My alarm is dutifully set for 6:15 am and the evening before, I doze off dreaming of awakening in the elegant, funky Jerusalem Hotel with its irregular greying stone walls and heavily carved furniture, a bit of time travel in an ornately tapestried Arab Palestinian home pre-1948, now morphed into a hotel for the intelligentsia and the politically out-of-step. And then, after waking, I will do some meditative breathing, take a quick but beneficial slightly forbidden hot shower in this land of water shortages, savor my thick Arabic coffee, and get ready for life under occupation…
But like many fantasies, there is a serious flaw in my plan which involves that sticky little detail, switching my clock from its previous time zone to Jerusalem time. Hence, the loud voice out of nowhere and my frenzied leap from my warm cocoon at 7:15 the following morning.
After the frantic flurry and the inhaled coffee, boiled egg, humus, tomato, white cheese, and warm thick pita, ah yes I am really here, I leap into the taxi before my brain has a moment to complain. We hurtle out of Jerusalem towards Ramallah, carefully avoiding the hell-hole which is Kalandia checkpoint. Dense cream colored apartments rise up the hills of West Jerusalem, through industrial areas, (various IT companies, TEVA), Har Hotsvim, the crushing backwardness of Mea Sharim, (yes girls have been stoned there for wearing short sleeves), past the Jewish settlement of Ramot and the striking for better pay Egged bus drivers, past the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel (religious allusions are everywhere and claimed by someone, generally at the expense of someone else).
Our wonderful East Jerusalem taxi driver with the yellow plates (so he can legally get in and out of the West Bank), provides a running translation of the view. We head towards Al Jeeb checkpoint (in Area C) which appears closed, but in fact our driver negotiates through the opposite left lane; all the soldier booths are unmanned. So much smoke and mirrors this tricky checkpoint/permit system. After a phone call he informs us that the lane going into Jerusalem is now really closed so on the way back he will have to spend the two hours at Kalandia checkpoint after all, despite license plates and permits and his gentle respectable smile and welcoming personality. A Palestinian is after all a Palestinian. The cat and mouse game has officially begun.
Walls, barbed wire, security cameras, guard towers puncture our views of the grey, rainy landscape, the serpiginous highway and roller coaster hills, until the massive spattered bolts of construction, rocky open fields, and unimaginable piles of rocks announce Ramallah. We are meeting with a longtime Grassroots International partner organization, the Union of Agricultural Workers Committee (UAWC). This group’s structure is based on small farmers organized into local work committees in Palestine.
We arrange ourselves in a bare office at a long table, posters of wheat and an olive oil competitions tacked on the walls. We have a spunky consultant/translator. Fuad Abu Seif, the general director begins to speak. He has a mix of earnest sweetness and smart sophistication, greying hair, black glasses. The news is grim: the current situation is worse, there has been a three to four fold increase in Jewish settlements since 1994, (gobbling up the proverbial pie that is the Palestinian slice of the two state solution), the settler population has jumped from 125,000 to 700,000 in the West Bank, there are still over 500 checkpoints restricting movement of Palestinian people and goods. The Palestinian economy is in a vise.
UAWC, established in 1986, has five offices in the West Bank and five in Gaza, dedicated to protecting and empowering small farmers under attack, losing land and water and energy sources to a steady confiscation by the now-metastatic encroachment of settlements and “illegal” settler caravans. UAWC focuses on building sovereignty for men, women and youth, farmers and the poor. They focus on Area C, the 65% of the West Bank that is under total Israeli control, where the occupation forces control all land and water and any land unused for five years is seized, (an old Ottoman and British-era law conveniently still in force in modern Israel.)
We learn about UAWC’s range of activities. They have set up a local seed bank in Hebron to enhance food access, avoid GMOs and the Monsantos of the world, and to support 2,000 local farmers. UAWC sponsors 35 women’s cooperatives in the West Bank and Gaza, building economic and social independence, access to markets, and establishing a store to market cooperative products. They are also working on a livestock farm in Hebron to teach modern techniques of animal breeding. Their work involves policies and campaigns, organizing locals and internationals to assist in the annual olive harvest to improve access for the local farmers to their fields and to minimize threats from super-entitled, gun-toting Jewish settlers. They celebrate international environmental day, international women’s day, world water day and are the only Arab members of Via Campesina, a global federation of small-scale farmers that has over 250 million members in 170 countries. They have a legal unit to register and protect the land of small-scale farmers and to follow up on a multitude of Israeli attacks and violations.
Fuad continues that two big challenges are that the Israelis prevent the West Bank and Gaza branches of UAWC from meeting, and that since 2014 the priorities for Gaza have focused on the humanitarian emergency, like supplying tents. With all the destroyed houses and farms there, the immense political fragmentation between the different governing authorities in the two areas, and the dysfunctions of the two Ministries of Agriculture, unity is hard.
UAWC developed a strategic plan in 2015 to work more on development and economic empowerment in the West Bank, to gather people in local communities into clusters and larger districts of decision making and governance.
He notes that Via Campesina was established on Palestinian Land Day and helps anchor the work in the political roots of the conflict, that injustice goes beyond occupation and the inequities of capitalism, and that the fact that the Palestinian Authority agreed to give up 60% of the West Bank (that is, in the Oslo Accords) was a big mistake. Working with other NGOs such as the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, (PARC) and PNGO (the Palestinian NGO network,) UAWC focuses, on communities, landless farmers, influencing governmental policies and documenting Israeli actions.
Clearly any occupying power does not like a strong civil and social movement or society and UAWC is frequently under attack. The staff pass around news promoted by the Israeli TV Channel 2, and picked up by the Al-Quds newspaper, that accuses UAWC of using a drone to spy on Israeli settlements—though in fact, it had been the European Union, which gives some funding support to UAWC, that had contracted a freelance photographer to document some of the implemented projects in order to inform the general public about the activities of the EU in the West Bank.
