In Jezreel Valley, a Palestinian Farming Scion Breathes New Life Into His Family's Lands

With an organic community farm, the first of its kind among Israel’s Arabs, Amir Ounallah wants to feed the people of the valley again

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The Bustana farm.
The Bustana farm. Credit: Dor Kedmi
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Amir Ounallah, a descendant of one of the largest and best known families in Nazareth, waves at someone driving by on the dirt road leading to the family’s fields in the Jezreel Valley. The gestures and body language of the wordless encounter are second nature to anyone who grew up in a village, Arab or Jewish. The farmer’s right hand grips the vehicle’s steering wheel, while his left hand rests on the edge of the open window; only the palm of that hand moves slightly upward to acknowledge the presence of a colleague, whether a close neighbor or a complete stranger.

We continue to travel through the fields amid the yellow stubble of wheat and red flashes in the pomegranate trees. Ounallah’s forefathers assigned to each family plot names names that correspond to their shape: a long, narrow piece of land called El-Isan (tongue, in Arabic); El-khanjarye ( a short knife). This year’s wheat crop was grown in El-Batof, a relatively low section into which water flows and floods the dense soil. On El-Danane, the plot closest to the residential area of the village of Iksal, Amir and his family established Bustana, an organic farm following the principles of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), last year. The young farm is among the first of its type among the Palestinians of Israel.

For hundreds of years, the grains, legumes and vegetables grown in the Jezreel Valley by Amir Ounallah’s forebears fed residents of Nazareth and the nearby villages. “The lands of the valley feed the people of the hills around, and that is what my grandfather and his father before him did,” says Amir, 41. The Ounallahs – like the Fahoum, Kawar and other leading Nazareth families – acquired wealth and renown in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to ties they forged with the Ottoman rulers. Some Fahoum family members were Ottoman officials and Onallahs served as officers in the Turkish army.

The Bustana farm. Credit: Dor Kedmi

“My grandfather, Mohammed Ounallah, had almost 1,200 dunams [300 acres] of farmland in the valley,” his grandson relates. “In the winter they sowed wheat, clover and chickpeas, and in the summer, tobacco, sesame, watermelon and different kinds of gourds. In 1948, when the war broke out, grandfather did not leave the city, and thus the family held on to most of its land. He wasn’t considered an absentee, and only a small part of the lands were expropriated by the State of Israel.”

Osama Ounallah, Amir’s father, inherited the farmlands in the Jezreel Valley and opened a store in Nazareth that sold agricultural equipment. “My father was in the store until one o’clock,” Amir recalls, “and then every day we would go into the fields and stay with him on the land until it got dark. I love this land and have been tied to it since childhood. My mother is Dutch by origin – father met her when she visited Israel as a tourist – but when they fell in love father told her that it was impossible to live in a different place, because he had to take care of his forefathers’ land. For the same reason, I too cannot conceive of life anywhere else. My two brothers live in Europe – Lawrence in Holland and Riad in Switzerland. Perhaps they chose a place where they and their children can have an easier life, but I cannot be far from this land.”

The Onallah family went on working most of their large tracts without artificial irrigation, with the help of fellahin, farm families that became salaried workers. But the changes that occurred in the past few decades are not related only to Israel’s establishment and the Jewish-Arab conflict over land. “Some of the traditional crops survived, but the Arab farmers adapted themselves to the market, which now became global, and to the policy dictated by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture,” Ounallah says.

Nasser Rigo and Amir Ounallah.Credit: Dor Kedmi

Crops that were part of local agriculture and nutrition for thousands of years – including sesame, varieties of legumes and, in certain years, also wheat – had almost disappeared, because Jewish and Arab farmers couldn’t compete with the prices of imported produce. Small plots of land, on which a variety of crops were grown in seasonal cycles, were unified into huge sections in which the same crop was grown every year. One of the biggest changes wrought by modern intensive agriculture was the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides.

“The land loves the Jew,” Ounallah says, quoting a folk saying of old fellahin. “The fellahin saw how identical crops generated twice the harvest in Jewish fields, and they too adopted the spraying and the modern methods. My family did likewise. Most of the produce that is sold today in the markets, including baladi [native] vegetables of traditional varieties, is grown intensively using many pesticides.”

The decision to establish a community organic farm and return to the use of more traditional methods to work most of the family’s lands took shape after the death of the father of the family, in 2008. “Land is responsibility,” Ounallah says. “We wanted to do something that would be beneficial to the land and to the people who live from it. We called the place Bustana, ‘our orchard’ in Arabic, after the name of grandfather’s orchard – the place where father always sat. The long-term vision is to return to the days when we fed the people of the valley and the hill and to provide them with clean food that is environmentally friendly.”

The Bustana farm. Credit: Dor Kedmi

Nature at the center

The plan took off when the family met Nasser Rigo, a lawyer and human rights activist. The son of an Indian family who was born and grew up in Dubai, Rigo married a Nazareth woman and has lived in the city in recent years. When he grew tired of the daily trips to Jerusalem and the West Bank through heavy traffic, he decided to specialize in permaculture, an agricultural approach that places the land and the preservation of nature and the environment at the center.

“Everything came together when we met Nasser,” says Ounallah, part of whose day is occupied with running two commercial internet companies that he established over the years. Rigo and Abu Nimer – the son-in-law of one of the fellahin who worked with the Ounallah family now work the area close to the village homes, cultivate the splendid vegetable patches there and tend to its soil. Last month, when they decided to plant a mandala-shaped garden of herbs, they were joined by people from the community that started to form around the organic vegetable farm.

The Bustana farm. Credit: Dor Kedmi

“I was surprised by the response,” Rigo says. “And young people who developed an awareness of the subject in the past few years weren’t the only ones who came – older people also showed up. We are a farm that integrates the modern with the traditional. We grow kale, because that’s what people want today, but we have also started to grow bamia [okra] and mulukhiya, because we had requests for them.”

At present, the economic model is based on weekly baskets of seasonal produce. Thirty families already subscribe to the service and on Saturday mornings organic vegetables are on sale to the general public at the farm. At this time of the year, between the winter crops and the summer crops, you can buy, among other vegetables, small sweet carrots, radishes, kohlrabi, various green herbs and also the first of the season’s courgettes.

“People don’t just come, buy and leave,” Onallah says. “They usually sit for a time. We are not the only ones who wish to renew the broken bond with the land. It’s hard for me to imagine life in the valley during the time of my great-grandfather – even the snakes and the birds I remember from childhood have almost disappeared. I hope we will succeed in restoring that life, and with time more and more of the family’s land will become organic.”

Bustana, phone 050-3700400

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