Palestinian farming and exports dwindle from thirst and neglect

April 11, 2013
Sarah Benton

The report from Dalia Hatuqa is followed by one from Phoebe Greenwood from November 2012. More links are given at the bottom. All show what blocks the productive potential of Palestinian farmers.

This Nakheel Palestine date plantation exports to the UK, Indonesia and Turkey. Photo by Mat Heywood

Palestinian farmers thirsty for exports

A lack of water because of Israeli restrictions and a system of checkpoints make it harder for farmers to prosper.

By Dalia Hatuqa, Al Jazeera
April 10, 2013

(For Al Jazeera tv report, Israeli blockade limits Gaza farm exports, go to original page.)

Jordan Valley, West Bank – Agriculture has long formed a pillar of Palestinian society, bringing in much-needed income and creating a bond between man and land.

Today, this sector is suffering, both because of the Israeli occupation and alleged negligence by the Palestinian Authority. This is the bleak picture that Zuhair Manasrah draws on as he speaks of the date company he runs.

Located in the Jordan Valley, known as the breadbasket of the Palestinian territories, Nakheel Palestine (Arabic for “Palm trees of Palestine”) is the largest company to grow, package and export dates all under one roof.

“There are many obstacles to farming here, Israeli restrictions to land and water being some of the main ones,” said the 69-year-old Manasrah. But his love for the land ultimately brought him into agriculture after a long political career, which included serving as governor of Jenin and Bethlehem.

Just beyond the walls of his plant, one can see what he is talking about. All around, rows of settlement houses stipple the higher elevations. For Palestinians here, water is hard to come by, and permits to dig wells are hardly ever given by Israeli authorities. But the precious liquid is copiously available for Israeli settlers nearby.

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, “44 million square metres of water a year is allocated to fewer than 10,000 settlers living in the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area. This amount is almost one-third the amount of water accessible to the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.”

This unequal water distribution has allowed settlements to thrive while reducing the amount of Palestinian land cultivated, thus leading to a decline in the competitiveness of crops.

Israeli response
Illana Stein, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ deputy spokesperson, said B’Tselem’s findings are partial and incorrect.

“The provision of water in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas of jurisdiction is under their responsibility; they decide on these issues so if the distribution is somehow lacking the questions regarding that should be addressed to the PA,” Stein said.

“Some of these matters could have been resolved if the PA would have accepted desalinated water from Israel, or invested in their own desalination programs. [Moreover] water to the Israeli residents in the West Bank comes from Israel and has nothing to do with the Palestinian quotas of water.”

Manasrah first began his date-farming venture after he retired from politics and went back to his village of Bani Na’im near the southern West Bank city of Hebron, to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a farmer. There, he grew olive, almond and grape trees.

His work ultimately led him to Jericho, where he found the idea of raising date trees lucrative. “I quickly discovered that marketing and selling dates was the key to success, especially since a sealing and packaging plant was something that we lacked in the area,” he said.

He started off with 5,500 trees, built a plant unmatched in size and equipment, and the export business took off. But Manasrah eventually hit a financial wall and with no liquidity in tow, he resorted to Palestinian banks for loans. After he was turned down, he merged with another date-producing company that led to the birth of Nakheel Palestine.

According to Manasrah, Palestinian financial companies, aware of this political landscape, are loath to invest in the agro-business sector, while international donors are fearful of pouring in money because most agricultural land, including his date farms, are located in Area C. Under complete Israeli control, Area C constitutes some 60 percent of the entire West Bank, and contains the largest network of water supplies and arable land.

Agricultural decline
Today agriculture only contributes 4.6 percent of the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product (GDP), down from some 13 percent in 1994, just after the Oslo Accords were signed.

In a report released in March, the World Bank said the share of exports in the Palestinian economy has also been in steady decline since 1994, dropping to 7 percent of GDP in 2011.

A system of checkpoints and movement restrictions have led to a contraction in the agriculture sector, which is something that Manasrah echoed as he described the state of the industry.

“Restrictions on movement of people and goods directly impact our date production, while exports tend to be more expensive because Israel controls all entry and exit points from the West Bank,” he said.

A back-to-back system – one where goods are unloaded at Israeli checkpoints, then loaded onto other trucks on the other side – increase costs and decrease profitability, making Israeli dates more competitive. Sometimes farmers are even forced to resort to Israeli companies because they cannot access Israeli ports.

The Israeli government spokesperson said it is not checkpoints that hurt the Palestinian economy but the “violence” in the West Bank. “Having said that, the number of checkpoints has decreased dramatically in the [p]ast years and movement across the West Bank [has become] much easier,” the spokesperson said. “Most of the checkpoints are [at] the entrance to Israel and this does not interfere with the day-to-day life of Palestinians.”

Manasrah attributes some of the difficulties in agriculture to the PA’s priorities. “The PA is aware of the conceptual importance of investing in agriculture, but not in practical terms,” he said. “That’s apparent by the little it has allocated to the agriculture sector.”

Less than 1 percent of the PA budget is earmarked for agriculture, and Manasrah stressed that not much is done in way of introducing Palestinian dates to the world market.

“As we marketed our goods abroad, we noticed that many people did not know there’s such a thing as Palestinian dates,” he added, noting there is a lack of infrastructure and service centres to cater to the needs of the agro-business sector.

‘No border control’
The PA has acknowledged that there is much to do to help farmers, and lamented the “denied potential” of the agriculture sector.

“It’s not a matter of whether it’s our priority, it’s a matter of being prevented from implementing policies that support agriculture,” said Nour Odeh, the Palestinian government spokeswoman. “Part of the problem is that we have no control over borders, and the majority of arable land is in Area C.”

