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The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine

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Reprinted from Global Research

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By the time the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat returned from exile to the occupied territories under the terms of the Oslo Accords in 1994, many Palestinians -- especially the younger generations -- had abandoned farming. At least 160,000 Palestinians had become directly dependent on the Israeli economy, working as a casual laborers. Hundreds of thousands more Palestinians -- a sizable chunk of the occupied population -- relied on these workers' incomes.

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Some members of this newly urbanised Palestinian proletariat worked in the settlements, building homes or working in greenhouses on land that had been stolen after 1967 from families much like their own. Other Palestinians traveled into Israel each day to work in the most unskilled and dangerous parts of the Israeli economy. They cleaned dishes in Tel Aviv's restaurants, worked on construction sites in Israel's burgeoning towns and cities, or picked tomatoes and cucumbers in Israel's agricultural communities, the kibbutzim, that had grown fat and lazy on the abundance of land stolen from the Palestinian refugees after 1948.

Israel had engineered a system of industrialised humiliation.

The success of the settlement project in transforming the Palestinian population from farmers into unskilled labourers can be gauged by considering the dramatic demographic changes effected in the most fertile parts of the West Bank over the past five decades of occupation.

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Under Oslo, 62 percent of the West Bank came to be designated as Area C -- chiefly the rural areas where Palestinians had practiced agriculture and which were being actively targeted by Israel for settlement. Area C was to be under full Israeli control for the duration of the intended five-year period of the Oslo process, though, of course, Israel is still in charge more than two decades later. Meanwhile, the Palestinian towns and cities and their environs, identified as Areas A and B, fell under varying levels of control by the newly created Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian government-in-waiting.

Although there are no precise data, in the late 1960s, shortly after the occupation began, there were many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in what would later come to be classified as Area C. Without the disruption of the settlements, natural Palestinian growth might have ensured that as many as a million lived in Area C today. But, according to the best estimates, only around 100,000 Palestinians have remained there. The rest, we can assume, were gradually forced off their land in a process of what the Israeli general Moshe Dayan termed "creeping annexation." The loss of agricultural land and the increasing difficulty of farming sustainably were the main drivers of these momentous demographic changes.

The employment paradox

The Oslo accords were designed to modify -- though certainly not end -- this form of economic exploitation. Premised on the idea of a minimalist Palestinian state, Oslo sought physical separation between Israel and the occupied Palestinians. The slogan of the time was: "Us here; them there." Separation was never mutually observed, however. During the official five-year Oslo period of the late 1990s, Israeli Jews poured into the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank, in larger numbers than ever. As a consequence, the settlements grew at an unprecedented rate. Israel left it intentionally unclear where the separation line would eventually be drawn. But for Palestinians, separation was soon being strictly enforced -- and on the worst possible terms.

From the early 1990s Israel introduced a system of permits and checkpoints that would eventually harden into the steel and concrete barriers that surround Gaza, eat into significant parts of the West Bank, and carve up East Jerusalem. The goal was to keep out as many Palestinians as possible. Those hit hardest were the Palestinians who had formerly labored in Israel. From the 1990s onward, they began being replaced by a new cheap labor force: immigrant workers from China, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines.

In parallel, employment opportunities in the occupied territories grew scarcer. As diplomats celebrated the imminent arrival of a Palestinian state, Israel aggressively stepped up its takeover of land on the far side of the "separation barrier," in the West Bank. In a memorable analogy provided by American-Palestinian lawyer Michael Tarazi, as the two sides negotiated over their respective share of the pizza, Israel set about devouring it. The settlements' control rapidly expanded in Area C. Increasingly, Palestinians farmers were forced to abandon their land and head towards the Palestinian towns and cities in the territorial archipelago of Areas A and B.

Even those Palestinians who managed to stay in agriculture found themselves in ever harsher economic straits. Even though the West Bank sits atop aquifers that supply most of the water to Palestinians and Israelis, Israel decides how much goes to the Palestinians. Typically Palestinian households receive less than a fifth of the supply to Jewish settlers living close by. With water for domestic use hard to come by, many Palestinians in Area C collect winter rainwater in large underground storage tanks. Those who need additional water for agriculture usually have to truck it in privately at great expense.

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The result was that many farmers in the West Bank concentrated on a single crop, the olive, because mature trees can survive through a dry summer, even if the yield and size of the fruit are greatly reduced. But the laws of supply and demand cannot be ignored. If most Palestinians farm olives, there is an abundant oversupply. With most farmers unable to export their produce outside the limited markets of Israel and the occupied territories, prices fell. Olive farmers found it increasingly hard to make ends meet, adding to the pressure on them to abandon agriculture -- and with it, their ancestral lands.

The architects of the Oslo process recognized these dual pressures, and the potential danger they posed to Oslo's success. Israel had transformed Palestinian farmers into a causal labor force by stealing their land and resources. These Palestinians had joined what economists now call the "precariat," a proletariat class living in economically precarious conditions. They had been made entirely dependent on unskilled work in the Israeli economy. But if Israel then denied them access to Israel and jobs as part of a new policy of "separation," it risked stoking a dangerous social and political instability. A new kind of employment option was needed -- and so was born the idea of free-trade industrial zones.

This solution had been actively promoted for decades by Shimon Peres, the Israeli politician most closely identified with the Oslo process. He argued for creating a series of such zones between Israel and the occupied territories. Here they would serve as a bridge between separated territory: readily accessible both to the Israeli companies searching for a cheap labor force and to the Palestinian laborers who would have few other economic choices but to work on Israel's terms in these industrial areas. The zones would serve a dual function: both to continue the transformation of Palestinians farmers into an industrialized labor force; and to ensure they were kept economically pacified.

Industrialized laborers

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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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