The ABCs of West Bank Agriculture

Philip Issa | KF17 | Palestine (Update: Photo links fixed)

Now that Spring time is in full bloom here in Palestine, the truths about a pair misconceptions I held before arriving have become unavoidable. First, that the ecology here is actually quite conducive to agriculture, and second, that most of the West Bank is in fact not under the jurisdiction of Palestinians.

I had originally intended to write only about my surprise about how green the land can be in Spring, but I believe that such a post would be dishonest. It would be misleading on a microfinance blog to show images of agricultural land and let readers think that the sector is ready for microlending. Such loans are common and fruitful in other Kiva countries, but, as I will explain below, they are much riskier enterprise here.

Ecological geography of the West Bank

I had been to the Levant before my Kiva Fellowship, so I had a pretty clear idea of what to expect in terms of geography and climate:

Bethlehem in late February

A generally arid climate with some plants in bloom for Spring. Short, shady trees and shrubs and sparse grass. Rocks, rubble, sheep, and goats. Rich, red dirt. Pine and olive trees. Blue skies. Winding roads:

On the road to Nablus, north of Ramallah

What I wasn’t expecting was this (click to enlarge images):

South of Nablus The Jordan Valley Route 57, between the Jordan Valley and Nablus North of Nablus, south of Jenin North of Nablus, south of Jenin North of Nablus, south of Jenin

Veritable farm land. Sure, it’s not Alabama; yes, it’s spring; and yes, we’ve had a lot of rain. But, dear readers, this is the Middle East. This is the West Bank. And from this frame of reference, this is green, green, green. I did not expect it.

So it got me thinking: is agriculture possible here? Not just a one season or one crop affair, like olives, but a year-round harvest of rotating fruit and vegetable products. And sure enough, it seems like such a thing is possible, indeed. According to a USAID report:

  The geographic and climate diversity in West Bank/Gaza has helped in providing a relatively wide range of agricultural products. Although the area of West Bank/Gaza is relatively small, the variability in climate is high, thus allowing production of vegetables all over the year. The warm winter months in the Ghor area [the valley of the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea and south of the Sea of Galilee] allow production of winter vegetables and the moderate climate in summer allows production of vegetables in the mountains and coastal areas of West Bank/Gaza. Also, with the current use of greenhouses, vegetables are produced all year long especially in the coastal and semi coastal areas of West Bank/Gaza.

[The report also includes rainfall averages for the Territories, by region.]

Despite this, I haven’t come across very many agricultural loans at my two host MFIs, Ryada and FATEN. Management at these two institutions explained to me that the potential for farming here is not being realized for various reasons: poor irrigation, poor infrastructure, Israeli settlements and land seizures, Israeli restrictions on travel and exports, and the diversion of water from the Jordan River. An indicator of the anemic state of agriculture here in the West Bank is that only 8% of the cultivated land is irrigated, according to the USAID report cited above (as of 2002).

Political Geography of the West Bank

The second major misconception that I held about the West Bank before arriving is that the Territory is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority. In actuality, most of it is under the complete military and civil jurisdiction of Israel. In order to understand the prospects of agriculture of the West Bank, its political geography must be appreciated.

The West Bank is divided into three areas: A, B, and C. Area C, which constitutes 64% of the area, is under the military and civil jurisdiction of Israel. Area A is under the military and civil jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and contains most of the major urban areas in the Territory. Area B is the designation for most Palestinian villages and surrounding rural land; civil jurisdiction is under the Palestinian Authority and military jurisdiction is shared with Israel. (Source: UN OCHA)

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) regularly releases reports and maps on the political geography of the West Bank:

Political map of the West Bank. Click for an enlarged version. (Source: UN OCHA)

Area C is in blue. It is the only contiguous Area of the West Bank, and, as such, necessarily contains land that is vital for linking Palestinian cities and for infrastructure development and water distribution. The dark blue regions on the map (70% of Area C) are closed completely to Palestinian construction. They include Israeli settlement areas and their surrounding rural zones, Israeli military zones, and Israeli designated nature reserves. The light blue regions are the remainder of Area C – still, only 1% of Area C is zoned by the Israeli Civil Authority for Palestinian development. (Source: UN OCHA)

The three West Bank Areas were demarcated in a 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The Agreement was meant to be a temporary step towards the final resolution of the Oslo Accords, and the partition was to last only until a final status agreement was reached by the year 2000. Planning and zoning responsibilities in Area C were to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority in 1998, but they remain with Israel until today. (Source: UN OCHA)

Agriculture in the West Bank: the intersection of politics and ecology

The natural ecology of the West Bank allows for the possibility of a large and lucrative agricultural sector to support the Palestinian economy. The political reality, however, has encumbered Palestinian farmers with significant obstacles to access to land, markets, and water and other resources. Uncertainty in land access, risk of construction and infrastructure demolition, and deflated market prices make microfinance in this sector a dubious prospect.