In a report submitted to a forum of donors dubbed the AHLC (Ad-hoc Liaison Committee), the PA estimates that the additional potential for agricultural production in Area C alone could reach $2.25bn annually. The report includes a Palestinian action plan focusing on projects to develop this area and shows that agriculture is part of the government’s newest set of priorities.

Nakheel Palestine today owns more than 20,000 trees and employes some 100 people. During harvest, these numbers can double depending on the season and production. There are plans to double those tree figures and triple production to 3 tonnes of dates per hour. This means injecting $4.6m of investment into the company.

It’s unclear whether this target will be met in light of the hurdles described by Manasrah. “The Palestinian farmer has to harvest the land, find the necessary water sources, buy the machines and market the goods. This is a heavy burden for any investor,” he said.

Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa

Palestine’s date farmers suffer double burden of occupation and indifference

Once an economic mainstay, farming in Palestine has been hard hit by land access issues and political inertia

By Phoebe Greenwood,
November 07, 2012

Jericho–The hillsides of the West Bank are rustling with industry. It’s autumn, temperatures have finally dropped and the harvest has begun. Palestinian villages empty every morning as people attend to their olive trees, tapping at the branches with long sticks and gathering the falling fruit. In the low, humid planes of the Jordan valley, dates are drooping from palm trees. The crop is abundant but few Palestinian farmers are expecting a profit.

Farming was once the backbone of the Palestinian economy. According to the ministry of agriculture, when the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, agriculture represented 28% of GDP. Today it contributes only 5.8% (pdf). The quality of the land hasn’t changed, but Palestinian access to it has.

Zuhair al-Manasreh, once the governor of Jenin and later of Bethlehem, is now a date farmer. He runs the largest date business in the occupied Palestinian territory. “I love the land. I’m the son of a farming family,” says Manasreh. He lovingly describes the olive and almond trees of his childhood home in Hebron, but says it was too risky to cultivate there.

Hebron is among the most volatile areas of the occupied West Bank, distinguished by a strong Israeli military presence and frequent clashes between Israeli settlers and the Palestinian community. Olive trees are the mainstay of the Palestinian agricultural economy, but they are also the most frequent casualty of settler attacks. More than 7,500 olive trees were uprooted or destroyed by Israeli settlers between January and October this year, many in the southern Hebron hills.

In 2006, a year after retiring from politics, Manasreh hit upon the idea of dates. They take longer to spoil than olives and have a relatively high rate of return, he reasoned. The sweetest, plumpest majul dates flourish in the Jordan valley, not far from the Dead Sea. So he planted 7,000 trees there.

Initially, Manasreh relied entirely on his own capital but in 2011, when the bank refused to give him another loan, he merged with Palestinian business giants Padico, and Nakheel Palestine was born. The business now owns six farms, with 20,000 date palm trees, and employs 100 people (rising to 150 during the harvest). They also grow and export dates. They are yet to turn a profit. Manasreh’s farms are surrounded by 28 Israeli settlements, occupying 90% of the Jordan valley.

A recent report by 21 NGOs found that the EU imports £185m worth of goods from Israeli settlements every year, mostly dates and citrus fruits – 15 times the value of European imports from Palestinians. Israeli dates are cheaper. Palestinian farmers aren’t able to travel to Israeli ports to oversee their exports, so they hire Israeli middlemen. Their pesticides, boxes and shipping pallets are all bought from Israel.

According to Human Rights Watch, half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank are taking more than their fair share of scant water resources. “In the Jordan Valley, an estimated 9,000 settlers in Israeli agricultural settlements use one-quarter the total amount of water consumed by the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank, some 2.5 million people,” says the report. Israel has drilled deep wells in the Jordan valley to supply its settlements. Palestinian farmers pay for extra water to be trucked in to irrigate their trees. All these extra costs mean that Palestinian dates are 25% more expensive than the settlement alternative.

Manasreh’s date farms are in Area C, land under full Israeli military control. He is fighting a demolition order on a well vital for the irrigation of his trees. He claims the pump is in Palestinian-controlled Area A, but Israel insists that it is in Area C, was built without an Israeli permit and must be destroyed. The discrepancy over the zone boundary is a matter of several trees.

But the critical issue, according to Manasreh, is a lack of support from the Palestinian government. The Israeli government offers generous subsidies to its settler producers, even reimbursing farmers obliged to pay EU import duties. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has proposed a new tax on agricultural produce.

Waleed Assaf, the Palestinian Authority’s agriculture minister, admits the government has not done enough for its farmers. Only 1% of the annual budget, and 4% of the development budget, is invested in agriculture. “This is a conflict about land and we have been slow to come to this issue,” Assaf concedes. He insists that agriculture, industry and tourism are set to become the government’s new priorities.

The Palestinian population receives more international aid per capita than almost any other country in the world. The Palestinian economy is propped up with foreign aid. This, Assaf explains, is because the Palestinian Authority has invested the bulk of its money in security and institution building. Building local industry has not been a priority.

Manasreh doesn’t expect to make a profit until 2015. He says that for many Palestinian farmers, lacking the capital to invest in their businesses, it has been impossible to continue, let alone compete with the Israelis. More than 34% of the Palestinian population lives in poverty.

“Agriculture offers a lot of jobs to people looking for work. It gives an opportunity for Palestinians to hold on to their homes and their land,” Manasreh says. “According to rational measures, a business cannot grow in these conditions. But Palestinians have no option but to try.”

See also
ON THE BRINK: Oxfam briefing paper on Israeli settlements and their impact on Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, 2012
Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Human Rights Watch, resource distribution
Gallons for the rich (Israelis) puddles for the poor (Palestinians)
This posting contains 4 reports on water distribution/conflict including from Ma’an and Ha’aretz.

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