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The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine

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Reprinted from Global Research

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For decades Israel has been driving Palestinian farmers off their land by imposing restrictions on agriculture. But one company, Canaan Fair Trade, has found an innovative way to resist

Originally published in AMEU -- August 2016. For a PDF version, click here.

Across the West Bank, olive trees can be found that have survived from the time of Herod, a legacy of the Romans' cultivation of the tree throughout its empire, including in Palestine. The trees are easily identified. In Arabic, they are known as "amoud" -- or column -- distinguished by the enormous girth of their gnarled, twisting trunks. They have a place in most Palestinians' affections. Hatim Kanaaneh, the Galilee physician and writer, observes that the amoud symbolises "stability, permanence and stature -- physically, figuratively and economically."

The olive tree roots Palestinians in a tradition and identity as deeply as the trees themselves are rooted in the soil. When the first heavy winter rains wash away the dust of the summer drought from the leaves and fruit in late October or early November, extended families hurry out to their fields to harvest the crop. Erecting ladders, they reach into the grey-green foliage to pick the abundant fruit. The distinctive, gentle patter of an olive rainfall can be heard on the tarpaulins below.

For a few weeks, the hills and valleys of Palestine are filled with families, young and old, sharing a simple life outdoors together under the trees -- one their great-grandparents would have recognized. With an estimated 10 million trees growing in the valleys and on the hillsides of the West Bank, it is huge undertaking that much of the society mobilizes for. It is a moment of familial and communal solidarity, of a celebratory communion with nature and its bounty, and of connection to a heritage barely changed over millennia.

During the olive harvest, every Palestinian embodies "sumud," or steadfastness -- a value whose significance has intensified under decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. The harvest represents the ultimate kind of resistance by Palestinians: an individual refusal to be moved, and a collective refusal to be ethnically cleansed.

The olive continues to play a central part in the Palestinian economy too. More than 100,000 families are believed to depend on the trees as their primary source of income. The rural economy -- much of it dedicated to olive oil production -- is worth $500 million, and accounts for about 13 percent of the Palestinians' GDP.

Israel has done much to try to weaken Palestinians' connection to the olive tree, understanding that the "amoud" is the Palestinians' defense against Israeli guns, bulldozers, settlers and ill-will. Since the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza began in 1967, Israel has waged a relentless assault on Palestine's olive groves and the way of life they support.

Swaths of fertile land have been confiscated and reclassified as "state land," later transformed into army firing ranges and national parks or incorporated into the illegal Jewish colonies spreading across Palestinian territory. Water resources have been stolen too, starving farmers of the primary fuel needed to ensure a good yield. The army has uprooted or cut down hundreds of thousands of olive trees on security pretexts, claiming they can conceal stone-throwers or snipers. Settlers regularly inflict additional damage, burning down trees and attacking families when they try to reach their fields for the annual harvest. And over the past decade, hundreds of thousands more trees have been lost, cut off behind Israel's concrete and steel "separation barrier" from the families that tended them for generations.

Some threats to the Palestinian farming community are more insidious, though no less menacing. In the lands around the city of Jenin, in the northern West Bank, a new kind of long-term war against the ancient olive groves is playing out. Ostensibly a struggle between two competing economic models of the future, the battle is, in truth, one for Palestine's soul.

The first model derives from the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s, and represents the culmination of a decades-old story of Palestinian dispossession. It offers unskilled work to an impoverished population in a series of industrial zones, removing them from their agricultural traditions and their lands, and snaring them into economic subordination to Israel. It ensures the Palestinians a future of both food and employment insecurity. This colonial vision of economic dependence and exploitation -- it goes without saying -- is being promoted by Israel and the international community.

The second model, of self-sufficiency and dignity, is being championed by a cooperative farming project known as Canaan Fair Trade. It has grown rapidly, and now assists some 2,000 small-hold farmers in the West Bank. It offers them help to grow organic crops that can withstand water shortages and other privations of a hostile occupation; buys their products at above-market prices to ensure farming families can make a sustainable living; and finds local and foreign markets for the produce, as a way to bypass Israeli control and to raise prices. Staff have nick-named their approach "agro-resistance."

Canaan is receiving little more than ambivalent support from the compromised Palestinian national leadership.

Nasser Abufarha, who founded Canaan little more than a decade ago, after he returned from the United States, eloquently expresses what is at stake. "The olive is the number one crop for Palestinians. This is the land of the olive, and it has always been central to our diet," he tells me in Canaan's offices in the village of Burqin, just outside Jenin. "The olive is important for our food security and our cultural representation. It is a symbol of our identity. The trees connect us to our land, to a place, to a history and to past generations. They also link us to future generations, to our children and grandchildren. They represent the continuity of a nation and our rootedness in the land."

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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