The Jordan Valley

I had heard that the Jordan Valley could be the potential breadbasket of Palestine, but I could not believe this until I had rented a car and drove a small loop, from the head of the Dead Sea, past Jericho, and into the mountains towards Nablus. Here is what I saw:

Just north of Jericho

Beautiful and fertile. And Palestinians can own land here, despite it being Area C. Stopped along the main road of Al Jiftlik, a village a dozen or so kilometers north of Jericho, I waved down a farmer about to drive into his fields on his tractor. “My family bought this land 2 years ago from other Palestinians. It is ours,” he told me, proudly.

A view of the Palestinian farmer's land in Al Jiftlik

But being in Area C, construction and well-digging in Al Jiftlik can only legally occur with Israeli permits. Such permits, in practice, are nearly impossible to come by. An urban plan for Al Jiftlik, for example, was finally approved by Israeli authorities in 2006 – 8 years after zoning authority in Area C was supposed to be transferred to Palestinians under the Accords – but covers an area that includes only 40% of the village population. Construction outside the plan risks demolition, and between 2005 and 2006, the Israeli Defense Forces demolished 24 Palestinian structures in the village. So while some of the land may be owned by Palestinians, the uncertainty of permits and the risk of demolition puts villages like Al Jiftlik outside the reach of conventional lending.

A map of the Jericho region. Al Jiftlik is located in quadrant M-10. Click for an enlarged version. (Source: UN OCHA)

(The Aix Group, a consortium of Israeli, Palestinian, and other international researchers and members of government charged with establishing an economic prospect for a two-state solution included a case study of Al Jiftlik in their report on the Jordan Valley.)

The economic impact of such a restrictive permit system is described by a 2008 World Bank study: “Recurrent destruction of trees, private homes and public infrastructure, as well as settlers’ encroachments on private land create a permanent state of insecurity that deters Palestinian investment in Area C.”

In fact, owing to the restrictive permit system and designation of land as Israeli military zones, settlement areas, or nature reserves, only 6% of the Jordan Valley is accessible to Palestinian development – note the vast swath of dark blue territory in the western portion of the first West Bank map above. How important can this land be? The Aix Group report cited above estimates that access and planning, export, and water rights to 12,500 more acres in the Valley, or 3.5% of Area C, could foster a $1 billion regional, agricultural industry for Palestinians – not an insignificant sum considering that the GDP of the West Bank and Gaza combined is $6.6 bn ($2,900 per capita), according to the CIA World Factbook.

As the report suggests, access to land and permits alone will not suffice for a healthy agricultural industry. Most importantly, farms need water, but Palestinians suffer a lack of it owing to gross mismanagement of the seemingly abundant resource by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian one, according to a 2009 World Bank study. De facto Israeli control of three shared aquafers as well as explicit control over infrastructure development in Area C has prevented Palestinians from maintaining wells, pipelines, and wastewater treatment facilities (see, for example, the UN OCHA case study of the Al Bqai’a area in the Jordan Valley [pages 25-26]). The World Bank also faults the Palestinian Water Authority and National Authority for not consolidating local water networks and plans to more equitably distribute what little water there is available across the West Bank. The resulting water scarcity facing Palestinians is profound. To give a sense of the scale of it, consider that irrigated agricultural land on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley uses 3-4 times as much water as the total consuption of the entirety of the West Bank (source: Aix Group).

Agriculture, of course, has always had to conted with water scarcity, and advances in irrigation technology have allowed farmers to conserve up to 80% of their water use as compared to conventional drip-irrigation methods (source: Aix Group). These advanced technologies, though, are scarely found in Area C. As a Kiva Fellow, I would love to see the extension of credit to these sorts of investment projects, particularly for small farmers, but, as mentioned before, the political risk of Area C development is often too great to promise lasting impact.

Those Palestinian farmers who do manage to work around land restrictions, permit restrictions, and water shortages in the Jordan Valley face additional challenges in bringing their produce to market. Access to the entire Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area is limited to six routes, four of which require Palestinian commercial vehicles to have advance registration from Israeli authorities to transverse, and these vehicles must be driven by valley residents (source: UN OCHA Jordan Valley fact sheet). Additional impediments to travel include Israeli constructed road blockages on local roads – the residents of Al Jiftlik, for example, must travel an additional 10 km to reach the nearby and large Jericho market owing to a earth mound placed across the northern access road to the city. UN OCHA calculates the costs of the necessary detours and lengthy checkpoint inspections to be a minimum of $2.24 million annually, but I believe this figure is grossly underestimated.

