For Jewish Settlers, the Grass Is Always Greener

While agricultural lands cultivated by settlers in the West Bank are blossoming, those belonging to Palestinian farmers are in dire need of investment - and water. A case study.

“Among picturesque settlements and vineyards of leading boutique wineries lies Shiloh − the ancient city that housed the Tabernacle and served as the first capital of the Israelites for 369 years,” says the website of the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, which is seeking to develop a new economic sector in the region: tourism. The council is in particular trying to attract local tourists even though it is situated in the heart of the West Bank, surrounded by quite a few Palestinian villages.

A tour through the region, especially pastoral Shiloh Valley, does indeed obscure the local Middle Eastern reality for a while. Rows of grapevines cover the hillside, growing near green olive groves. Brown road signs announce some touristic site or other − a spring, an olive press, a winery − while other signs demarcate hiking paths such as The Wine Road or The Olive Road. And recently, a new cafe called Fragrances even opened in the area.

All this scenery and activity owes its existence to the significant rise in local farming activities. Residents of this region’s settlements and outposts have in recent years begun cultivating hundreds of acres of land, particularly vineyards and olive groves.

“Agricultural activity here began about 12 years ago,” explains Avi Roeh, head of the regional council. “Most of the lands are state-owned and allocated to farmers who expressed an interest in growing crops. This new wave of activity was started by the sons of settlers who grew up here and decided to stay and cultivate the land. It’s been expanding yearly. The idea, of course, is to preserve the state lands. At one point, [Ariel] ‘Arik’ Sharon called on us to run and take the hills − indeed, in places with strong settlements, the agreements look different when it comes to the territories held by Israel [i.e., Areas A and B, as defined by the Oslo Accords].”

The Shiloh Valley is mentioned in an independent report, just published, by Dror Etkes, formerly Peace Now outpost coordinator; for over a decade he has been investigating the situation of settlements vis-a-vis land usage on the West Bank. Etkes’ report shows that, between 1997 and 2012, about 6,000 acres of farmland in the West Bank have been added to the settlements − an increase of 35 percent. Out of that total, which also includes state-owned land, 2,500 acres are on private Palestinian property.

In the report, Etkes mapped the settlers’ agricultural land, according to what is actually being cultivated, the legal status of that land and its location with respect to the settlements’ jurisdiction. A large proportion of the report’s data relies on information taken from the Civil Administration − the Israeli governing authority that operates in the territories − based on the Freedom of Information Act. According to the Etkes report, the lands cultivated by settlers in the West Bank cover a total 23,000 acres ‏(by comparison, Tel Aviv is about 13,000 acres in size‏), while the entire built-up area of the settlements and outposts in the West Bank covers some 15,000 acres.

Most of the Israeli-held agricultural lands in the West Bank are in the Jordan Valley region ‏(85 percent‏), yet the greatest increase in such lands occurred in the Samarian Hills, in places such as Shiloh. The proportion of such lands in that region increased from 8 percent of the total in the late 1990s to 15 percent today.

According to another finding, 70 percent of the farmed areas added to the settlements is outside those settlements’ jurisdiction. In the past, most of the agricultural lands were situated within their jurisdiction, but today the opposite is the case: 52 percent of the property cultivated by settlers is outside.

Mirror image

“In recent years the settlers recognized the insight of the first Zionists − in order to occupy large areas of land, instead of building houses, you should develop agriculture,” says Etkes.

The situation of Palestinian agriculture in the territories is a mirror image of the report’s findings. It has seen a sharp decrease in the area of cultivated lands in recent years. According to a land census by the Palestinian Authority in 2010, the Palestinian-cultivated area in the West Bank has been reduced by nearly half − from 500,000 acres to 270,000. Forty-five percent of those areas are planted with olive groves, which, though not requiring irrigation, are not particularly lucrative when compared to crops such as spices or dates, grown for export.

About 14 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents are employed in agriculture, which contributes about 5 percent of the PA’s gross domestic product. According to a report prepared by the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute ‏(MAS‏), a third of the agricultural lands in the West Bank are inaccessible to their owners for geopolitical reasons − proximity to settlements, the separation barrier, closed military zones, and various demarcation efforts that are not directly related to the settlements.

Yet there are also other reasons for the poor state of Palestinian agriculture. According to Civil Administration data, the decrease in the volume of Palestinian agriculture is due to: increased conversion of agricultural land to areas slated for construction and industry; the fact that markets are local − Israel and the West Bank − which generates low income compared to overseas sales; the high costs of raw materials; and a lack of water for irrigation.

Palestinian agriculture is in a worse situation now, despite the fact that these days, markets abroad are particularly welcoming to Palestinian produce. In order to assist the Palestinian economy, there is no import tax on Palestinian agricultural produce sent to Western countries, allowing them to export produce freely, unlike other countries that are limited in the volume of agricultural products they can export ‏(in order to protect local agriculture in each country‏). Yet Palestinian agricultural export is very limited, reaching only $90 million per year − while in comparison, agricultural exports from the settlements in the Jordan Valley are worth $120 million annually.

