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Elderly Palestinians recall 'good old days' of Palestinian food security

May 31, 2017 12:40 P.M. (Updated: May 31, 2017 5:22 P.M.)
A Palestinian farmer works in his wheat field during the harvest season in the occupied West Bank village of Tuqu in June 2012. (AFP/Musa al-Shaer, File)
By: Abdul-Hakim Salah

Abdul-Hakim Salah is the head of Ma’an News Agency’s English desk.

"God bless the good old days, when we all had abundant, healthy food from our own production without the need for cash," 84-year-old Khadijah Balboul -- Umm al-Abed as she likes to be called -- told me with a deep sigh.

It was my repeated complaints about the high cost of living and my irregular salary payments that aroused my mother's old memories when I joined her and her 78-year-old neighbor Rabiha Issa, also known as Umm Ali, for a tea in the village of al-Khader in the southern occupied West Bank district of Bethlehem.

I was not asking the two women, who never received a formal education, to define food security or sustainability, but they unknowingly struck a chord.

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization identifies food security as a state when "all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

According to a 2014 study by the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem (ARIJ), Palestinian households spend approximately 38.6 percent of their monthly income on food and beverages, a significant percentage given that the same study estimated that the average income stood between 1,500 and 3,500 shekels ($420 to $980).

Both Umm al-Abed and Umm Ali talked about their lives decades ago, back when, they were certain, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians were better off in terms of access to healthy food, especially in rural areas.

My mother reminisced when every single family in the countryside owned farmland in which they very carefully invested time and energy to produce enough crops for them and their livestock.

She and Umm Ali recalled enthusiastically the "safe and natural foods" from six and seven decades ago, repeatedly interrupting one another to reminisce about tasty tomatoes, eggplants, grapes, and plums, as well as homemade jams, dairy products, and the "street dancers" -- the colloquial expression for chickens raised in families’ backyards.

"Almost all vegetables, fruits, and grains we ate were from our lands, and we scarcely used any pesticides or chemical fertilizers," Umm Ali said.

“If you are talking about the 1970s and early 1980s, I can remember these times as a child and a teenager, but many people were poor!” I objected.

“If by poor, you mean people did not have a lot of cash, you are right,” Umm al-Abed answered. “Very few people were rich in that sense, but nobody was poor at all when it came to food access."

If the situation seemed so idyllic all these years ago, what has caused such a dramatic downfall in Palestinian food security?

A 2015 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD) stated that the Israeli occupation "imposes severe constraints on the development of the Palestinian agricultural sector and, indeed, the entire economy," rendering the task of achieving sustainable agricultural development in the occupied Palestinian territory "nearly impossible."

The core problems, according to the UNCTD report, stem in large part from Israeli restrictions on Palestinian land and water access, trade, and freedom of movement, which have in turn created "lower incentives for investment in agriculture."

The loss of land to illegal Israeli settlements and Israel's illegal separation wall is another major factor impeding Palestinian agriculture.

Ismail Issa, the deputy mayor of al-Khader, where Umm al-Abed and Umm Ali live, said that Israeli authorities had confiscated more than 20 percent of the village's agricultural land since 1967. Out of 22,000 dunams (5,436 acres) of arable land in the area, farmers have lost approximately 5,000 dunams (1,235 acres) to illegal Israeli settlements, outposts, bypass roads, and security zones around settlements, he estimated.

While the two women agreed that Israeli occupation policies were a major factor, they brought up another angle to the story, which is not always discussed by the many studies about Palestinian economy and food security.

Both Umm al-Abed and Umm Ali remembered when Palestinian farmers used to take their produce to the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem in the early 1970s to sell them to Israeli customers “at very good prices.”

However, Israelis then began to encourage Palestinians to work with them in construction in and around Jerusalem, Umm al-Abed added. At the beginning, she recalled, people were reluctant to work with "the enemy," but gradually they were enticed by the good salaries they were being offered.

"That was the beginning of our agricultural problems, as farmers, especially from the younger generation, were diverted from their land and ran after the cash they could get,” Umm al-Abed said.

Following Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory in 1967, the number of Palestinian workers in Israel sharply increased -- from 20,000 to 66,000 between 1970 and 1975, according to 1998 study by Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute-MAS.

According to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli agency responsible for enforcing Israeli government policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, more than 75,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank had permits to work in Israel in 2016 -- and that is without counting thousands of others who work in Israel without such permits, or who are employed in illegal Israeli settlements.

In simple terms, Umm Ali sighed, Israelis killed two birds in one stone.

"The Israeli occupation played a smart game," she said. "They used Palestinians to build their state and their settlements, and at the same time they encouraged many of them to desert their agricultural land, which the Israelis then confiscated under pretext that it was deserted."

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the total cultivated area in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip dropped from approximately 1,851 square kilometers in 2002 to 932 square kilometers in 2011. Reliable statistics about cultivated land in Palestine before the year 2000 couldn't be found, though a study by the Islamic University of Gaza has suggested that agricultural lands in Palestine before 1948 amounted to 6,300 square kilometers.

UNRWA, PCBS, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Program concluded in a joint statement in 2014 that food insecurity in Palestine could only be sustainably reduced by addressing the root causes of the crisis -- namely the ongoing blockade on Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, for Umm al-Abed and Umm Ali, as long as the Palestinian Authority doesn't sufficiently support the agricultural sector, by helping farmers better access their lands and market their products, and as long as the younger Palestinian generations do not learn to love and tend their land, the issue of food security will remain unsolved.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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