which they must buy from Israel at inflated prices.  Meanwhile the settlements are able to fill swimming pools and irrigate landscaping while West Bank farmland goes dry.  Water rights will be a critical issue for any peaceful solution for Israel-Palestine.

Several years ago my father and I attended a talk back home in Ohio given by Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer, who shared stories of similar difficulties at his educational and environmental farm, called Tent of Nations, near Bethlehem.  My father was delighted to find out that Mike Phillips was on the board of Friends of Tent of Nations.  My father used to milk cows for Mike’s father, Norm Phillips of Risingsun, Ohio.  Through Mike’s farm experience, he understood well the plight of farmers who suffer from land confiscation, access restrictions, and water shortages, and so did my father.  Daoud told us that he has spoken with a number of American farmers on his US speaking tours and finds that they are sympathetic to the Palestinian farmers’ problems.  My father died at the age of 90 in 2015, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to share this trip with him.  The Palestinian cause interested him for the last decades of his life.

I hope I’ll have the chance to tell you more about the specific challenges the Nasser family faces in another post.  Many thanks to fellow delegation member Tessa Laubacher for providing the photos for this post.

P.S. After our land tour with Iyad we returned to the Burnats’ home to share in their Iftar meal, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.  Later some of our delegation members got up at 2:30 am to share Suhur with them, the last meal before dawn and the start of a new fast.  We’re grateful to the Burnats and their children for sharing their wonderful food, fellowship, and warm hospitality.