In reality, the compounded economic costs of the checkpoints in and out of the Valley are tremendous. ANERA, an American non-profit led by scholars, diplomats, executives, and activists, conducted field research in agriculture in Palestine in 2011 and found that “produce often goes bad during the exportation process due to delays at the border and inadequate cold storage facilities. Impractical exporting options create a surplus of produce in the local West Bank market, driving prices down and making it harder for farming families to make a profit.” Cold-storage facilities to ease the field-to-market transfer cannot be built in Area C without permits or electricity (only 25% of Al Jiftlik is connected to an electricity grid [Aix Group]). Many higher quality fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited from entering the West Bank, and reliance on older, chlorine-based fertilizers hastens soil degredation.

Outside the Jordan Valley

Much of what I described above applies to all parts of Area C, not just the Jordan Valley. But other obstacles to farming exist as well, even near major Palestinian cities. The story of Hassan’s olive grove encapsulates the difficulties that many small-scale farmers face throughout the West Bank.

Hassan is a loan officer with Ryada at their Nablus branch. His family owns three and a quarter acres of olive trees, like these:

Hassan, a Ryada loan officer, in front of an olive grove like the one that belongs to his family.

The problem is that Hassan and his family cannot actually access their trees. The land, located on the outskirts of the Nablusi village ‘Awarta, was purchased many years ago by Hassan’s grandfather but has since been encroached upon by the Israeli settlement of Itamar. Settler violence towards farmers tending to these lands has been well documented, as well as the expropriation of such private lands by the settlements themselves. (See the UN OCHA 2011 report on West Bank movement and access).

In an effort to protect Palestinian farmers, the Israeli military has responded by closing access to the land and allowing Palestinian farmers to harvest only with “prior coordination.” During the olive picking season in September and October, Hassan told me, he and his family are allowed onto the land for only a few hours over a span of two days to complete a task that normally takes a month. Access to the land during other periods of the year is severely restricted.

Moving even closer to the Green Line, which demarcates the pre-1967 borders between Israel and the West Bank, farmers face a an even more blunt obstruction to their livelihoods: the Israeli Separation Barrier, which I spoke about in my first post. The Barrier follows the Green Line along only 20% of its route and deviates into the West Bank along the rest. 9.4% of the West Bank territory is located between the wall and the Green Line. The World Bank has found that “the enclosed areas (of the wall) include some of the most valuable agricultural land and access to some of the richest water resources in the West Bank, which has severely impacted Palestinian farmers. In Jayyus for instance (population 3,200) hundreds of farming families are now separated by the Barrier from their farmland and require special access permits to reach it.”

As with the private land near settlements, Israel has adopted a system of permits and “prior coordination” to allow Palestinian farmers to tend to their land. But, as has been the case with farm land near settlements, the practical implementation of this permission system has prevented farmers from having sufficient time to tend to their crops and harvest them in season. (Source: UN OCHA)

What can microfinance do for Palestinian farmers?

Clearly, there are major obstacles to the development of a productive agricultural sector here in the West Bank. As Amer, the Operations Manager for Ryada, told me, “This is not a banking problem – this is a political problem.” Amer himself owns some land in Al Jiftlik from which he gets low-value produce in the winter, like leafy vegetables. But in the summer, the cost of getting a tanker of water for his fields is prohibitively expensive and he cannot legally dig wells to access groundwater, so the fields lie uncultivated and trees (which are necessary for high-value production, like oranges and lemons) cannot be grown.

But a central tenet of microfinance is to provide access to credit where conventional banking does not go, and there are some such loans available on Kiva – view them and consider supporting them here. These loans, though, are mostly for farmers and herders in Areas B or the 30% of Area C that is not inaccessible to Palestinians. Your support will undoubtably benefit these farmers, but for Kiva lenders interested in the economic development, as a whole, of the country (or territory) to which they are lending, you must realize – as the reality here must indicate – that the reach of microfinance can be sharply delimited by politics.

In a future post, I hope to speak with members of agricultural NGOs in Palestine and explore the possibility of providing credit to support farmers here beyond the systems that have already been implemented.

One final note: Not only does does it rain here in Palestine – it also snows.

March 2, 2012. The view from my apartment in Ramallah.



Philip is a Kiva Fellow working with FATEN and Ryada in Palestine. Fund their agricultural loans here.

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