West Bank’s farming sector struggling to overcome water shortage, economic crisis

Published: 09.24.12

Once a mainstay of the local economy, Palestinian agriculture in the rocky West Bank is in decline as farmers struggle to protect their livelihoods and their lands.

Though cut off from key markets, the pressure to keep farming is strong. But with restrictions on water use and land, what farmers produce often fails to match the lower cost or higher quality of what Israel supplies to the Palestinian stores.

Palestinian agriculture represented just 6% of gross domestic product in 2010 from 13.7% in 1994, the World Bank said.

The Palestinian statistics bureau said where the sector employed 22% of the workforce in 1994, now it employs just 12.7%.

“Palestinian farmers are fighting a daily, losing battle against Israeli restrictions on land and water,” Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Walid Assaf said.

In a report issued this month, a United Nations agency said the “impact of the Israeli occupation on the productive base of the Palestinian economy, and especially its once-flourishing agriculture, has been devastating.

“The economy has lost access to 40% of West Bank land, 82% of its ground water, and more than two-thirds of its grazing land,” said the UN trade and development agency, UNCTAD.

Under the Oslo Accords, Israel controls more than 80% of West Bank water resources. International aid groups say it is much more generous in distributing the water to its own citizens than the Palestinians, who claim not just the territory, but also the underground aquifers, for themselves.

The direct result of this is easily visible. While fruit orchards north of the city of Hebron, are parched as they rely only on scarce rainfall, a settler farm across the way is lined with black pipes for regular hosing, allowing for faster growth. Lush green, the rows of fruit trees were all picked months ago.

Palestinian farmers in most West Bank areas cannot drill new wells without Israeli permission – something European Union diplomats say hardly ever happens.

Israel says it is already giving Palestinians more water than was agreed in the 1994 interim Oslo peace accords. They say a definitive division of resources can only be decided in a final peace deal – something that has proved elusive in years of mutual recrimination and missed chances.

Tied to the past

Israeli agriculture experts say the Palestinians could do much more with their land if they adopted modern farming methods including using “drip technology” and modern fertilizers, but again Palestinians counter that it comes down to ample water supplies and unrestricted access to imports.

The locals certainly receive little help or encouragement from the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank.

It allocates a mere 1% of its budget to farming, despite the sector’s importance. In a speech aimed at ending recent protests against tax hikes, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad this week promised to do more for the sector.

Farmers also say they are denied access to some of the West Bank’s most fertile land, especially in Area C, which includes the Jordan Valley and is controlled by the Israelis.

Rights group Peace Now says Israel has declared 25,000 acres, or 16%, of the West Bank as “state land” since 1967 and annexed it to settlements. Other areas are still under scrutiny.

Palestinian farmers also say Israel restricts the entry of West Bank produce to key markets, namely Jerusalem, once the commercial center for Palestinians.

All produce destined to Israel or for export must through Israeli checkpoints and subject to lengthy checks and procedures, significantly increasing production costs and decreasing profitability.

Palestinians imported $72.2 million worth of fruit and vegetables from Israel in 2010, while their own farmers exported just $2.92 million of their produce and often labored to sell it at home, official local statistics show.

Once dubbed Palestine’s fruit basket, now farmers leave some of their crop to rot in the sun-baked orchards, unwilling to sell it at a loss.

With the sector beset by so many problems, it is little wonder that many farmers are throwing in the towel.