Farming is a political act; it is the embodiment of self-reliance and the physical manifestation of connection with land. In Palestine, this could not be more stark. Israeli policies have seen the separation of people from their farms and fields, the confiscation of land and resources, the demolition of homes and eviction of families.
During our ten days here we witnessed the effects of these policies. We visited Um Al Kheir, a Bedouin community in the South Hebron Hills. Here we heard how home demolitions happened on a regular basis; one home had even been demolished four times in one year. We heard how they can only access the main water supply for 7 hours per week and how living only yards from an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law, means violence and intimidation are the norm.
Yet, shining through it all was something stronger, something that left me feeling an overwhelming sense of purpose resonating from everyone we met. Sumud is an Arabic word meaning ‘steadfast’. Steadfast in the face of adversity, steadfast in the face of injustice and, most importantly, remaining steadfast on the land.
In Um Al Kheir, this was present in the highly educated and eloquent youth who showed us enthusiastically what they had already achieved. Ten beehives sat in the desert landscape, between the Um Al Kheir Cultural Centre and the settlement. “I love the bees,” said Tariq Hathaleen, “They can get through the settlement fence!” The honey produced from these bees is a lifeline for the Bedouin (and completely delicious, imbued with the flavor of thyme).
Another place we visited, which has become renowned for ‘sumud’ and as a beacon of peace is the Tent of Nations. Daoud Nassar and his family have spent the past 27 years in a legal battle to keep their land; a battle that is still raging. Surrounded by settlements and an imposing new school, Daoud’s family face regular attempts to remove them from the farm – from physical attacks, roadblocks, and destruction of trees, to legal threats and even an open cheque. Daoud’s response? “This land is our home and what we’ve inherited, we cannot sell.”
Despite the problems, Daoud preaches non-violence. He says, “There are many reasons on a daily basis that causes you to hate. But refusing to hate means for us that all people are created in the image of God and they are not created to hate each other. In every human being, including one you might call an enemy, there is something good and something bad. The good we want to respect, but the bad we don’t want to accept. We have to stand up for our rights and tell the other that what you are doing is unjust.”
Farming provides this way of quiet non-violent resistance. By continuing to cultivate the land, you keep hold of your connection to your history, culture and identity. You retain some independence, economically and mentally. Small farms and businesses are still prevalent throughout the West Bank. Shahed Grape Company, for example, produces a range of grape products in south Hebron from beautiful traditional vineyards tended by local farmers.
And then there was Battir, a small village just outside of Bethlehem where the ancient agricultural stone terraces still use traditional irrigation channels to grow a diverse array of fruits and vegetables. The site was deemed so important that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. In an unlikely alliance with nearby settlers, this successfully lead to the separation wall being diverted away from the site.
But perhaps the most iconic food of the region is the olive, and of course we had the chance to help harvest olives and visit a local press. Sadly, many olive farmers face attacks from settlers, and this was the case just south of Nablus while we were there. This meant we had to visit a farm north of Nablus instead, a beautiful village, peaceful, green and with typical Palestinian generosity. It felt a far cry from what we knew farmers just a few miles south were facing, but reminded us too of what life could and should be like across Palestine.
Canaan Fair Trade provides the essential economic support for many olive farmers in the region, partnering with more than 1,600 farmers through the Palestine Fair Trade Association. Zaytoun work with Canaan to source olive oil for UK markets, and this partnership is one such story of how a network of dedicated individuals can make a significant difference, coming together and working tirelessly to support Palestinian farmers by creating markets for their produce.
Of course, these are just fragments of a trip which was rich in food and new experiences, friendships and learning. From the families we cooked with in Aida refugee camp, to the date farmers of the Jordan Valley. We were all incredibly grateful to everyone we met on the trip.
We left Palestine feeling very moved, yet also an overwhelming sense of inspiration, and I am often reminded of something Daoud said – “We believe that one day we will see the sun of justice rising again.” With so many people working to make that happen I sincerely hope that this is true.