According to a senior Israeli source familiar with the state of Palestinian agriculture, one of its major problems is a lack of modernity. “The lands are used inefficiently, which causes a lack of uniformity and quality in the agricultural produce,” he says. “For example, if there is a greenhouse growing strawberries in South Jenin and strawberries of a different quality are grown in three greenhouses in North Jenin, they work separately, and cannot plan to produce together for export. What this means is that the Palestinians cannot present trustworthy and high-quality produce for export − so that in another month, for example, they could export together a large quantity of basil from the Jordan Valley. These are defects of a nonmodern agricultural system.”

But growing crops more efficiently or developing advanced irrigation systems requires access to means of production such as land and water, and also investment capital − things that are lacking for the Palestinians, particularly the poor farmers among them.

“Getting different farms to join forces and focus on cultivating crops together requires [more] land, and the expansion of settlements creates problems in this regard,” explains Saeb Bamya, an independent financial consultant who works with PA institutions. “But the greatest obstacle in realizing the potential here is the water issue. The water aquifer in the West Bank is controlled by Israel, and access to water for Palestinians is very limited. That is the reason settlers are able to show much greater use of the land. It’s a frustrating situation because the settlers, despite various limitations of product labeling, manage to export, while the Palestinians, for whom foreign markets are wide open, fail. The potential is high, but it cannot be realized.”

“Agriculture in the West Bank is not just about competition over land between settlers and Palestinians,” notes Yitzhak Gal, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Strategic Studies. “The quality of Palestinian agriculture is a critical issue,” adds Gal, who will soon publish a book on relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the realm of agriculture.

“Lands are abandoned by Palestinians simply because there is no point in cultivating them, mostly due to the water problem but also because of many other problems,” he continues. “That’s a huge economic potential that is lost. According to my calculations, the export potential of Palestinian agriculture is a billion dollars a year − $750 million from the West Bank and $250 million from Gaza.”

This potential is particularly great in the Jordan Valley, which, in addition to certain areas in the Gaza Strip, provides the best conditions for Palestinians to develop agriculture. This is due mostly to the high temperatures, which enable the cultivation of certain crops throughout the year and exports to colder Western countries.

Israel already understood this in the late 1960s. The Alignment ‏(Labor-led) governments then encouraged the establishment of settlements in the area − mostly kibbutzim and moshavim that began as outposts of the paramilitary Nahal Brigade ‏(where military service is combined with the establishment of new agricultural settlements‏). This was part of the Allon Plan, a post-’67 proposal for dividing land in the Jordan Valley between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom, which saw the valley as an area that would remain under Israeli control even after a future political settlement. Today, as mentioned above, about 85 percent of Israeli agriculture in the West Bank is concentrated in this area, and recent years have seen a 16 percent increase in its cultivated lands − an addition of some 2,500 acres.

Water, water

Israel’s success in the Jordan Valley has been due in large part to the establishment of advanced water systems. The main water sources in the area are groundwater and springwater, which are piped to local settlements by Mekorot, the national water company. In addition, in recent years a project was launched that pipes gray water from the Jerusalem area to the Jordan Valley for irrigation purposes, via a reservoir in the Nabi Musa area in the Judean Desert. Furthermore, the Jewish National Fund, charged with creating water reservoirs for Israeli farmers in the valley, has so far constructed three.

Against this background, the Palestinian failure stands out. The PA has jurisdiction over thousands of acres of land in the Jordan Valley, but most of the agricultural output is of poor quality due primarily to the severe lack of water, compounded by friction with Israeli authorities and settlers.

In his report, Etkes presents various cases in which Jordan Valley farmland was transferred to Israeli hands. For example, some 4,500 acres of land under the jurisdiction of the Islamic trust ‏(waqf‏) were transferred in recent years to three settlements in the Jordan Valley: Netiv Hagdud, Na’aran and Yitav. Transfer of lands to settlers also occurred near the border with Jordan. In late 1967, Maj. Gen. Uzi Narkis, then-GOC Central Command, signed a military order closing the Jordan Valley. Known as Decree 151‏, the order stated that citizens were forbidden from entering the 42,000-acre area adjacent to the Jordan River ‏(the official border with Jordan‏); indeed, in the 1970s this border area was closed off with an electric fence. In the 1980s, though, thousands of acres of this area were handed over to Israeli farmers.

According to Etkes’ report, some 2,000 acres in the valley, in proximity to the border, are now being cultivated by Israeli settlers, and about half that area was handed over to them during the past 10 years. Out of all the land transferred to them, even before that, some 1,000 acres are private Palestinian property, he notes. A large proportion of the crops there are date palms, which in recent years have been a commercial success within Israel proper as well as in the Jordan Valley, due partly to the trend for healthy food. Forty-four percent of land cultivated by Israelis in the valley is devoted to the processing of dates; 80 percent of the output is intended for export.

