Can an Agricultural Project Really Overcome Years of Bitter Tribalism?

by Assaf Dudai, February 15, 2015


“There is no real border between Israel and Palestine,” says Muhammad Hamudi, an olive farmer and olive oil producer from Asira al-Shamaliya, near Nablus in the West Bank. He has been working with the ongoing USAID-funded project Olive Oil Without Borders (OOWB) since its inception in 2011. Hamudi is in his mid-50s, with smiling eyes and palms so big an olive looks miniscule in them. “Today the border is here, tomorrow it will be there. The olive oil market has no borders as well. The bridge to the global market is the same bridge for everyone.”

OOWB is a collaborative economic initiative among 34 olive oil farming communities in Israel and the West Bank. It is spearheaded by the Near East Foundation (NEF), a 100-year old nongovernmental organization working on economic development among poverty-stricken communities throughout Africa and the Mideast. The initiative is funded by USAID, which provides financial and operative assistance to foreign nations and regions in need. The program has been successful enough that USAID has just granted OOWB its second $1.2 million round of funding, expected to serve some 2,000 Palestinians and Israelis working in the olive oil business over the course of three years.

Hamudi is one of the project’s success stories, points out Salah Abu-Eisheh, NEF country director for the Palestinian Authority. “During the three-year run he has tripled his production, improved significantly the quality and purity of his olive oil, and increased his income.” Hamudi smiles when he hears Abu-Eisheh say this. “NEF helped me achieve a sustained level of productivity,” Hamudi says. “No more bad years and good years; now I am in control of the yield.”

This success is due in large part to direct grants farmers like Hamudi received for purchasing modern equipment, renovating facilities (such as mills), and planting new varieties of olive trees. The rest of the USAID funding goes to conducting seminars and hands-on workshops led by industry consultants, from agriculture and olive oil production to business management and marketing.

Yet Palestinian farmers are only half of the OOWB equation: Israeli farmers and producers provide the necessary cross-border collaboration for this innovative and seemingly conflict-free program.

When I ask Hamudi about his experience collaborating with his Israeli-Jewish counterparts, his answer is pragmatic. “I see it as an exchange. We have things to teach, and they have things to teach. They use modern techniques, we have experience and knowledge. The benefits are for both sides. We have no other choice.”

But for a region mired in political conflict, collaborating is a choice—and quite an unusual one. Ayala Noy, a 40 year-old farmer and producer from Moshav Zippori, a farm community 20 minutes north of Nazareth on the Israeli side, approaches the project from a different perspective: “It was a very important and empowering experience. Sitting down with a Palestinian farmer who tells me, with tears in his eyes, that his orchard was burned to the ground the previous night by Israeli settlers was very emotional for me. ‘How do you sleep at night?’ he asked me. I told him not very well. That was the biggest challenge for me—being a representative of Israel, dealing with the hard feelings they have toward us.”

Though one of OOWB’s stated goals is to “leverage economic cooperation to promote peace and reconciliation,” according to NEF President Charlie Benjamin, the organization approaches its work from “a completely depoliticized perspective.” The focus is on “building economic relationships. We don’t touch the broader issues.” At the same time, Benjamin does acknowledge the growing trust, communication, and interaction outside the program.

Noy agrees that the project has strengthened more than economic ties. “We brought Palestinians to our house, we showed them our mill, and we try to keep in touch by phone,” she says. “I think it gave them a chance to see ‘other’ Israelis. Many of them told me that was their first time to meet an Israeli who is not a soldier, or a settler.”

Similar sentiment is echoed from the other side of the fence. Sumaya Sawalmeh, a 40-year-old farmer from the same village as Hamudi, says, “It was important for me to take part in the project. I came into Israel [and] for the first time in my life…left with positive feelings.”

Adel Yaseen, an elderly farmer with a thundering voice from the nearby village of Jnaid, agrees. “I made friends from Israel. The project helped us to build relationships and brought us closer.”

Olives, and in particular olive oil, have always been among the most vital sectors of the local economy in the Middle East. Similar to grape vineyards in Napa, or rice fields in Asia, the West Bank is covered with olive orchards. The same is true for the Galilee region of Israel. In these regions olives are more than a means of livelihood; they are a way of living. Entire families and villages live off the yearly cycle of the olive trees. In Palestine, 100,000 families participate in the industry, which accounts for more than 10 percent of the state’s GDP.

As the olive oil industry is so vital to the region, NEF decided to engage with the sector and initiate this historic collaboration with Israel after recognizing a production surplus on the Palestinian side and a production deficit on the Israeli side. Meaning, the Palestinians had been producing more olive oil than they could sell, while the Israeli market suffered from a shortage of local oil. The solution seemed at once simple, yet, given the politics of the region, immensely complex.

The first major roadblock was the trade ban between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which has been in place since 2003, the middle of the second intifada. As negotiations between the respective governments took place, NEF communicated with both parties and attempted to illuminate the ban’s economic effects. In the beginning of 2013, the ban was finally lifted, allowing OOWB to rise to its full potential.

“This is exactly what should be going on in the region right now—everyone coming together,” Dave Harden, USAID mission director in the Palestinian Authority, tells me at an OOWB gathering of Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers at an orchard outside Nazareth. “They are building stuff together, they’re producing higher quality products, and they’re selling them. What more can you ask for?”

Just before leaving the orchard for the mill, Abu Naim, the host farmer, leads me by hand to one of the largest trees in the orchard. “You see this tree, it is about 3,000 years old. It still gives fruits every year.” I look at the tree, its massively wide trunk, its sprawling top. It looks healthy and full of life.

Those behind OOWB claim to be more focused on the practical realities of olive oil production than the draw of ancient agricultural tradition or the thorny task of Middle East fence mending. Yet their work is inexorably tied to and ultimately results in the project’s loftier outcomes. “We focus on building the system, this economic machine, but those dynamics have a broader impact,” NEF President Benjamin tells me. On top of the 3,600 metric tons of olive oil Palestinian farmers have exported into Israel since 2013, representing $20 million in new income, Benjamin says “70 percent of OOWB participants say they believe economic cooperation helps build additional efforts at reconciliation between the two sides.”

It’s hard not to be struck by the metaphor of the olive branch—a cliché perhaps but literally apt here.