The UAWC people believe that this news story, among others published by Channel 2, was designed to create negative awareness of the organization as part of the ongoing incitement against it. UAWC is always keen to work in a professional and independent manner according to international norms and conventions, but the news account accused the organization of using a drone and shooting at the settlements! (I can only imagine, with what exactly? Olive pits?) So now they have a new controversy on their hands and will be talking to their lawyer about another scurrilous attack on their valuable work.
Conversation moves to US politics. Fuad notes that the two-state solution died with the massive settlement growth and infrastructure, the Israeli control of universities, hospitals, access roads and growing intolerance of all dissent. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Minister of Defense, lives in a settlement in the West Bank. Members of UAWC are all happy with the recent UN decision condemning settlement growth and the US abstention. They see Trump as a dangerous, unpredictable actor and the surrounding Arab states as breaking down and threatening Palestinian access through Jordan. Fuad states Palestinians need to build their own unity and the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement is having a big impact which is why the Israeli government is so angry, committed to spending 300 million NIS to defeat BDS and “to change the truth.”
UAWC gets funding from Norway, the UN Development Program (UNDP), the European Commission, Spain, and smaller funders like Grassroots International who are willing to fund projects beyond the purely technical. They are already seeing the impact of global climate change and the need to increase the resilience of small farmers. In the West Bank, seasons are shifting: the rainy winter is shorter, limiting the time for optimal planting and growth. Farmers are now advised to plant in November rather than October, to use interventions that value the benefit of every drop of water, respect the decade-long drought with summer temperatures reaching 110°F (but a recent wild snowfall in Hebron.) About 30 houses in the Berin hamlet now benefit from solar panels.
Yousef Nasser, a professor at Birzeit, now joins us, his eyes bright and twinkling, a shock of silvery hair and thick mustache. He talks about the global gap project, the focus on new varieties of vegetables that can be marketed on “the outside,” the transfer of know-how to farmers to help open global markets despite the crushing restrictions and permitting that threaten Palestinian agriculture. Cups of Turkish coffee arrive with overflowing bowls of apples, bananas, and pears.
Food sovereignty is the major challenge. The movement and export restrictions, the long waits while tomatoes and strawberries sour in the hot sun, is 70% better in the West Bank. There are malicious rules on pallet size, consequent limits of number of trucks that can carry each load, and rising prices for transport. In Gaza it is only worse. Exports travel to Jordan or Ashdod, negotiate an Israeli mediator, the prices are 30% higher than in Israel or in the world market so Palestinian exports are rarely viable, they die by a thousand regulations and delays. Plus, after the US, the Occupied Palestine territories (OPTs) form the second largest market for Israeli products and they are not going to change that captured financial/economic arrangement any time soon.
Yousef notes that after Oslo, the Palestinian 1%’ers exploded and this “filthy rich ruling class” (like all filthy rich ruling classes) is not about to change a system that is working so well for itself. There is an overall loss of hope within the hard working and often looking-for-work 99% of the population. UAWC seeks “to keep the candle lit,” to fight the prevalent assumption that Israeli products are better and cheaper (as Palestinian products sit in containers waiting months for “security clearance,” and then their owners are billed for renting the container spaces!) That does not even begin to describe the outrage that truck transports are often forced to stop at some checkpoints to offload to another truck “on the other side,” increasing costs even more—and think about what that does to the once-lovely tomato. Farmers turn to other sources of income, often working in Israel, in settlements, in unskilled, unprotected, below-minimum wage jobs, with wages like 100 NIS ($26) per day in Ramallah, or 70 NIS in the villages). The minimum wage in the West Bank is 1,450 NIS ($380) per month – in Israel it is more like 5,000 NIS. In 2011, the poverty level for a family of five in the West Bank was 2,193 NIS. Birzeit University, he says, pays cleaners 50 NIS per day through a private company.
UAWC works with the Bedouin communities in the West Bank, providing education about efficient animal breeding methods, rehabilitation of traditional shelters, creating animal fodder through composting and hydroponic methods, protecting their lands, and empowering and training women (after some early male objections.) The Israelis in Area C are busy trying to displace and rehouse Bedouins from the eastern slopes around Jericho to a development town/housing project. Needless to say, a traditional society based on farming, herding, and a more nomadic lifestyle does not take kindly to such 21st century attempts to “improve” or shall I say “cleanse” them.
The show us another newspaper article. The Israeli authorities have demolished a water cistern (translation: water is like gold in these parts, this is a clear act of aggression) near Bethlehem. This was one of UAWCs successful projects to help with irrigation of nearby farming lands, clearly a danger to the security of the great, well-armed State of Israel. Plus the Oslo Accords continue to haunt the daily lives of Palestinians who are forbidden to build tunnels or bridges, suffer from strict water quotas, and have an almost zero success rate in approval for water pumps connected to wells that are located on their own territory. This has resulted in severe water shortages and an increasingly sewer polluted water system.
The Zionist settler project continues in all of its crushing minutiae. Jews celebrate their “right to return” to the ancient city of Jerusalem while Palestinian refugees languish in camps in Jordan and Lebanon and maybe still in Syria, as well as the OPTs. Our hosts assure us that this is not struggle against Jews as Jews (there are many righteous Jews), but rather against the Zionists who have enshrined Jewish history, trauma, and aspirations above everyone else in the region and also against the Palestinian 1%’ers who are benefiting from the corruption, collaboration, and greed, and the extreme amounts of shekels that can be amassed.
Fortunately for us, the tasty chicken, musakhan drenched in sumac and oil, and the tomatoes and cucumbers chopped into tiny tasty bits arrives just in time to strengthen our resolve and our growling stomachs.