Almost the only ray of hope for Palestinian agriculture in the valley comes from the Jericho region. In the past decade, over 1,200 acres around the city, in Israeli-controlled Area C, have been planted with date palms, mostly by entrepreneurs seeking to compete with Israelis. These investments were made by two private companies controlled by large Palestinian families. One is Nahil, owned in part by well-known businessman Bashar Masri, founder of the planned new Palestinian city Rawabi ‏(between Ramallah and Nablus‏). Nahil owns 860 acres in the Jericho region, employing 65 workers full-time and 150 during the date harvest season.

The company, which began operations in 2006, employs advanced agricultural methods. It invested $12 million in planting and building sophisticated irrigation, packing and refrigeration systems.

“Our irrigation system is computerized. We have an experienced team that knows a lot about date growing, thanks in part to a comprehensive study undertaken before the company was established,” says Maisa al-Manasra, the company’s director of marketing and exports. “In fact, we learned a lot from the Israelis, who have been in this business for many years and have a great deal of experience.”

Yet Manasra emphasizes that as part of the company’s policy, it maintains no business relations with the date growers from the neighboring settlements. About 60 percent of the company’s produce is meant for export markets such as Britain, Russia, Turkey, the United States, Malaysia and Singapore. Sales are best during Ramadan, when they reach seven or eight times the usual volume.

‘Quite a few challenges’

According to Manasra, the expansion of Palestinian-run date plantations occurred thanks to the removal of various Israeli limitations. Nevertheless, the Palestinians still have to contend with other difficulties: Besides movement restrictions, for instance, Israel obstructs the shipment of pesticides to the West Bank, for security reasons.

Despite this, Nahil has expansion plans.

Manasra: “Not all our 860 acres are planted, but we intend to do so in the coming years. There are quite a few challenges. It’s true that the Jordan Valley is considered quiet, but our workers regularly have run-ins with soldiers. The problem in the area is not the quantity of land, but the way it is used, due to friction with the authorities. In recent years, people here decided to be brave and planted trees, without knowing whether the army would come and destroy them.”

While the date is flourishing in the valley, grapes and olives are thriving in the hilly areas cultivated by settlers. Even in Ofra, the veteran settlement, there are now vines and olive trees. The Shiloh Valley, not far away, boasts some 750 acres of crops. In that area, particularly around the Adei Ad outpost, dozens of violent attacks against Palestinians have been recorded in recent years, impacting Palestinians’ access to their farmland. According to Etkes’ report, a large part of the lands that settlers have begun cultivating here are private, illegally seized from Palestinians.

According to attorney Quamar Mishirqi-Asad from the legal department at the Rabbis for Human Rights organization, 12 lawsuits have been filed regarding hundreds of acres of private Palestinian property in the Shiloh Valley area.

Council head Avi Roeh rejects the claims regarding illegal seizure of lands. “What private lands? There’s no seizure,” he says. “There are cases of a plot that hasn’t been cultivated for years; a Jewish settler comes along and begins cultivating it, and then someone wakes up and thinks the land is his. These are disputes which should be clarified in court. Sometimes the court rejects the claims of the Jewish farmer, but other times the demands of Palestinian farmers are rejected. I know of two such cases. Of course I don’t condone stealing Arab lands, nor do I agree to violent deeds.”

The largest economic project in the Shiloh Valley is the Land of Choice Olive Oil Company, better known as Achiya Farm ‏(named after the Achiya outpost where the company was founded‏). The company cultivates about 250 acres of grapevines and olive trees, and operates an olive press in the Shiloh industrial zone that processes olives from nearby areas as well as other locales in the country. Fruit from various places are ground and mixed together under the label of Achiya Farm, which holds about 10 percent of the entire olive oil market in Israel.

According to Mishirqi-Asad, in at least six different cases the Land of Choice Olive Oil Company is tending land belonging to private Palestinian landowners, plus lawsuits are being considered by the Appeals Committee of the Civil Administration at Ofer Camp. The director of the Land of Choice company, Eli Shenkar, denies the charges. “We bought these lands with money, contracts, agreements. It’s all legitimate,” he says.

According to Shenkar, the company would like to expand. The main obstacle isn’t the lack of land, he says: “We have a serious problem with water. We receive water from the Mekorot wells in the area, but it isn’t enough. There’s a Mekorot master plan to connect the area to the national pipeline at Rosh Ha’ayin, but that’s been under discussion for a long time and there’s been no progress.”

Shenkar is aware of the Palestinians’ claims regarding a water shortage, but he thinks they are baseless, in his area at least. “As far as water is concerned, the main problem is financial investment. In order to construct a water system and maintain it, you need plenty of resources. For decades, the Palestinians have been cultivating their olives using the method of dry land farming. They do that of their own free will, and I think they prefer it that way.”

moti Milrod
Palestinians working at a grove of date palms in the Jordan Valley.
Michal Fattal